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California, the Anti-State

Is California irrelevant? The nation's most populous state is a Mini Me in the realm of politics and over the past decade has emerged as a political counter-indicator for the rest of the nation.
 
 
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Politically, California is irrelevant.

Despite California's obvious economic, social and cultural importance -- it is home to one in eight Americans, not to mention Hollywood and Silicon Valley -- it barely counts politically. Look at this week's presidential primary, where Californians merely ratified a decision made weeks before on the Democratic Party's presidential nominee.

The irrelevance of California in presidential selection process highlights a larger problem of America's democracy: the nation's most populous state has been, politically speaking, silenced by mice that roar: smaller states that are less complicated, more nimble and speak louder on the national stage.

California's size lies at the heart of this paradox: how come the nation's largest state is a Mini Me in the realm of politics. Doesn't size matter in America?

Part of California's paradox is that the state is solidly Democratic at a time when Republicans control the Presidency and both houses of Congress. The latest reminder that President George W. Bush doesn't need California to get re-elected came in February when Bush released his proposed budget for the next fiscal year. Of the nine states Bush wants to receive less federal money next year than this year, California is slated for the largest cut. And in a special Valentine to the Bay Area, President Bush proposes to raise the "rent" the city of San Francisco pays to the federal government for the Hetch Hetchy reservoir -- from $30,000 to a staggering $8 million annually.

Is there another country in the world where a President seeking re-election in a tight race would blow off his country's most populous, wealthy and diverse state? Only in America could California, whose boosters fancy the state to be a nation, have so little clout with the powers that be.

Republican hegemony is only a symptom, not a cause, of California's political irrelevance. No Democratic candidate for the Presidency -- and certainly not the presumptive nominee, John Kerry -- embodies the spirit of California either. Nor do Bush's Democratic rivals spend much time worrying about the fate of the state. And why should they? California has become the anti-state. The mystifying gubernatorial-recall election last year underscored the emergence of California as a political counter-indicator, a negative polarity, for the rest of the nation.

"Now people from other states point to us and say we don't want to be like you," says Jean Ross, executive director of the California Budget Project in Sacramento.

California wasn't always the Big Ugly. Once, the state was the epitome of the new American frontier, a land of endless charm and imagination that allowed the nation to forget about declining Rust Belt cities and industries. California's ambitious farmers were lubricated by water, gained through adroit politics. The state's sunrise industries were marinated by large investments from the federal government. Good weather attracted the best and the brightest from other states.

Out of the California's intoxicating brew of irrepressible individualism and pragmatic communalism arose a schizoid politics that for decades defined both the Left and the Right in an America prone to simplistic nostrums. From the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s, California set the political tone of the nation: electing two presidents (Nixon and Reagan), creating the country's finest public university system, launching the tax revolt and incubating the movement for gay and lesbian rights.

By the election of Bill Clinton, in 1992, California had become the Ur-state, the epi-center of American optimism. But unnoticed during the Clinton years and very much noticed since Bush took the Presidency, California reached a tipping point: the chickens of hyper-growth, sharp inequalities and skin-flint public services came home to roost.

The new reality coincided with a flight from California, who without immigrants from foreign countries has likely seen a net population decline since 1995. While some large states (New York, New Jersey, Texas, Florida and Illinois) also attract many immigrants, no other state is seeing such an exodus of its native middle-class.

"There's been a big white decline in California for quite awhile," says William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution. "While the state still attracts the wealthy and the college-educated, now there's a middle class flight of minorities too."

From 1995 to the year 2000, 300,000 whites left the state. They were joined by 350,000 Hispanics and 57,000 African-Americans. Significantly, during the period Frey studied, using census data, more than four percent of all California households with annual incomes from $24,000 to $50,000 left the state. By contrast, households with income of more than $75,000 were thirteen times less likely to leave the state. In short, the rich are rich enough to stay in California and the poor have no resources to leave. Who's left?

California's diminishing middle explain only some of the state's political irrelevance. The state's very size -- the moral justification for its political relevance -- works against it serving as a model. Innovations in social programs, for instance, are more easily tested in smaller states -- and then rolled out in larger ones. "We can't innovate the way smaller states can," Jean Ross says.

The state isn't able to spend its way back to national political prominence either. In California's glory days, in the 1960s, government spent as much as 25 cents out of every dollar on infrastructure: schools, roads and other stuff that Tom Higgins, a venture capitalist and Democratic activists in San Francisco, calls "engines of wealth creation." Today those engines are cold. The state spends barely two cents per dollar on infrastructure.

"When you're investing so little, you're less likely to be perceived as a leader no matter what issues you're tackling," says a prominent Los Angeles lawyer who has advised both Democratic and Republican governors.

Some credit for California's irrelevance also must also go to its Congressional delegation which, while the nation's largest, is among its least effective. "When we go up against the Texas delegation, or even Mississippi, we're at a huge disadvantage," the lawyer adds.

Term-limits -- like the ballot initiative, a populist mechanism aimed at combating the evils of permanent government -- also deserve blame. Inexperienced politicians may make for poor ambassadors to the rest of the country. Weak governors also have hampered the state. None of the last three governors approached the stature of an Earl Warren or the elder or younger Brown. Even Ronald Reagan's tenure as governor in the 1970s looks visionary compared to the tired performance of the last Republican governor, Pete Wilson.

This month, California's most recent 15 minutes came with San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom's allowance of gay marriage. The rest of the nation turns to watch; others follow suit. But it remains to be seen what the political effect of these protest marriages will be. It is possible that the drive for justice for gays who want to marry will become another example of how California is an anti-state, a negative political indicator of where the country as a whole is going.

The new governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, may indeed lift California's political profile, but he will likely spend his political energy de-coding the mysteries of Sacramento, not the American political scene. With the Democratic primaries essentially over and a President hostile to their needs, the people of California can ponder the paradoxes of America's democracy: how indeed can the mighty be pulled so low?