In August 1834 the nineteen-year-old Richard Henry Dana, his eyesight impaired by measles, took time off from Harvard and signed on as a merchant seaman aboard the Pilgrim, bound for the Alta California. What he found was a Pacific Ocean already teeming with American merchant and whaling ships and a sparsely populated landscape technically part of, though only lightly governed by, the new republic of Mexico. In Monterey he saw the Presidio built by Spanish troops in the 1770s and the Royal Presidio Chapel, constructed of sandstone by Indian laborers; Cortez had established Spanish rule of Mexico in 1521, but few settlers or officials had trekked over the hundreds of miles of desert or had fought the contrary ocean currents to get to California for 250 years. At Point Loma, the peninsula overlooking San Diego harbor, Dana worked with native Hawaiians curing hides, taken from overflowing herds of wild cattle, for sale back in Massachusetts. Sailing to San Pedro in the Los Angeles basin, he noticed that the smoke from the Indians’ campfires—there were maybe 10,000 people living in the Los Angeles basin where 10 million live now—seemed to linger, low over the ground.
Dana shared these experiences and observations with American readers in his book Two Years Before the Mast, published in 1840 after he finished Harvard Law School. Its timing was propitious. Americans in the 1840s were eager to spread their nation across the North American continent; this was, as the Jacksonian Democratic newspaperman John O’Sullivan proclaimed in 1845, the nation’s “manifest destiny.” This was just after John C. Frémont, “the Pathfinder,” on his second western expedition, crossed the Sierra Nevada and near Sacramento visited Sutter’s Fort where its Swiss founder was already being joined by Americans six years before he famously found gold. When Congress declared war on Mexico in May 1846 because of disputes over the boundary of just-annexed Texas, Americans were already jumping to capture California: even before the news reached them, Fremont was fomenting rebellion in June and three U.S. Navy ships captured Monterey in July; Los Angeles and San Diego were taken in December. In his instructions sending his treaty negotiator Nicholas Trist to Mexico, President James K. Polk ordered him to obtain California and made a special point of insisting on getting the port of San Diego. This was done and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo signed in February 1848—just a month after the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Fort.
The Gold Rush brought untold thousands to California—untold, because the 1850 Census records for the suddenly populated city of San Francisco were destroyed by fire. A state census in 1852 put the city’s population at 35,531, 85 percent of them men. Separated by more than a thousand miles of land from any state, California was admitted to the Union as a free, not a slave, state almost immediately, in September 1850. That meant that for the first time there were more free than slave states, but California’s political posture was wobbly: its first two U.S. senators were Fremont, who would be the anti-slavery-expansion Republican Party’s first presidential nominee in 1856, and a Mississippi native who supported the Confederacy in the 1860s.
As the United States was embroiled in civil war, California was no one’s idea of a typical American commonwealth or a plausible model for the nation’s future. The idea that it would be America’s most populous state a century later would have struck anyone as ridiculous. It was connected to other states only by a thin telegraph wire and a proposed transcontinental railroad which was completed in 1869 and carried less freight back and forth than seagoing vessels through the rest of the century. California contained just 1.5 percent of the nation’s population in 1870, and up through 1900 just under half its people lived in the San Francisco Bay area: for all its picturesque wilderness this was an unusually urban state in a nation still mostly rural. The 1860, 1870, and 1880 Censuses showed that 9 percent of Californians were male Chinese laborers, not a growing population; following the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 the state’s Chinese-born percentage fell to 1 percent by 1910. Most of rural America was settled by farmers on small plots; most of California’s land was held in enormous blocs held by railroads and purchasers of Spanish land grants. California exported citrus, fruit and nuts to Americans back east, but did not take part in the explosive growth of heavy manufacturing in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
Transformed by War
“An island on the land” was journalist Carey McWilliams’s description and subtitle of his 1946 book on Southern California, a land whose palm trees and mountain vistas became familiar to most Americans as the backdrops in silent movies in the 1910s and 1920s. For moviegoers in dark theaters, this was an exotic landscape, and one far out of reach. In 1940, 90 percent of Americans lived east of the 100th parallel, at least 1,000 miles from California’s coast, and few had the time or money to drive over the ribbons of two-lane highways threading across largely uninhabited expanses of mountain and desert.
World War II changed that. With the attack on Pearl Harbor, California was the front line in America’s Pacific theater. Aside from a few balloon bombs, California did not come under attack, as many feared, and the state’s Japanese Americans uprooted from their homes and sent to relocation center were not disloyal, as many charged. But California was the great staging point for sailors, soldiers and, marines dispatched from San Diego and San Francisco across the great ocean, and California became a great provider of defense materials. Its shipyards in San Francisco Bay produced thousands of ships, while its aircraft factories in the Los Angeles Basin produced thousands of planes. The war brought to the West Coast millions of Americans who never imagined seeing California—and after the war, many stayed.
The journalist John Gunther, famous from his 1930s book Inside Europe, began his book Inside U.S.A., researched during and just after the war, with chapters on California, featuring portraits of Henry J. Kaiser, whose construction firm built the Hoover Dam before the war and whose Bay Area shipyards built hundreds of ships during the war, and Governor Earl Warren, whose program of building schools and highways to prepare for a postwar boom the author lauded, while passing over his support for internment of the Japanese Americans. With a reporter’s instinct, Gunther expected that a California boom would be a major postwar story. His view was contrary to the many back east who expected the wartime young people shunted to California to go back where they came from, just as America was expected to plunge back into the Depression from which the war had lifted them. Neither thing happened. Nationally the economy almost immediately boomed and, as Jane Jacobs later pointed out, in the late 1940s one out of eight new jobs created nationally was in Los Angeles County, which had 2 percent of the nation’s population. Servicemen and Rosie the Riverters who stayed in California were joined in the postwar years by millions migrating across the country, particularly from the Great Plains states, where mechanization reduced the need for farmhands. In 1970, only a minority, 43 percent of state residents were born in California and 7 percent in other western states; 16 percent were born in the Midwest, 11 percent in the South (mostly in its four westernmost states), and 7 percent in the East. Demographically, California suddenly looked like the rest of the country, because so many of its people came from the rest of the country.
Jobs were plentiful, new subdivisions sprang up, schools were built for children of the Baby Boom which, like postwar prosperity, almost no one expected. Americans had discovered that you could live comfortably in a recognizably American environment, but with none of the uncomfortable weather which Americans east of the Rocky Mountains had to endure for multiple months a year. G.I. generation parents raising three or four children in 900 square foot houses could let their kids play in the backyard all through the year—effectively doubling their living space over what they would have had back east.
California’s population zoomed up from 6.9 million in 1940 to 10.6 million in 1950, 15.7 million in 1960 and 20 million, rounded off, in 1970. In 1963 it passed New York to become the most populous state in the country. In those same years the population of Los Angeles County increased from 2.8 million in 1940 to 7 million in 1970, as it passed Chicago’s Cook County, Illinois, to be the nation’s largest county. Just to the southeast, Orange County in 1940 was largely citrus country with a population of 130,000 in 1940 and 216,000 in 1950. Disneyland opened there in 1955, and the county’s population zoomed to 703,000 in 1960 and 1,420,000 in 1970.
This was the moment when California came to be seen as the future of America, as the harbinger of trends, the pacesetter of novelty and innovation, the pioneer of new lifestyles. California was the leader in cultural and political trends in what I have called the Midcentury Moment, the quarter century following World War II which saw widely dispersed economic growth and widely accepted cultural unity. A central feature of the Midcentury Moment was the Baby Boom, very high birth rates accompanied by marriage at record young ages (the median bride in the late 1950s couldn’t legally drink champagne at her wedding reception) and low rates of divorce and illegitimate births. The nuclear family thrived in America as never before, while church attendance and membership also rose to record levels. Crime rates remained relatively low, as they had been in the 1930s and 1940s.
Not everywhere in America did these trends predominate. California did not have a coal-and-steel economy—its one steel plant, Gunther noted, was built by Henry Kaiser in Fontana, east of Los Angeles, during the war—and its small manufacturing firms depended on natural gas and hydropower. State officials, noting as Richard Henry Dana had in 1838 how the Los Angeles basin’s inversions trapped polluted air, passed state air quality legislation in the 1950s to reduce what soon became nationally known as smog. California had never had legally enforced racial segregation, and its black population consisted largely of migrants from Texas and Louisiana (future Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley and Assembly Speaker and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown were both born in Texas, while Black Panther Huey P. Newton was born in Louisiana and named for Governor Huey P. Long). After the Watts riot in south central Los Angeles in 1965, reporters from back east noted wonderingly that black Californians lived not in multi-story tenements but in single-family stucco bungalows with back yards. Yet as time went on, American blacks have increasingly lived in suburban single-family-home neighborhoods, as in California.
California’s cultural uniformity during the Midcentury Moment was not matched by an absence of partisan conflict. The state during the Progressive period that began in 1910 in instituting procedures for referenda and recall of public officials, but these were not adopted by most states. Nor was California’s cross-filing system, in which candidates for office could run in and win both Republican and Democratic primaries, as Earl Warren did in 1946, adopted in any other state except New York; it was abolished in California in 1959 after a big Democratic sweep. But the policies of Republican Governor Earl Warren, elected in 1942, 1946 and 1950, and his successor Goodwin Knight, elected in 1954, were much the same as those of Democratic Governor Pat Brown, elected in 1958 and 1962. To accommodate California’s rapidly rising population, they supported massive construction of new public schools, expansion of the University of California system and creation of the California State system and of community colleges. They built large numbers of freeways, not requiring tolls at the first turnpikes and parkways in the Northeast and industrial Midwest states did, but financing them out of gas tax revenues, as provided in the Federal Aid Highway Act passed in 1956. Brown in particular pushed for a program of canals and pumps to transfer water from relatively rainy and snow-fed Northern California to the agricultural Central Valley and on to rapidly growing Southern California.
In presidential voting, California for most of the twentieth century followed national patterns for most of the twentieth century, never varying much from national percentages, except for third-party candidates: it cast a lower-than-national-average 7 percent for George Wallace in 1968 and a higher-than-national-average 5 percent for Henry Wallace in 1948 (his second highest percentage after New York); a high 33 percent for Robert LaFollette in 1924; and a winning 42 percent for Theodore Roosevelt in 1912. California seemed to be leaning toward Republicans, but especially progressive Republicans, in the first half of the century. That behavior was reflected in its gubernatorial elections: Republicans won every one from 1900 to 1954, with the single exception of 1938, when left-wing Democrat Culbert Olson won, contrary to the national Republican trend that year.
The Midcentury Moment found California state political trends more in line with national opinion—or vice versa. Republican Earl Warren’s re-elections by wide margins, with 92 percent in 1946 and 65 percent in 1950 seemed harbingers of the near (and widely predicted) victory of Thomas Dewey and his running mate Earl Warren in 1948 and of the election of Dwight Eisenhower in 1952. Democrat Pat Brown’s 60 to 40 percent victory over Senator William Knowland in 1958 and his re-election over Richard Nixon by 52 to 47 percent were arguably precursors of the Democratic presidential victories in 1960 and 1964—although Nixon carried the state in 1960 and Lyndon Johnson won it with less than his national percentage in 1964.
But not all was well in what seemed to many new Californians as paradise. In October 1964, students at the University of California in Berkeley demanded the right to set up tables on campus in support of civil rights organizations and the Democratic presidential campaign. University Chancellor Clark Kerr, architect of the expansion of California’s higher education system and celebrator of what he dubbed the “multiversity,” defended the rule banning such activities against the continued protests of students in what they called the Free Speech Movement, one of whose slogans was “do not bend, fold, staple, or mutilate”—a protest against individuals being treated like just one of a large pack of IBM cards. After continued demonstrations, and on the recommendation of Alameda County deputy district attorney Edwin Meese, Governor Pat Brown authorized the arrest of some 700 protesters. Several months later, in August 1965, rioting by black residents of Los Angeles’s Watts neighborhood broke out after police pulled over a young black motorist, with looting continuing for five days. Los Angeles police and sheriff’s deputies, supported by National Guardsmen, arrested some 3,400 people out of 30,000 estimated rioters, while 34 individuals were killed.
Then came the backlash, first in California and then nationally. To some participants, Berkeley and Watts represented, in different ways, protests by those who were ill-treated by the system. But to many ordinary Californians they appeared, in different ways, to be violent revolts by those who had been singled out as special beneficiaries of liberal public policies, expansion of the universities and guarantee of civil rights to blacks. Capitalizing on this in a way anticipated by only the most prescient political analysts was Ronald Reagan, former liberal Democrat and Screen Actors Guild president, who secured the Republican nomination for governor and proceeded to defeat two-term incumbent Pat Brown by a 58 to 42 percent margin, almost a precise reversal of Brown’s landslide victory eight years before. The greatest reversal came in Southern California, in the increasingly built up San Fernando Valley and southeast Los Angeles County, in the stuccoed suburbs replacing citrus groves in Orange County, the hilltop subdivisions in expanding San Diego and the arid, smoggy expanses of the Inland Empire an hour’s drive east from downtown Los Angeles had been filling up with transplanted Midwesterners, faithful family members, former New Dealers now disillusioned with those rebelling against those who had worked hard and sacrificed for their sake. As Southern California boomed, turnout rose by almost half a million between 1958 and 1966, and a 384,000-vote margin for the faithful New Dealer Brown was transformed into a 746,000-vote margin for the former New Dealer Reagan.
With Reagan’s election and his re-election by a comfortable margin in 1970, California, formerly an odd duck politically, became a harbinger of America’s future. Republicans carried what was now the nation’s largest state in each of the next five presidential elections, from 1968 to 1988, and won all but one of the those elections nationally; Californians Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan held the White House for 13 of those 20 years. Back home Reagan was succeeded in the governorship by Jerry Brown, a very different Democrat than his father, an apostle of slower growth and environmental preservation. But otherwise Republicans held the governor’s office for all but Brown’s two terms through the three decades from 1966 to 1998. The culmination of this era came in 1984, a year that turned out very differently from its premonition in George Orwell’s novel. Ronald Reagan was re-elected president by a margin of 59 to 40 percent; the fourth president who seemed to produce peace and prosperity to win landslide re-election from an electorate most of whose members had first-person memories of the Great Depression and World War II. No subsequent presidential candidate has won by even half that percentage margin. And that year Reagan presided, briefly but eloquently, at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, boycotted by the Soviet Union, where Americans won the lion’s share of gold medals and the Olympics management, at a time of renewed appreciation for free market economics, made a profit.
But underneath this veneer California was changing—and this time the nation did not obediently follow. Since it was admitted to the Union in 1850, up until 1990, California’s population increased more rapidly than the national average, with levels of in-migration varying in line with macroeconomic trends. The state’s usually vibrant growth slowed down perceptibly in decades with sluggish economies—the 1890s, the 1930s, the 1970s. The 1970s pause was unexpected. California gained in each apportionment of seats in the House of Representatives from its admission to the Union, with 2 seats in 1850, up through and including the Census of 2000. The huge internal migration to California in the generation from 1940 to 1965 produced the greatest gains: 3 seats in the 1940 Census, 7 in the 1950 Census, 8 in the 1960 Census and 5 in the 1970 Census, thus more than doubling it seats from 20 to 43. But in the 1980 Census, with slower growth in the 1970s, California gained only 2 seats. With domestic migration reduced to very low net numbers and natural increase reduced after the end of the Baby Boom in 1962, and with environmental restrictions limiting urban growth in coastal metropolitan areas, California seemed headed for demographic stability.
That expectation proved inaccurate due to a federal law passed in 1965 and a demographic trend which became slowly, like the initial wave of a tsunami, in the 1970s. The Immigration Act of 1964 reversed the 1924 law which had largely shut down immigration from eastern and southern Europe and other laws which restricting immigration from Asia. It also set new limits, country quotas, for the previously unlimited immigration from Latin America and added provisions allowing for immigration of citizens’ extended family members. Immigration experts assured Congress that there would be a small initial flow of refugees from Latin America and Asia; immigrants always come from Europe, they said. In a classic case of unanticipated consequences, the expanded family provisions combined with lax border security resulted in a huge influx of immigrants, legal and illegal, from Mexico and also from Central and South America. In 1970, the census year with the lowest percentage of foreign-born population nationally since 1820, only 2.2 percent of California residents were born in Mexico. Since the Civil War, that percentage had peaked in 1930 at 3.3 percent, reflecting flight from Mexico during the 1910-29 Revolution.
Only a minority of Californians, 43 percent, were born in California, but another 46 percent were born elsewhere in the United States and only 3 percent in Latin America and 1 percent in Asia. From 1982 to 2007, California saw a huge surge of immigration, mostly from Mexico and Latin America but also from East Asia, of the magnitude of the 1892-1914 surge of Eastern and Southern immigration to the great industrial cities of the Northeast and Great Lakes. The percentage of Mexico-born California residents increased from 5.5 percent in 1980 to 8.5 percent in 1990, 11.7 percent in 2000. This surge ended abruptly with the housing bust of 2007, which especially affected Hispanics in the Inland Empire and Central Valley, who were granted overgenerous mortgages and then defaulted. Net migration from Mexico fell abruptly to zero, and California’s percentage of Mexico-born residents peaked at 11.8 percent in 2010 and fell to 10.6 percent in 2017.
The impact of immigration on California came to be apparent from the birthplace data. In 1970, 2.7 percent of California residents were born in Mexico and Latin America and 1.5 were born in Asia. In 2017, 13.6 percent of California residents were born in Mexico and Latin America and 11.0 percent were born in Asia. The immigration surge resulted in population growth above the national average in the 1980s, and California gained 7 House seats in the reapportionment following the 1990 Census. Neighborhoods in central Los Angeles and Santa Ana bulged with newcomers from Mexico, doubled up there and spread over the Los Angeles Basin, the Inland Empire and the Central Valley in stucco bungalows and aging apartment complexes. Meanwhile, the Proposition 13 property tax freeze combined with zoning and environmental restrictions increased real estate values far above national levels, so that California—one of the most egalitarian parts of America in the postwar Midcentury Moment—had the highest degree of income and wealth inequality in the country. In addition, the end of the Cold War resulted in sharp decreases in defense spending, and Southern California’s aerospace industries were hard hit, with major firms closing or moving their headquarters back east to the Capital Beltway. This was just part of the domestic out-migration from California which has continued largely unabated over the three decades since 1990. Out-migration has been most common among middle-income, middlingly-educate, family-raising Americans—direct descendants, in many cases, of those who migrated in vast numbers to California during the Midcentury Moment.
That moment, when California seemed to so many American to be, and actually was, a harbinger of the future, by the 1990s was over. California’s influence, politically and culturally, would continue to be impressive, given its large size and its concentration of entertainment and high-tech communication industries, but with the demise of universal mediums of movies, radio and television, its hold over the national imagination declined. The impact of immigration, with large numbers of low-skill Hispanics and rising numbers in recent years of high-skill Asians, has not been matched in the country generally and seems unlikely to be so in the future. The hollowing out of California’s middle class has not become a national trend, as other states have gained from the hundreds of thousands exiting California each year.
California, once a prime example of the nation’s egalitarian culture and trend to economic equality, now has the nation’s most inegalitarian economy, the biggest divide between a very affluent and mostly white professional class and a very large, mostly Hispanic servant class, geographically close but culturally separate and distinct. Demographically, California’s population growth has slowed to just slightly above the national average in the 1990-2000 and 2000-10 decades. It gained only 1 House seat in the reapportionment following the 2000 Census and, for the first time, gained none from the Census of 2010. The 2020 Census showed California’s population growing only 6.1 percent in the preceding decade, significantly below the national growth of 7.4 percent, and for the first time since it was admitted to the Union in 1850, California lost a House seat in reapportionment, receding from its peak of 53 to 52.
This increasing divergence between California and the rest of the nation has become clear in partisan politics. Since World War II until the twenty-first century, in the presidential elections from 1948 to 1996, with only the most minor exceptions California’s percentages for the Democratic and Republican tickets have been within 5 percent of the national average—in 21 of 26 instances within 3 percent of the national average. This is in line with historic experience: the nation’s largest state, New York starting in 1820 and then California since 1964 has voted very much like the nation as a whole, in part because competing parties have tended to adjust their appeals to increase their chances of winning the nation’s largest single bunch of electoral votes. But since those who produced the 1982-2007 surge of immigrants, and their children, have entered the electorate, California has increasingly diverged from the average. In 2000 and 2004 its two-party percentages were 5 and 6 percent more Democratic than the national average; in 2008, 8 or 9 percent more Democratic; in 2012, 9 or 10 percent more Democratic; in 2016 and 2020, 13 to 17 percent more Democratic. In 2016, California cast the second-highest percentage of any state, after Hawaii, for Hillary Clinton and accounted for more than half of her national plurality of the popular vote. In 2020, it was the fifth most Democratic state, after Vermont, Massachusetts, Maryland and Hawaii, and its popular vote margin for Joe Biden amounted to 72 percent of his national plurality.
California’s divergence from the rest of the nation politically, on top of its continued domestic out-migration and, over the last decade, slower than average population growth, make it clear that it no longer is a harbinger of the nation’s future. It has gone off on its own, for better or worse, and most of the nation has charted its own course, a few closely resembling California’s, many quite different. That may seem odd, and perhaps off-putting, for those who grew up in the era when California seemed to be the model toward which the nation was aspiring. But a longer perspective, taking account of California from the time Richard Henry Dana recorded the aboriginal version of smog in the Los Angeles Basin and the American flag was first raised over Monterey and San Francisco Bays, suggests that the natural state of things is for California, off on one coast of America, with its unusual climate and atypical economy, to be distinctive, even idiosyncratic—adding its own savory and sweet flavor to America’s multivarious stew. The influx of Americans in the great domestic migration to California in the quarter century from 1940 to 1965 made California a plausible model for the rest of the United States, but the great immigrant migration in the quarter century from 1982 to 2007 has made it, once again, a commonwealth of its own.