And make no mistake: this place is amazing. I am constantly astounded at how friendly and open people are here. When I go to grab a yogurt at 21 Choices, a Pasadena icon, there's nothing unusual about the nice girl across the counter helping me think through the decision. "So you like strawberries and white chocolate... Well let's try this." That's just not the case in other places. You order and get the hell out. But in California, derived as it is from the egalitarian Gold Rush (where anyone might strike it rich), such easygoing interaction is the rule—not the exception.
Similarly, the wonder I feel when I look up at the stars—an infinity of space and time, a veritable symphony of matter and energy, and all above my head!—actually is not unique to me. Californians have long looked up to push the empyrean reaches of the soul. The current mix of institutions—Cal Tech and the UC system come immediately to mind—and business—California leads the world in private space entrepreneurship—dedicated to that purpose prove the continued resonance of space in the California consciousness.
But the fundamental unity of California goes beyond astronomically induced transcendence. California itself is intensely beautiful. And not only that but the place possesses a greater diversity of stunning environments than any other place on the planet. What other place has Death Valley and Mount Whitney? Gorgeous beaches and the soaring heights of Yosemite? The fertile flats of the Central Valley and the towering cliffs of Big Sur?
And that's not to mention it's people. California has brought together more people from more places in a shorter time frame in a shorter period than any other place at any other time in human history. The Gold Rush was perhaps the first truly international event in human history. People poured into California from places as varied as Argentina, China, and Ireland. But, more than that, California attracted the most adventuresome, the most creative, the most entrepreneurial people in the world because only they were willing to make the long and difficult journey to the rugged land. Californians continue to be a people who pursue the good life—trying to strike it rich in the gold streams of our soul—and are willing to take risks to get there.
The Inchoate History of California
Yet despite that unity, Carey McWilliams, perhaps the premier commentator on our state, is right to ask whether "there really is a state called California or this is all just boastful talk." Californians have only answered the question of who we are obliquely, in our characteristically inchoate way. California did not assimilate so much as assert itself into the Union. Deciding not to wait for Congressional action, Military Governor Bennet Riley issued a proclamation demanding that California have a constitutional convention. That first constitutional convention in Monterey produced a fairly respectable document (although one that borrowed heavily from the recent Iowa constitution), but did not engage the people in its deliberations. Many of the delegates didn't even bother to show up, choosing instead to try their luck in the gold fields.
That new constitution did not even achieve its main purpose: breaking the Southern Pacific's hold on California politics and society. It wasn't until Hiram Johnson was elected in 1910 and established the initiative, referendum, and recall that "The Octopus's" hold on California politics was finally broken. Of course, that had unintended consequences. A majority of voters in a single election could now amend the constitution. No wonder the California's constitution has been amended more than 500 times. We really shouldn't be surprised, though; as Carey McWilliams, points out "California, the giant adolescent, has been outgrowing its governmental clothes" since day one.
Our Ungovernable State
A document that was already chocked full of statute now covers everything from fishing rights to school busing—so much for being a fundamental document. A constitution is supposed to specify the rights of a people and demarcate lines of power in how they will be governed. But in California we've done more than draw those lines; we've specified extremely specific policy outcomes. We've locked in funding for schools, after-school programs, and other services to guarantee a baseline level of societal commitment. We've created new independent executive offices, such as the State Superintendent of Public Instruction and the State Insurance Commissioner, to demand accountability from our government. We've set caps on property taxes to protect grandma via Prop 13. We've answered a million different questions that affect our society in a partial way. But we've never at a systematic level answered the fundamental question our society faces: How do we want to govern ourselves?
That's the question we desperately need to answer today. Because when we try to make everything fundamental, in reality, nothing is. Not education, not any executive office, not low tax levels—nothing. And the gears of government break under the stress. As The Economist has said, "It's amazing that anything works at all." So we shouldn't be surprised that things increasingly just don't work.
But crisis sometimes is the only way that we all realize that we're all in this together. California's crisis affects all of us, and it will take all of us to get us out. It does no good for each group to bunker down in their respective hatch when the ship is sinking. We actually need to right the ship. That is the challenge today. Are we ready to have the Constitutional Moment that has eluded California for over 160 years? And, more importantly, have we finally reached maturity as a people to realize that we're all in this together?
The people of California need to come together and decide how we want to govern ourselves. We need to figure out how we can reform the institutions we currently have to meet the needs of the California in the Twenty-First Century. We need to figure out what sort of political system is going to channel and harness the energy, creativity, and dynamism of the California Dream. Change isn't going to come from Sacramento. No, the People of California need to take ownership of our state. It's time that we took that hard look in the collective mirror and answered the tough questions that face any society: How do we want to organize ourselves into a government? What defines us as a people? And what sort of institutions will we choose to reflect that? We can no longer afford to blame other groups for our problems. We need to call a constitutional convention.
A New California
We Californians have the opportunity to do something special during these early years of the new millennium. California is the most diverse place on the planet. Never before have so many different people with so many different backgrounds and beliefs been housed under one regional roof. Making government work here would be unprecedented. But California is not one to shy away from unprecedented action. We are the home of Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory—names that are synonomous with creativity and innovation. And that's not to mention the immense reservoir of artistic and literary greats—Stegner, Bradbury, Jeffers, to name a few—that have called California home. Why not honor that legacy by unifying California in new and unprecedented ways?
Initially, California was entirely synonymous with new beginnings. It entered popular consciousness as a fictional island “very close to the side of the Terrestrial Paradise” and then conceptually burst with the discovery of gold into a place where anyone had a good chance of starting over and striking it rich. With it's continued influx of people, culture, and ideas about how to do things, California has retained that element of newness: "There had been, then, from the beginning, these debilitating increases, rates of growth that systematically erased freshly laid traces of custom and community, and it was from such erasures that many California confusions would derive." (Joan Didion)
But yet, so unweighted by history, might California be the first nation to forge an identity not out of birth or other lines bound to the past but by our common pursuit of a better life? Might that desire for the good life, for a golden society on the shore of the pacific, serve as the first and only necessary premise of our common culture? And unified not by tribalistic affinity or strictures from the state but by our shared inhabitance of this transcendently beautiful place, might our linguistic, cultural, and historical differences function not as a basis for conflict but as an expanded knowledge base through which we forge a stronger, more interesting whole?
As a citizen of California, the only question you need to ask yourself is, "Are we ready to write the next great chapter in California history?"
I, for one, say yes. I say we redream California government for the Twenty-First Century and work towards making the California Dream a reality. I can think of no better cause to dedicate my life to than helping California realize its incredible potential. I owe so much of my life to California. It's educated me, given me my family and friends, and allowed me to enjoy them in a spectacular built and natural environment. This blog is a small step to make good on that debt by doing my part to build the New California.