How California Works: an Editors' Note

Share this:  


An Editor's Note and introduction to the book How California Works: Building Democracy in the Golden State, by Jonathan Vankin, published by California Local and now available in hardcover, softcover and digital (Kindle) on Amazon.

As you might tell from the title, How California Works is an optimistic book. Here you will find true stories about the ways California is leading the world toward a better future, from protecting women’s and voters’ rights to building a sustainable energy infrastructure.

This is not naïve, starry-eyed optimism—one of this book’s five sections, “California in Crisis: The Downside of the Dream,” features seven chapters about issues ranging from homelessness to drought. We are well aware that we bring this book out at a time when many Californians—let’s face it, people the world over—are confronting myriad crises. We are also aware that individuals and organizations throughout California are trying, imperfectly, to make our state a better, fairer, safer place.

What you will find here are a number of true stories about specific policies and institutions that show how, at its best, California has resisted and pushed back against anti-democratic forces. The chapters in this book include histories and policies, deeply human characters, and controversies that have led us to where we are today.

Our friend and colleague Jonathan Vankin is definitely a “policy wonk,” but more than that he is a storyteller. Here you will find 45 stories that together will help you understand California in a new way.

We hope that by elucidating the nuts-and-bolts realities behind California’s civic infrastructure, this book will help you feel inspired to participate in the difficult and worthy project of “Building Democracy in the Golden State.”

We get that this is a big lift. You may be among the number of Californians who believe that things have gotten so complex, it’s impossible to participate in any meaningful way. You may feel that there’s no way to engage, or to even comprehend how your local and state governments work. This book proves otherwise.

At California Local, our slogan is “We Make it Easy to Citizen.” Here, we use the word “citizen” as a verb (something we learned from the great comic/theorist/PBS star Baratunde Thurston).

We see our website,, as a “civic engagement engine” that helps people connect with elected officials, nonprofit groups, and others who are active in the life of your community. We explore the glue that ties communities together. 

We’re more interested in policies than politics. We know that as Californians, we may not all share the same views, but we do share the same sidewalks, freeways, airports, parks, and other public amenities. We all pay taxes, and we all have the right to government services. And we have the right to elect the representatives who will shape those services.

In the chapters that follow, Vankin looks back at California’s history to understand how the state’s constitution was written—and rewritten, again and again, to become the eighth longest in the world. He explores what it takes to become a city in California, and also how those who live in unincorporated areas get their services. Another chapter looks at how civil grand juries serve as citizen watchdogs for many kinds of government functions, from county government to city councils to community service districts. In the section titled “Powering California,” Vankin dives deep into California’s energy reserves and its efforts to fight the climate crisis. And in the final section, he looks at some of California’s most innovative legislative landmarks.

Just as California leads the world in technology via Silicon Valley, and in popular culture via Hollywood, etc., the Golden State leads the world in public policy. Way less sexy, for sure, but possibly way more important.

It’s a bold claim, but one that we believe Vankin backs up in his exploration of How California Works. Buy it now on Amazon and see!

Support California Local

$10 • $25 • $50 • Our Impact

Long form articles which explain how something works, or provide context or background information about a current issue or topic.

Join Us Today!