California Builds the Future, for Good and Bad. What’s Next?

California was the first state to pass tailpipe-emissions standards, the first to legalize the medical use of marijuana, the first to adopt paid family leave, the first to experiment with guaranteed income on a municipal level, but also the first state to stage a tax revolt that hobbled public services, the first to ban affirmative action and, in 1994, the first to pass a ballot initiative — Proposition 187 — that would have barred undocumented immigrants from public social services, including education and health care. Prop 187 was a consequential episode in the state’s history, crystallizing the nativist backlash to changing demographics and foreshadowing similar movements in the rest of the country.

California’s character emerges out of the seesawing between two impulses, one restrictive, the other rebellious. Although a majority of voters cast a ballot in favor of Prop 187, resistance to the measure was steadfast, especially among young people, chipping away at its support. It was declared unconstitutional in federal court and was effectively ended by Gov. Gray Davis in 1999. The proposition’s passing strengthened Latino voter turnout and changed the electoral map for the next 25 years.

Now, as California takes on the threat of climate change, a housing crisis that is spilling out of state and a demographic exodus, we find ourselves again at a crossroads. Listening to the radio after a wildfire a couple of years ago, I heard a caller pin his hopes on technological innovation as a solution to this problem. But as we approach the future, it might be worthwhile to consider how we got here in the first place.

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Three hundred years ago, the future arrived on foot, clad in the brown robe of a Franciscan friar. In 1769, charged by the Spanish crown with exploring and “civilizing” the area then known as Alta California, Father Junipero Serra and the padres set about building a chain of Catholic missions on a 600-mile route that ran through the territory on a vertical line. The road, which in parts followed already existing Indigenous trails, was called El Camino Real (“the Royal Highway”). The highway supported the farms and ranches that would eventually become the backbone of the territory’s economy, but the mission system presaged a long and brutal campaign of displacement, forced labor, acculturation and violence against the Indigenous peoples of the state — which the Spanish envisioned as a Christian territory filled with gente de razón (“reasonable people”).

In 1848, as California came under U.S. rule, flecks of gold were found in the American River. By some estimates, nearly 300,000 people moved to California during the Gold Rush, tripling the state’s population in roughly 10 years. In order to transport people and goods to and from the West, a new type of roadway was needed: the Transcontinental Railroad. The newcomers hoped that a combination of luck and hard work would make them rich, a belief that became known as the California dream, a precursor to the national mythology around the American dream.