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How California both guides the direction of the country, and reflects it like no other state.
How the American story begins in California, and continues to play out here.
Photo By David Mark / Pixabay
Why are we so focused on California and figuring out how this state works? Other than the fact that we live here, that is? Because to understand California is to understand America.
One of the 20th century’s most important writers on the subject of California, former editor of The Nation Carey McWilliams, in the title of his 1949 book called the state “The Great Exception.” By “exception,” McWilliams meant not so much that California is somehow different or apart from the rest of America, but that what happens in this historically unpredictable state generally predicts and even shapes the ever-changing character of the United States.
In California, “lights went on all at once, in a blaze, and they have never been dimmed,” McWilliams wrote. Since before it was a state at all, California has been the fountain of opportunity for Americans. Or at least, it’s been perceived that way. The Gold Rush, 100 years before McWilliams wrote his book, offered the promise of instant riches for anyone with the guts and determination to go and get it. No experience necessary, and you didn’t need political connections.
Of course, things didn’t work out that way for every gold prospector. But the Gold Rush was far from the last “gold rush” in California. Oil, agriculture, entertainment, land development, technology and numerous other “booms” have driven and remade the state relentlessly for more than a century with no sign of letting up. And each of these booms has resonated throughout the country, making California both a leader and a reflection of America.
In the words of University of Southern California sociologist Manuel Pastor, “California is America, only sooner.”
The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Wallace Stegner, in a 1967 Saturday Review essay titled “California: The Experimental Society,” gave a similar evaluation of the state, albeit stated more starkly. “Like the rest of America, California is unformed, innovative, ahistorical, hedonistic, acquisitive, and energetic—only more so,” Stegner wrote.
Californian and American Demographics
California is, of course, the largest state in terms of population, with 39,237,836 residents as counted by the 2020 U.S. Census. More than one of every 10 Americans lives in California. The state’s population also closely reflects the demographic makeup of the country as a whole. About one in five Californians (22.4 percent) is 18 years old or younger, same as the United States (22.2 percent). And 16.8 percent of all Americans, per the 2020 census, are 65 or older—very close to California’s number of 15.2 percent.
In terms of ethnic demographics, California is, if anything, more diverse than an increasingly diverse country at-large. In another example of California being “America, only sooner,” the state is leading the nationwide trend of diversification. As a share of the total U.S. population, “Hispanic or Latino” people increased nationwide from 16.3 percent to 18.7 percent in the decade between 2010 and 2020, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics. In California, the “Hispanic or Latino” ethnic group rose from 37.6 percent to 39.4.
The growth in the “Hispanic or Latino” population drove down the “Black or African American” percentage both nationwide and in California. Nationally, that percentage dropped slightly from 12.6 to 12.4 percent. In California, it fell from 6.2 to 5.7. The Asian population, on the other hand, has inched up in California (13 percent to 15.4) and nationwide (4.8 to 6.0), according to the Census Bureau figures. But the biggest demographic story in both the state and country was the decline of the white population.
From 2010 to 2020, white people dropped from 72.4 percent of the U.S. population to 61.6 percent. In California, the state became even less white, dropping from 57.6 percent to 41.2.
Like the United States, California is a land of city-dwellers. As in the rest of the country, the state’s population is mostly packed into urban areas. Only about 9 percent of the state’s residents live in areas that are generally classified as “rural,” though those regions comprise about 55 percent of the state’s land. Countrywide the divide is more extreme. Only about 3 percent of American land is “urban,” with 97 percent “rural.” Yet only 14 percent of the population lives in those rural areas.
Comparing California to the Rest of the U.S.
California is, in fact, the most diverse state in the union according to a 2022 study by the financial site WalletHub, which does a number of such state-ranking studies. The site’s metrics for arriving at that conclusion went well beyond ethnic diversity, to include “socioeconomic diversity, political diversity, religious diversity, cultural diversity, household diversity and economic diversity.”
California ranked first in “socioeconomic” and “cultural” diversity, as well as eighth in “household” diversity. The state also topped the nation in linguistic diversity and placed second in diversity among industries.
California also blew past the competition in another WalletHub survey—taking home the prize as the most “fun” state in the country. “There are certain states where fun is not just an option but also a way of life,” wrote the WalletHub researchers, and California came in atop the 50 states in that category. But there was a WalletHub study in which California didn’t fare quite as well—patriotism.
The site rated states based on such metrics as military enlistment and veterans per capita, voting participation rates, volunteerism (such as the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps), and jury duty participation among others. Based on all of those factors, California compiled only the 36th highest score of the 50 states (the most “patriotic” state, by the way, was Alaska followed by Montana).
Interestingly, however, the site found that blue states—those that voted for Democrat Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election—were more patriotic than Donald Trump-voting red states.
But which state is quantifiably the most “American?" Another study, this one by the real estate site Estately, took into account various stereotypically “American” characteristics as Olympic gold medals won, total Major League Baseball players born in-state, astronauts born in-state, bald eagles per square mile, and number of Google searches for the phrase “Bin Laden dead.”
Iowa, Ohio and West Virginia took the win, place and show positions in the survey. Despite breaking into the top 10 in the gold medal-winner and astronaut categories, California somehow placed a lowly 43rd for this quirky definition of Americanism.
There Is No America Without California
So California may not qualify as highly “American” or “patriotic” in surveys based on somewhat arbitrary criteria. But the reality is, without California, America would be a very different country. Arguably, there is no industry that holds such a powerful grip and influence over American culture as the industry perhaps most closely identified with California—Hollywood.
The motion picture business came to California just a little more than a decade after the technology for movies was invented. In 1908, Chicago vaudeville performer and entrepreneur William Selig set up the first West Coast movie production company, in the Edendale neighborhood of Los Angeles. Just seven years later, the movie business had exploded and 60 percent of all motion pictures produced in the U.S. were made in California. In 2020 Hollywood generated about $5 billion annually from movie ticket sales alone, and half of all film and television production took place in California, mostly in and around the Los Angeles area.
Even more important than the pure economics of Hollywood, movies and television—that is, stories on film of one sort or another—shape the cultural narratives that Americans live and define themselves by.
“American identity in mass society is built around certain commonly held beliefs, or myths about shared experiences, and these American myths are often disseminated through or reinforced by film,” wrote the authors of the 2016 book Understanding Media and Culture. The films that spread and prop up these myths are generated mostly in California.
California Connects America With Itself
Hollywood sits in Southern California. In Northern California lies Silicon Valley, center of U.S. technology production, where more workers are employed by that industry, on a per capita basis, than anywhere else in the country. The corridor between San Jose and San Francisco, including the Santa Clara Valley and the San Franciso Peninsula, has been a center of technological innovation since at least 1956 when the first semiconductor manufacturing firm, Shockley Semiconductor Labs—founded by the inventor of the transistor, William Shockley—hung a shingle in Mountain View.
When several employees grew weary of Shockley’s disagreeable demeanor, they set out on their own and created Fairchild Semiconductor which went on to make computer processors for the Apollo space program in the 1960s. In 1971, engineers at another Santa Clara Valley firm, Intel, shrunk down the semiconductor into what they called a “microprocessor.” That invention opened the way for the creation of small, portable personal computers that fit on an ordinary desk, and later on a person’s lap.
Of course, processors and the computers they power continued to shrink to the point where they could be held in one hand and carried in a pocket.
Smartphones, as our tiny computers are called, have of copurse become a ubiquitous feature of daily life in America, connecting humans to each other and to the vast trove of information contained on the Internet—which may not be the sum total of all human knowledge, but is certainly a significant percentage. As of 2021 in the U.S., a country of 332.4 million people, there are nearly 300 million smartphone users.
The state not only feeds the American cultural zeitgeist, it feeds America, literally. California has been the country’s top food-producing state for a half-century, according to the U.S. Farm Services Agency. Though it has only about 4 percent of the country’s farms and ranches, California generates 13 percent of the agricultural supply and produces 99 percent of a number of foods, including almonds, walnuts, raisins and olives.
California not only feeds the country, but defends it as well. The state has more military bases than any other, with no fewer than 32 such defense installations throughout the state—mostly in Southern California. In total dollars spent on defense contracting, California places third behind Texas and Virginia. But the $61 billion spent in the 2020 fiscal year was more than twice the dollar amount spent in the next-most prolific defense state, Maryland.
The list of California’s contributions is a long one but perhaps can best be summed up by the fact that almost 15 percent of the U.S. economic production is generated in California. Not only does California reflect and influence the rest of America, it seems fair to say that the United States without California would not be the same country.
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