The California Experiment

Los Angeles Times Book Review
April 2, 2006

Joan Didion once said of her native California that "things had better work here, because this is where we run out of continent." Perhaps that's why she prefers New York these days. In the introduction to his latest book probing our dysfunctional nation-state, Peter Schrag poses no fewer than 25 questions that pick at sometimes uncomfortable truths about life on the edge of the Pacific. It's that kind of book — and the kind of times we Californians live in.

On immigration, for instance, "now that the state's future depends in large measure on the children of Mexicans, Salvadorans, Filipinos, Indians, Koreans and Pakistanis," Schrag asks, are "the voters, who remain disproportionately Anglo white, willing to provide the schools, universities and other services that they provided when the beneficiaries were the children of Iowans, Kansans and Nebraskans?" (Short answer: Not so far.) Was the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger "the end of the old order in California's politics and perhaps in the nation's?" (Probably not, but stay tuned.) And finally, since California has become so culturally fractured, "is it governable at all?" (We shall see.)

After a lengthy career examining the California experiment in thoughtful ways, the former editorial page editor of the Sacramento Bee (where he remains a columnist) is the right observer to be asking these questions. Schrag pours his considered wisdom into what must be regarded as a follow-up to "Paradise Lost: California's Experience, America's Future," his 1998 study that threw a sloshing pail of ice water on the state's image as a leader in education and in building a prosperous 21st century.

He is not the dispassionate journalist-analyst; writing in the Nation, he called the popular recall of Gov. Gray Davis "tragedy, farce and a lot more." His take in "California: America's High-Stakes Experiment" is that of a disappointed liberal, a believer in the Golden State's vaunted postwar promise who has watched the dream drift out of reach.

Schrag blames such impassioned but poorly thought-out political spasms as Proposition 13, which 28 years later is still shortchanging what were once national-class public schools: "California can't grow great trying to be like Mississippi." Term limits and the related culling of Sacramento's expert cadre, he argues, drove off the visionaries and problem solvers, leaving behind party hacks whose specialized knowledge is in keeping their meal tickets in office. The result, he fumes, is a legislature that has "become ever more like one of those primitive animals with small brains and oversized reproductive organs."

Schrag is faithful to his evidence, wherever it takes him — and he offers mountains of it. He muscles up his analysis with long-forgotten studies. Along the way, he stops to appreciate what we have become in the two generations since Wallace Stegner pinned on California the sobriquet "America, only more so." Sure, we all have witnessed the phenomenon, yet it is worth taking a moment to marvel over it. California is home to 1 in 8 Americans, more people than live in Canada or Scandinavia. It's the world's fifth- or sixth-largest economy, depending on what kind of year France is having. The ports at San Pedro and Long Beach together are the world's third-busiest, receiving 40% of U.S. imports.

Demographically, California has uneasily absorbed the richest, wildest mix imaginable. Culturally, the state nurtures Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, artists of startling range and such first-generation literary voices as Maxine Hong Kingston, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and Khaled Hosseini. California, Schrag offers, has become the "great political and social laboratory, the site of the ultimate test of whether a society so large and diverse could successfully integrate the diversity into an effective modern democracy in a postindustrial age. No nation had ever tried anything like it."

Inevitably, California's experience as the new immigration capital of the country runs through every chapter. How could it not? This is a state with most of the nation's foreign-born and where non-Latino whites make up less than half the population but 70% of the voters. "Los Angeles would be a dull place without immigrants," says Dov Charney, the Montreal-born bad-boy owner of American Apparel, the Los Angeles casual-wear maker. Without the society of seasonal workers who pick cotton and tomatoes and then move onto the next field, Fresno area Democratic Assemblyman Juan Arambula says, many impoverished Central Valley farm towns would "blow away like tumbleweed."

Yet, Schrag acknowledges, illegal immigrants stress public services — $340 million a year for the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services alone — and create resentment.

Didion identified in California's political culture the reflexive impulse of each generation to regard those that follow as despoilers, but our relationship with the new arrivals who grow our food, grill our entrees and bus our dishes is both more complex and more ambivalent.

Schrag bemoans the shift away from a "traditional communitarian ethic," which fueled the post-World War II construction of the State Water Project, the UC and Cal State systems, as well as the freeway web that has allowed suburbs to sprawl ever farther from the urban cores of Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego. Geographically, the dominant political divide is no longer between the river-fed north and the sere Southland but between the more liberal coastal strip — the blue state of California — and the inland red swath.

It's a schism, Schrag says, that is "as much cultural as anything else — on issues of faith, family and values; on guns and gays, affirmative action and abortion; on NASCAR dads and soccer moms." Gated suburban enclaves further shred the we're-all-in-this-together social fabric, already frayed because "many of the Indians and Taiwanese in the Silicon Valley have closer connections with Mumbai or Taipei than they do with the Mexican immigrants working in the kitchens down the street."

Prescriptive he is not. Schrag simply analyzes the difficulties of finding or achieving solutions — although he clearly believes something, many somethings, should be done. "Where's the benefit," he writes, "in a system in which tens of thousands of unlicensed illegal aliens, fearing the moment when the police catch them in their uninsured cars, drive disposable junkers — mobile salvage — that can be cheaply replaced if they're impounded by the cops?"

Nor is he especially optimistic about the state's future, although he notes that Mexicans and Central Americans are picking up English more determinedly than the public rhetoric might suggest. By the third generation, he notes, most Latinos and Asians marry outside their racial or ethnic groups.

The take-away, he suggests, is that all of us who inhabit the left coast — "those whose forebears came on wagons across the plains, the great waves of former GIs who came during and soon after World War II, the most recent arrivals from refugee camps in Southeast Asia" — are immigrants of a sort in this newly emerging California society. The xenophobes and Minutemen can rant all they want, but we have created the California we have. It's our home, and Didion is right. We need to make it work.

©Los Angeles Times 2006