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The State of the Message: Where Have California Dreams Gone?

The other day (at the last of the 2104 Conversations in Place at Rancho Los Alamitos), some Southern Californians discussed the Golden State, its messengers, their messages, and if anyone was listening.

By some measures, they aren't.

Population growth, once swelled by the arrival of new residents, is now almost entirely internal. Migration from other states and immigration from oversees has been in broad decline since the start of the recession. (Chinese millionaires excepted, who are looking for a safe place to park their money and their children.)

As the New York Times noted earlier this year, "California ... has long been the destination of American dreamers from other states. It no longer plays that role; residents are leaving for greener pastures out East. Today, the state is still pulling in foreign immigrants, but the percentage of American-born transplants has shrunk significantly as more people leave the state. There are now about 6.8 million California natives living elsewhere, up from 2.7 million in 1980."

Increasingly, California's out-migration is carrying away recent college graduates to places with more opportunity and cheaper living costs. (According to a recent story in the Los Angeles Times, "When it comes to doubling up with roommates, crashing at your cousin's or staying at your parents' house well into your 20s, there's no place like Southern California" where almost half of all working-age adults live with another adult who is not a spouse.)

The result seems to be a lower rate of new business formation and less entrepreneurial risk taking. (Silicon Valley excepted, which has become a separate economy important largely for the disproportionate share of income tax revenue digital millionaires generate.)

Those on one side of the state's class divide are getting further from those on the other side. The distance is more than a matter of income. Some Californians have lost interest in other Californians. Some have lost faith in California entirely, if the weird plan to fragment the state into six autonomous bits was any guide.

Whose Dream?
Whose Dream?  | Photo courtesy of Orange County Archives

Our state, as novelist Lisa See reminded the Rancho audience, was once believed to be a place of health and happiness in the sunshine, with the understanding that the sunshine, at least, was for everyone. But even the climate is likely to be far less beneficent tomorrow, as the current drought makes painfully clear.

The California Dream, which historian Kevin Starr explored so eloquently, hasn't ended, but the dream's outcome isn't certain. "California is everything and nothing at all," Starr wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle in 2003. "It is the cutting edge of the American dream -- a utopia. But it could also become the paradigm of the dream lost -- a nightmare dystopia."

Neo-boosters of California's sunny exceptionalism (a thread that cropped up in the Rancho conversation) face off with neo-conservative critics of pretty much everything that distinguishes California-brand public policy, from taxation to land use regulation.

Something has broken in California, and the messages that the nation and the world hear about the state reflect that rupture, dimming the golden dream.

What's broken -- and if that's a bad thing or a good opportunity -- remains in dispute.

The Rancho's conversationalists -- which included Slate podcast producer Andrew Bowers, Libros Schmibros cultural entrepreneur David Kipen, and Claudia Jurmain, the Rancho's Director of Special Projects and Publications -- agreed that the messengers of the California dream/nightmare have multiplied since 2000.

That in itself may have contributed to the decline of California's appeal. The old sales pitch has new competitors.

Big media until the early 1990s spoke without embarrassment for the economic interests that financed California's newspapers and later its radio and television stations. Many media outlets in the early 20th century had been organized specifically to console new migrants, lure even more, and in the case of the Los Angeles Times, sell thousands of empty acres of newspaper owned land.

The California Dream of the 1920s through the 1970s was a booster narrative turned into housing tracts. The story of California has since become hundreds of stories and now many thousands -- a very good thing as Departures makes clear, although most of us have less time and even less patience to draw out everything that's useful in those new but familiar stories.

The historian and social critic Mike Davis once spoke wistfully of his boyhood in Fontana, calling it a time of "careless, libidinal adolescence." In exchange for that kind of exuberance, we get prescriptions for a post-libidinal life that sound like kale and nothing but kale and kale all the time.

Distrustful of the authority assumed by the state's former narrators, new interpreters of California shy away from all that unearned optimism. For many of them, California isn't much fun.

The extravagant sales of pitch of 20th century California was liberation, regeneration, and self-invention. Who believes that anymore, except (it is said) former residents of the upper west side of Manhattan, recently transplanted? If Christopher Hawthorne of the Los Angeles Times is right and Californians will have to live with a place that's increasingly harsh, even punishing, perhaps only New York migrants are tough enough to endure what California is supposed to become.

In place of kale or existential dread, let me offer (as Andy Bowers did) "Modern Family," a sitcom in which Southern California has become all of America but with considerably more sunshine. I don't know if that's a story durable enough to raft us over the turbulence at the end of California's exceptionalism, but the "Modern Family" story does seem more connected somehow.

"Only connect," wrote E. M. Forster. Not much of a dream at that, but it's a start.

Golden?  | Photo by Sharon Mollerus

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