SAN FRANCISCO — As the the 20th century began, California was an insular territory consumed by parochial issues. Its role in defining the national character was middling, as was its population relative to other states.
Today, it is America's behemoth. It sends vibrations across the land with almost every move it makes and operates on such a large scale that its governor, for instance, who isn't even running for reelection next year, already has raised more campaign funds than the lead contenders for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination.
Yet as political and social scientists peer into the coming century, there is some question whether California is really leading the nation, or rather increasingly veering off into its own universe.
A range of analysts have concluded that while this state's throw-weight continues to rise its role as a national leader has shifted. It is now much more of a leading indicator in economic and social spheres than in public policy.
No one doubts that this state "leads" the US and will continue to in a statistical sense. It has the largest population, the largest economy, and the greatest political clout, measured through membership in Congress and the number of votes it casts in the Electoral College to elect a president.
And in terms of culture and economics, the Hollywood dream machine and the Silicon Valley technology revolution have global influence.
When it comes to setting the agenda for public policy, however, some analysts say California is propelled more and more by dynamics that are atypical. What happens here, they argue, either doesn't apply elsewhere or is viewed skeptically enough that if adopted elsewhere, its form changes substantially.
Part of this is simply the natural evolution of the relationship between this state and others. Whereas earlier this century California was seen by many as the model of the future, today it has been roughed up by experience and is viewed less admiringly by outsiders.
"California has matured and it's clearly no longer the answer to everyone's dreams," says Joel Kotkin of the Institute for Public Policy at Pepperdine University in southern California.
Others see a deeper separation developing between this state and the rest of the nation, a result of demographic trends and the state's own failings in the public-policy arena.
"California has become less typical, less the leader, and more the exotic state it was at the beginning of the century," says Michael Barone, co-author of "The Almanac of American Politics."
California's influence and peculiarities were both evident earlier this month when Florida Gov. Jeb Bush outlined new policies to deal with the touchy issue of affirmative action.
California voters in 1996 outlawed racial preferences in state education and employment, partly because elected leaders failed to deal with the issue. Governor Bush seems determined to prevent the divisiveness over the issue that developed in California by preempting a more sweeping Florida ballot initiative akin to what passed in this state.
Also noteworthy in the early stages of this presidential campaign is the effort Republican front-runner George W. Bush has made to distance himself from the way California dealt with another hot-button issue: illegal immigration.
In what appeared a harbinger of shifting social policy, Californians restricted public benefits to illegal immigrants in 1994. The US Congress curtailed benefits to undocumented immigrants, too. But California's controversial law, largely dismantled by the courts, now looks like a momentary response to toughening economic times rather than a national trendsetter.
Last year, this state banned bilingual education, another social-policy change that drew national attention as a potential social tsunami generated on the West Coast. But today that shift looks more like a local response to a failing public school system than a turning point for American education.
Nowhere is California's changed role as a public-policy leader more evident than in education.
Poll after poll in recent years has established education as a top item on the national agenda. Yet California, a model of quality public schools in the 1950s and 1960s, is a reform laggard. While the state is now in the throes of a long and costly rebuilding program, education experts regard California as a Johnny-come-lately to the national push for better schools. In short, a follower, not a leader.
Running through California's education travails, as well as through many of its social-policy shifts in recent years, is the state's demographic dynamics. When the 2000 census is completed, it is expected to underscore what estimates have already said: The United States is growing more diverse, thanks to rapid increases in the Latino and Asian-American populations.
One-third of all new immigrants land on California's doorstep each year, a fact that is often interpreted to mean that as California goes, so goes the rest of the US. This is true in the sense that the nation's racial attitudes can be most clearly seen in places where they are most tested, like California.
But demographer William Frey of the Milken Institute in Santa Monica, Calif., speaks of the "diversity myth," essentially arguing that while in a statistical sense the US population is growing more diverse, it's happening in a relatively select group of cities. In other words, the diversity dynamic remains strongly clustered in traditional gateway communities. And while the dispersal of minorities across the country is occurring, it is doing so at a very slow rate.
Of the nation's 3,142 counties, only 21 are what Mr. Frey defines as truly racially diverse. He defines racially diverse as having at least two minority groups making up a greater share of the local population than their national average and where whites represent a smaller share than their US average.
Yet, 12 of those 21 counties are in California, showing the vastly greater power of demographic shifts in this state compared with most others. And that may explain this state's preoccupation with issues of race and diversity in the 1990s and why the ripple effect of those issues has been spotty and uneven.
What will dominate the California agenda over the next decade?
State historian Kevin Starr predicts issues close to home and family, everything from housing and transportation to sexual orientation. Indeed, one of the most controversial initiatives on the March 2000 ballot is an attempt to prevent any state recognition of same-sex marriages.
Because of California's size and its near mythic role as the destination point for America's pioneering spirit, its influence has already been vast.
A tax revolt here in the early 1970s set the stage for an anti-tax, anti-big-government movement that along with another California product, Ronald Reagan, fundamentally altered the nation's political direction.
As one more barometer of how this state has changed, though, the Republican Party that produced Reagan is now so weak that some consider California a de facto one-party Democratic state. And without the idea competition that often comes with a vigorous two-party system, some analysts don't expect government to be as innovative or influential as it once was, at least in the short term.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society