Books

California Roadmaps: Part II

‘State of Resistance’ takes a deep dive into changes that have made California what it is today

For most of its history, the constant for California has been change. In many ways, the state has been a laboratory for the rest of the nation, grappling with evolving demographics, birthing new ideas and industries and testing its power as the world’s fifth-largest economy. Two of the best thinkers about the state of California are Manuel Pastor, a sociology professor at USC, and Narda Zacchino, a former editor at the Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle who is now a fellow at the USC Annenberg Center. Each has recently written a book about where California currently stands and where it’s going. Alta asked them to review and comment on each other’s work.

California is arguably the most important state in the nation; it is the most populous —home to 1 in 8 Americans — and enjoys being the fifth-largest economy in the world. In this increasingly polarized era, its progressive policies governing the environment, immigration, health care and others, championed by many, also have been the target of conservatives over time and across state lines. Most notable is the opposition by President Donald Trump, whose administration is the defendant in two dozen lawsuits filed by the state and the plaintiff in a handful filed against California.

California has been dissected in scores of books of national significance, including the acclaimed series by the late historian Kevin Starr and, more currently, Peter Schrag, Miriam Powell, and my own book, “California Comeback: The Genius of Jerry Brown.” Now comes a brilliant addition to that library by Manuel Pastor, USC professor of sociology, who adds a compelling element to the California narrative.

State of Resistance: What California’s Dizzying Descent and Remarkable Resurgence Mean for America’s Future” exposes the state’s shameful past of xenophobia and nativism that victimized California Indians, Chinese, Japanese and Latino immigrants and African-Americans. Also told is its flirtation with a mean-spirited conservatism marked by tax cuts, draconian criminal justice policies and anti-immigrant actions, all ultimately rejected by Californians.

Previous protagonists tended to be its leaders: Pat Brown, Ronald Reagan, Pete Wilson, Arnold Schwarzenegger and four-term governor Jerry Brown, a grandmaster of the political chessboard. But Pastor tells a new story, shining light on scores of largely under-the-radar people and organizations that have led California’s momentous swing to the left, creating a state that embraces inclusion, views immigration as an asset, fiercely protects the environment and — perhaps most shocking to the national psyche — has voted to increase taxes to fund education and stabilize the state economy.

Pastor explains how this transformation was initiated by demographic changes in the state, where people of color have become the majority. A swing of the political pendulum to the left was inevitable. So, too, was a major shift in the state legislature, where more people of color were being elected to the state Assembly and Senate. Changes happened in the electorate as well: Democratic Party registration today stands at 44.4 percent, No Preferred Party (declined to state), 25.5 percent, and Republican, 25.1 percent.

Pastor brilliantly digs deep and wide to expose and credit the environmental activists, community organizers, leaders of racial, ethnic, gay and lesbian groups, criminal justice reformers, advocates for immigrants and the homeless, organized labor and more who joined forces toward a common goal — a more inclusive and progressive society — and worked hard to see it through. He tells how these activists learned the power of unity in organizing, messaging and lobbying policymakers to transition California to the progressive model for the nation.

There is no reason to doubt that this California model can overtake the raw populism that marks the actions of Trump and his followers. Pastor reveals in his eye-opening book that when the electorate accurately represents the diversity of the population in color, age and income, it becomes a springboard for economic and social progress. That is the optimistic conclusion of his book, which makes it a compelling must-read for all those seeking a way out of America’s current swamp of despair. 

Narda Zacchino, an author and editor, is a former top editor of the San Francisco Chronicle and Los Angeles Times, where she spent much of her career covering state government and politics.

State of Resistance: What California’s Dizzying Descent and Remarkable Resurgence Mean for America’s Future

  • By Manuel Pastor
  • 288 pages, The New Press, $26.99

Keep reading: Alta’s partners at Book Passage in the Bay Area recommend books by California authors and on California subjects, with reviews by Book Passage staff members.