An unshakable ennui appears to afflict California voters even as we run up to the general election. None of the attacks and counterattacks of the leading gubernatorial candidates, for example, seems to rouse much emotion one way or the other. But the phenomenon is nothing new, according to Mark Baldassare in "A California State of Mind: The Conflicted Voter in a Changing World," a study of what Californians think and feel about the people and institutions that govern them.
"Distrust in government has a rich history in the California political context," declares Baldassare. "The state is the home of the tax revolt in the late 1970s, the birthplace of the Reagan Revolution in the 1980s, and the headquarters of many political causes of the left and right in the 1990s that have challenged the political status quo and questioned the decisions of governmental authorities."
Baldassare is a leading pollster and a public policy expert at the Public Policy Institute of California, which is the co-publisher of "A California State of Mind." Baldassare draws on a recent survey the institute conducted of 22,000 California residents to plumb the depths of the voter's psyche. "The last years of the twentieth century seemed like the best of times in California," he reports. "Yet its citizens expressed the worst of fears about the future of the Golden State."
The "yin and yang of California political life," as Baldassare puts it, were the euphoria of the so-called "New Economy" -- the spasm of enthusiasm that attended the birth and sudden death of the dot-com fad -- and what he calls "The New Demography," a grave concern that government has shown itself unable to cope with the congestion, pollution and income disparity that have resulted from California's ever-growing population.
Baldassare, however, does not confine himself to the controversies of the moment. He reminds us that California is still in the grip of a tax revolt that began in 1978 with Proposition 13 and the campaign to put limits on property taxation. He revisits the struggle between environmentalism and development that has characterized California politics since John Muir first struggled to save Yosemite. And he contemplates the implications of the growth in the Latino population in a chapter titled "The Latino Century Begins."
"The 2000 Census confirmed what some demographers were already claiming: California was the first large state to enter the uncharted territory of majority-minority status," he writes. "For the first time in the state's 150-year history, the white population fell below 50 percent.... Clearly, no topic is more important for the state's political and economic future than what happens with the Latino population over the next several decades."
One of the most illuminating tools employed in the survey by Baldassare and his colleagues was the focus group, and he allows us to witness the acuity, the lofty aspirations and the sheer despair of the 170 men and women who were selected to participate and invited to state their opinions rather than just respond to an opinion poll. "Planning," says one participant in a focus group on growth and environment, "is after-the-fact crisis management." On the subject of the changing demographics of California, another member says: "Diversity is always better." And a third member says: "[T]he energy crisis has totally shaken my belief in the government having a grip on what's going on."
As a result of the cynicism and distrust that California voters feel toward government, writes Baldassare, California has become "the 'un-party' state." Democrats may have fared well at the polls in the last decade, but Baldassare insists that "growing political clout has come to rest outside of the major parties -- in the dual form of independent voters and an enthusiastic use of the initiative process."
Perhaps the most significant insight in "A California State of Mind" is Baldassare's insistence that Californians were already growing anxious about the future when we were caught up in the boom times that lingered through the 2000 elections. Thus, he credits Californians for a degree of realism and even prescience that many of our politicians seem to lack.
"[I]t took little probing to recognize that there was only a superficial sense of happiness about the state of the state," he concludes. "Californians knew that their current prosperity, in and of itself, could not address future issues. Only the government could do that, but it was not addressing these issues, and there were serious doubts that it was up to the challenge."