In all the hagiographic fawning in certain quarters over Ronald Reagan as a cost-cutting icon of presidential probity, what too often goes unmentioned is the dog whistling that characterized his 1966 race for California’s governorship and his less successful early runs for the White House, when he was a hawk a John Bircher could love. Reagan not only stoked tumult during a racially divided period in California’s history, he also, as historian Manuel Pastor details in his book “State of Resistance,” shifted positions and took a more pragmatic course supporting the “social compact” that made California a social, economic, environmental and political leader to which the rest of the country looked for guidance. .
That longstanding compact, Pastor forcefully argues, contributed directly to California’s growth during its midcentury decades of greatest achievement. And since “California is America fast-forward,” per “demographic, economic, and social trends,” assessing how the state released itself from grave social and financial turmoil — and reaffirmed that compact — offers ideas for how the rest of the country might do the same in the tweet-addled era of Trump.
Subtitled “What California’s Dizzying Descent and Remarkable Resurgence Mean for America’s Future” and published in April by the New Press, “State of Resistance” examines the last century of the Golden State’s history. That history is nuanced, Pastor writes, but not complex: “California worked when it had a social compact that welcomed and integrated newcomers, a broad set of infrastructure investment that facilitated that process, and an economy that functioned to create platforms of opportunity.”
He and his research team buttress that thesis with a formidable array of studies and historical reportage, all sourced across 49 pages of footnotes. During an interview he says the “State of Resistance” title is wordplay, while the book itself is “a set of questions about what we need to know for the state of resistance in America.”
Nativism akin to today’s anti-immigrant hysteria certainly has an ugly history here, from Depression-era prejudice against Mexican farm workers through World War II internment of Japanese Americans to racist housing covenants and policing policies. Yet California became a leader on pro-immigration issues; the book demonstrates how immigrants have enhanced its economic wellbeing. It also digs into how the state responded to an array of civil rights issues, in enlightening detail; and shows how the state’s public education system, once one of the nation’s best, plunged in quality while rising in cost after the 1978 passage of Prop 13, which financially gutted California’s Master Plan for Higher Education — one of the social compact’s key mutual-investment elements.
“Prop 13 was pretty symbolic of the rise of suburban California, right-wing, anti-government politics with a racial undertone,” Pastor says. “A bit like the Trump tax cuts, where basically some middle-class tax cuts were a Trojan horse for corporate benefits. … It tried to solve a problem that should be solved with a scalpel with a sledgehammer.”
Despite Prop 13 and 1994’s anti-immigrant Prop 187, the state benefitted for decades from welcoming bipartisanship. Grassroots community activists were focused on problem solving rather than party affiliation, and numerous moderate New Dealers and conservative Democrats helped bridge gaps between hard-liners. Early in their careers, Gov. Earl Warren and Gov. Edmund “Pat” Brown both succeeded partly thanks to a cross-filing system that made them winners with Democrats as well as Republicans.
“There was this long tradition in California of bipartisanship and finding the middle, and thinking about the nature of the social compact and the need to invest in each other,” Pastor observes. “The tough thing now is that we have rules that are supposed to help refoster that bipartisan spirit — that is, the top two primary — but we’re in a much more partisan era.”
Pat Brown’s son, current Gov. Jerry Brown, has been “an evangelist about climate change,” Pastor notes, and boosted California’s position as an environmental leader. One byproduct has been innovative green technology, which has created jobs and helped the state’s economy. But can such conscious industries take root elsewhere, particularly as the Trump administration determinedly rolls back environmental regulations?
Noting that California is taking the lead in resisting the “tremendous damage” being done nationally by the EPA in terms of the climate, health and safety, Pastor points to Silicon Valley, where regulations support “green economy” innovation, as a hopeful example for other markets to emulate.
“The most dynamic sectors of capital — 50 percent of the country’s venture capital comes into California — are not that interested in backward industries,” he notes. “So from the point of view of Silicon Valley, saving coal is not a big priority.”
Pasadena is cited in a section devoted to “smart growth” and urban transformation supported by public-private investment. In the pre-redevelopment days of the 1980s and ’90s, Pastor writes, Pasadena’s “most vibrant downtown business was a pornographic bookstore — which, like a cockroach after a nuclear meltdown, is still there.” Old Town Pasadena’s now a busy go-to destination like Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade and Downtown LA, but gentrification did not come without cost. Like the artists and musicians who took the initial gamble on creating a vital community in what once was a red-light district, virtually all of the mom-and-pop businesses that initially gave Old Town its character have been pushed out by corporate chains, and consequently higher costs of living make housing affordable for fewer and fewer of those who work in the area. That tension between independent, community-friendly entrepreneurs and deeper-pocketed entities is playing out across the state and the country. How might California chart a less corporate, more affordable way forward?
Pastor, who calls himself “an optimist” about California’s ability to transcend environmental challenges, is more troubled by gentrification and displacement, which he identifies as one of the state’s biggest challenges. Referencing Old Pasadena’s lost mom-and-pop shops and “nail salons being replaced by $4 donut shops” in Highland Park, he says the “changing of the shopping landscape affects the community fabric as well. I hope that California will take the lead on it [but] we have a limited range of tools.” He supports repeal of the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act, which would allow local jurisdictions to institute rent stabilization, and land trusts that can be held as community trusts for housing. Acknowledging the issue’s enormity, he says “it’s something California must take much more seriously in future.”
The original question the book strives to answer is: How did progressive social justice infrastructure get built in California? Rather than “let the country drag itself through its own Prop 187 moment in the 1990s of racialized politics, which certainly seems like where we’re at,” Pastor says he wants “State of Resistance” to be read not only Californians trying to understand our history, but also by residents of other states.
“When we start to address the issues of climate, we can generate more jobs than we’re going to lose in coal. When we tried to de-incarcerate, we’re going to actually wind up bringing people back into the labor market who are needed. When we have a more civil attitude around immigrants, then we have kids growing up healthier in communities that are safer. …
“We dragged ourselves over the coals over the last 25 years. The country is now preparing to do the same to itself. Maybe we could sort of short-circuit the pain and point out that when we get to the ‘end of demographic change,’ it’s not that bad.”
Manuel Pastor discusses “State of Resistance” at Vroman’s Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, at 7 p.m. Monday, July 30; free admission. Info: (626) 449-5320. Thenewpress.com, vromansbookstore.com