It’s just a half-century since California was widely regarded as the nation’s cradle of kookiness. It was because of the sunshine, famously said Jesse Unruh, the “Big Daddy” speaker of the Assembly in the 1960s, that we grow so many fruits and nuts.
The evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, one of America’s first radio preachers, built her mega-church here; it was from Southern California that she reportedly vanished into the Pacific in 1926 and, claiming to have been kidnapped, mysteriously reappeared (in Mexico) a month later. The media, of course, ate it up.
California was the birthplace of the “Ham and Eggs” initiative, narrowly defeated at the polls in 1938, which promised a $30 check “every Thursday” to every unemployed Californian of fifty or older, and the Townsend Plan on which it was based.
In Southern California in the 1950s and 1960s, the Birchers ran campaigns against school board members they called socialists and teachers who led favorable discussions about the U.N. In 1964, a frothing conservative named Max Rafferty was elected state school superintendent on a platform promising to “indoctrinate” the state’s children against communism, clean up their behavior and cut their hair.
But the virus of eccentricity, extremism and credulity has long since spread so deeply into the rest of the nation that we can hardly regard ourselves as distinctive any more.
The political maps still color us blue, and Democrats dominate the legislature and the state’s constitutional offices, but as a place that’s cutting days from its school calendar, laying off thousands of cops and teachers and eliminating hundreds of classes from its community colleges rather than raising its taxes, and that suffers from the worst road conditions in the nation, we’ve become more purple than blue, and much like the rest of the nation.
Political gridlock and the budget battles in Washington now look very much like those in Sacramento, and for similar reasons. A half century ago the Tea Party would have been a characteristically California kind of movement, but not now. A half-century ago, Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann would most likely have been ours, creatures not of cold northern climates but of sunny Orange County.
Rev. Lou Sheldon’s Traditional Values Coalition, born in Anaheim, where Sheldon still lives, has long ago gone national. The Institute of Creation Science is in Dallas. The nation’s leading denier of global warming, James Inhofe, is a senator from Oklahoma. Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan came from California; Mitt Romney, a native of Michigan, is from the place conservatives used to call Taxachussetts.
Romney’s last primary opponents, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, who, in the grand Rafferty tradition, called universities indoctrination centers for the left, came from Georgia and Pennsylvania. Santorum called Barack Obama a “snob” for his support of college opportunity for all Americans.
None of those examples is conclusive about anything. But the willful denial of the lessons of our own economic history – the role of government in the building of canals and the nation’s railroads, in the creation of the great state universities, in the prosperity of the post-war years – and the current embrace of unreason and ideology based on no evidence, all this and more might have once have been regarded as very much part of California kookiness.
The subjects of the current denials – about climate change, about evolution, about birth control, about science itself – would make a long list. California is still home to Orly Taitz, the nation’s most vociferous Birther, but in the rich catalogue of other departures from the rational, the rest of the nation now easily matches and sometimes surpasses us.
When California became the largest state in the 1960s, it was seen as the harbinger of everything that was fresh and original. One was immediately struck, said Time’s new correspondent in San Francisco in 1969, “by how much of the California legend was true – the climate, the geography, the hordes of new Californians shucking off old ways and values and experimenting with the new.”
And if there were problems, another national journalist wrote, “the best place in the world” to face them was California, “where the future is happening every day.” This was a state that, with Reagan’s signature, passed one of the nation’s first liberal abortion laws. We were the birthplace of the counter-culture, the home of Esalen, of EST, Erhard Seminar Training, and of countless other new age programs in personal development and touchy-feely growth endeavors.
Some are still around, many are long forgotten, but no one would now say that California is the nation’s great incubator and exemplar of a bright and promising future or, for that matter, of anything unique to the nation as a whole.
There are still conservatives, like Dick Cheney a decade ago, who cling to the antiquated notion that California is a hotbed of liberalism, environmental excess and gay liberation but their numbers must also be shrinking. Meanwhile unreason and denial have gone national – as they have at various times in our history before. Fruits and nuts these days flourish in all climates.
Peter Schrag, whose exclusive weekly column appears every Monday in
the California Progress Report, is the former editorial page editor and
columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of Paradise Lost:
California’s Experience, America’s Future and California: America’s High
Stakes Experiment. His newest book, Not Fit for Our Society: Nativism, Eugenics, Immigration is now on sale. View his archived columns here.