California: Living Out the Golden Dream

April 25, 1980

Report Outline
Trend-Setter for the Nation
Catalysts for Development
Continued North-South Rivalry
Prospects for the Eighties
Special Focus

Trend-Setter for the Nation

‘Just Like the Rest of Us, Only More So’

For more than a century, Americans have looked at California as something different, a “new” New World at the end of the continent, the ultimate expression of manifest destiny. It is a place as distinct from the rest of the country as America was from the Old World it rejected some 200 years ago. That distinctiveness has made it the subject of much comment and criticism over the years. Short-story writer O. Henry once mused that Californians are not merely inhabitants of a geographical location but “a race of people.” Other observers have been somewhat less kind, especially when talking about Southern California, which British philosopher Bertrand Russell described as “the ultimate segregation of the unfit.”

It is difficult to characterize in a phrase a state that takes in over a thousand miles of coastline, a variety of landscapes and more than 22 million people. Nevertheless, it is often said that California is not just a state but a state of mind. For some, it represents the final embodiment of America's frontier spirit; for others, it is a version of El Dorado, a place to find fortunes or spend fortunes made elsewhere. California is the nation's leader in fads, fashion and self-indulgence. New religions, new living arrangements, new forms of entertainment from Disneyland to sex clubs, new attitudes towards work, family and education, all have been nurtured by California's tolerant social climate.

It may well be true that Californians are quintessential Americans. In a wealthy nation, they are wealthier than most; in a suburban society, they are more suburbanized; in a culture devoted to immediate satisfaction, they are satisfied faster; in a country where optimism reigns supreme, they are the most optimistic; and in a time of doubt and uncertainty, they have the most to be uncertain about. Californians, the saying goes, are just like the rest of us, only more so.

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