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  • Corey Lee Wilson

California: Wave of the Future? Wake of the Past? Or Something in Between?



The notion of the Golden State as a “nation-state” is a valid descriptor given that California has a population (nearly 40 million residents) that’s larger than all but 35 countries (California would fall between Sudan and Iraq), the fifth largest economy in the world (ahead of India’s and behind Germany’s), plus remarkable diversity (92 languages other than English are spoken in the Los Angeles public school system).

California has always been a state where excess flourished, conscious of its trend-setting role as a world-leading innovator in technology, economics, and the arts. For much of the past century, it also helped create a new model for middle and working-class upward mobility while addressing racial, gender and environmental issues well in advance of the rest of the country.

The notion of California’s supremacy remains implanted on the minds of the state’s economic, academic, media and political establishment. “The future depends on us,” Governor Gavin Newsom said at his inauguration. “and we will seize this moment.” Progressive theorists like Laura Tyson and Lenny Mendonca laud California as the home of “a new progressive era”—an exemplar of social equity. Others see California as deserving of nationhood; it reflects, as a New York Times column put it, “…the shared values of our increasingly tolerant and pluralistic society.”

The End of the California Dream?

However, if California fails to offer young people and newcomers the opportunity to improve their lot, the consequences will be catastrophic—and not only for California. The end of the California Dream would deal a devastating blow to the proposition that such a widely diverse polity can thrive.

California-based Atlantic writer Conor Friedersdorf offers a broad and harsh critique of the state in an article entitled “The California Dream is Dying.”

Despite the state’s many attributes, he writes, “I fear for California’s future.” The generations that benefited from California’s dizzying ascent into global prominence, he says, “should be striving to ensure that future generations can pursue happiness as they did. Instead, they are poised to take the California Dream to their graves by betraying a promise the state has offered from the start.

While California publicly celebrates diversity and inclusion, Friedersdorf continues, “the state’s leaders and residents shut the door on economic opportunity,” citing a chronic shortage of housing, high poverty, poor educational services, homelessness, and other factors that limit upward mobility.

Friedersdorf warns that “blue America’s model faces its most consequential stress test in one of its safest states, where a spectacular run of almost unbroken prosperity could be killed by a miserly approach to opportunity.”

Thus, while Governor Newsom still sees California as “America’s coming attraction,” it’s jarring that writers who share his ideological orientation are joining those on the right to warn the nation against emulating the state.

Article content from the 2020 research brief by Joel Kotkin and Marshall Toplansky "Beyond Feudalism: A Strategy to Restore California's Middle Class" at the Chapman University Center for Demographics & Policy.

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