My unconventional, provocative thesis about potentially dying America rests thus far on theoretical premises and sketchy propositions. However, West Coast America presents a handy, real-world analogy for the unfolding future of our Great Experiment.
I have nothing against California; it's a great place. I know, because I taught at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey for ten years, 1997-2006. Furthermore, all the sources cited in this discussion are Californians. So I hope my readers will consider this analysis as a sincere and constructive effort.
My point is that, amid all the national gawking and self-flagellation within the state, there's a civics lesson that both Californians and the American people can learn about themselves and their respective democratic experiments. While California is not perfectly analogous to broader America, its trending society, politics, and government are worth noting as we assess similar, more slowly developing pressures on our national democratic experiment. In other words, America (just like California) is changing fundamentally; and we all should learn from this West Coast experience in democratic distemper.
The California Analogy.
The essence of my California analogy is that this state is a precedent for America in its cultural, political, and governmental transformation. Specifically, a very large, diverse, and boisterous California is experiencing increasing systemic constraints and confrontation between popular forces (such as public recall, initiative, and referendum) and traditional governance (embodied in elected politicians and institutions such as the Governor and State Assembly).
Trending California Democracy.
Mark Baldassare presented perhaps the most comprehensive assessment of California's troubling situation in a turn-of-century analysis (California in the New Millennium: The Changing Social and Political Landscape, 2000). Based on extensive polling and focus group research for the independent, nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California, PPIC President Baldassare concluded that several powerful undercurrents are transforming the political character of that state:
Record levels of immigration from other countries for more than two decades have transformed California from a state where a vast majority were white to a multiracial society with a large and growing Latino population. The racial and ethnic change under way is having profound effects on the ability to reach consensus on crucial state issues. Divisions over racial and immigration policies have already surfaced in initiatives . . . creating social tension and conflicts. (Research Brief, Public Policy Institute of California, April 2000)
And he added in that same report:
Yet, as California enters an era when it will face some of the toughest challenges in its 150 years of statehood, most of its people have become highly cynical about their elected leaders and may have disengaged themselves from the political process, making public consensus on critical issues more difficult.
Westmont College Political Scientist and ex-Santa Barbara City Councilman David Lawrence claimed, just a few years later, that the state is a compelling example of "hyperpluralism" in a multicultured democracy (California: The Politics of Diversity, 2005):
In California politics, a single public interest and a single majority seem to be endangered political species. In a sense, minorities already rule in the Golden State. On a statewide basis, a relatively small number of individuals and groups set legislative agendas and determine which issues make it to the ballot. A relatively small percentage of Californians who qualify to vote actually register to vote; an even smaller percentage turn out on election day; and only a simple majority of those determine election outcomes.
Ken DeBow and John C. Syer, Government Professors at California State University, Sacramento, also summarized their state's political condition as one of severe challenges and uncertain outcomes (Power and Politics in California, 2008):
California is diverse ethnically, economically, and topographically. Unfortunately, the problems facing the state are also big and diverse. The once-vaunted political institutions of California may no longer be capable of resolving the issues confronting the state.
Former California editorialist Peter Schrag provided additional first-hand judgment about the downward spiral of public discontent and the deteriorating state of California governance (Paradise Lost: California's Experience, America's Future, 2004):
California has not just seen a sharp decline in the quality of public services --education, public parks, highways, water projects -- that were once regarded as models for the nation. It has also seen the evolution of an increasingly unmanageable and incomprehensible structure of state and local government that exacerbates the same public disaffection and alienation that have brought it on, thus creating a vicious cycle of reform and frustration.
Joel Klotkin, Presidential Fellow at Chapman University, provides more recent analysis -- one week after the 2012 election -- of the California scene ("For a Preview of Obama's America in 2016, Look at the Crack-Up of California," New Geography, November 14, 2012):
California now stands as blue America's end point, but contrary to the media celebration, it presents not such a pretty picture ... True, the fortunate sliver of dot-com geniuses make billions, but the ranks of the poor have swollen to the point that the state, with 12% of the nation's population, account for one third of its welfare cases ... As California loses its allure as a place of opportunity for all but a few -- the best connected, educated and affluent -- the state is losing its magnetic appeal to migrants from both inside and outside the state.
Sherry Bebitch and Jeff Bevitch (the former a Political Scientist at University of Southern California and the latter a private consultant in Los Angeles) closely examined last Fall's election and present more pointed testimony about California's significance for the rest of us ("To See Future Electorate, Look at California Voters Now," Reuters U.S. Edition, November 20, 2012):
The changing face of the American electorate is etched all over the map of California. The Golden State may no longer be a partisan battleground, but it continues to be a reliable bellwether for the evolving national political landscape ... For better or worse, America has become California
California and America.
While California is not perfectly analogous to broader America, its size, diversity, politics, and governance are worth noting as we assess similarly developing pressures on our national democratic experiment. It evidences the growing forces and disruptive pressures of centrifugal democracy -- subculturalism (in the form of societal diversity, divergence, dissentience) and neopopulism (in the form of direct democracy initiatives).
Apparently the Golden State is going through inevitable systemic challenges ahead of the rest of us; and Californians seem to be struggling, pretty distemperately, in that process. Theirs is a world of increasing social problems, the decline of public services, and the specter of bankruptcy at the state and local levels. And today's headlines --"politics of farce," "failure of leadership," "ungovernable" -- bespeak a reputation as the worst-run state in the country.
The analogous dynamics of the contemporary California political system thus raise particularly tricky questions and provide some useful points of guidance about important developments in future America.
Author's Note: This is the twelfth in a sixteen-part series of discussions about Election 2012, Barack Obama, and the future of American democracy. This series includes edited, updated material from my book, The Future of American Democracy: A Former Congressman's Unconventional Analysis (2002). I'm grateful to University Press of America for allowing me to borrow from that publication for my discussions on Huffington Post.