The tentacles from California's electricity crisis are beginning to extend well beyond the immediate tussle over the cost and availability of power.
Indeed, rolling blackouts are starting to shift broad social and political attitudes about population growth, faith in government, and the future of life in the Golden State.
"This is turning into one of those issues that has the potential to really reshape the entire political landscape here," says Mark Baldasare of the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) in San Francisco.
Some reshaping is already under way. California's booming population growth, a perennial issue, is now seen by more and more in the state as a major component of the electricity shortage.
Furthermore, residents are becoming pessimistic not only about their current elected officials, but about the state government's ability to plan and build for the future, says Mr. Baldasare.
The implications of this could include citizen-backed ballot initiatives addressing the electricity crisis, growing voter disaffection with the main political parties and receptivity to independent candidates for state office, and a backlash against population growth.
State residents have in the past reacted strongly when perceiving a connection between population growth and economic trouble. State voters, for instance, approved a strong anti-immigration measure in 1994, which, though later gutted by the courts, was born in part by frustration over the state's economic downturn in the early 1990s.
Some groups critical of US immigration policy are trying to capitalize on the energy crisis as an indication that the population is growing faster than society can accommodate. The Diversity Alliance for a Sustainable America in Oakland, Calif., is planning an advertising campaign this week that links the two issues.
"We believe that rapid population growth is the main cause for the electricity crisis, and uncontrolled immigration is the main cause of that rapid population expansion," says Yeh Ling-Ling, director of the Diversity Alliance.
A new PPIC survey released today shows that Californians increasingly view the electricity crisis as "a harbinger of other growth-related problems," says Baldasare. The survey finds that 3 out of 4 Californians see a linkage between the state's rising population and the power shortage. Further, half the state's population now see the state's growth of 4 million people over the past decade as a "bad thing."
With President Bush pushing a controversial new national energy policy and Californians grappling with electricity outages, energy has become the No. 1 issue here. That's a switch. For the past two years, education has been Californians' main concern and was the foundation of Democratic Gov. Gray Davis's campaign for office. Since January, electricity has slowly elbowed it aside.
Electricity has also dragged population growth up the public agenda to the point where it, too, outranks education, and even the economy, on the state's worry list.
And the electricity crisis is clearly affecting political fortunes.
Governor Davis, not too long ago seen as a viable Democratic presidential candidate in 2004, is now struggling in his own state. Early in his tenure, Davis racked up some of the strongest job-approval ratings of any governor in recent history. In January, for instance, 63 percent of residents said they approved of the way he was doing his job.
Now, according the latest PPIC data, Davis's approval rating has slumped to 46 percent.
Increasingly, Davis has sought to turn public ire for the crisis toward out-of-state power generators, who he says are gouging the state by charging unfair prices, and toward the Bush administration, which he blames for not capping those unfair wholesale rates.
Californians seem to have decided that neither their governor nor their president is dealing with the electricity crisis well.
Asked specifically about each leader's handling of the crisis, Californians gave a 60 percent disapproval rating to Davis's performance, and 56 percent gave Bush a thumbs down.
Individual politicians aside, 67 percent of those polled say they have lost confidence in the state's ability to plan ahead. "This crisis has been crippling to the state's confidence," says Baldasare.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor