by Chris Buskirk
America ran out of frontier when we hit the Pacific Ocean. And that changed things. Alaska and Hawaii were too far away to figure in most people’s aspirations, so for decades, it was the West Coast states and especially California that represented dreams and possibilities in the national imagination. The American dream reached its apotheosis in California. After World War II, the state became our collective tomorrow. But today, it looks more like a future that the rest of the country should avoid—a place where a few coastal enclaves have grown fabulously wealthy while everyone else falls further and further behind.
After World War II, California led the way on every front. The population was growing quickly as people moved to the state in search of opportunity and young families had children. The economy was vibrant and diverse. Southern California benefited from the presence of defense contractors. San Diego was a Navy town, and demobilized GIs returning from the Pacific Front decided to stay and put down roots. Between 1950 and 1960, the population of the Los Angeles metropolitan area swelled from 4,046,000 to 6,530,000. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory was inaugurated in the 1930s by researchers at the California Institute of Technology. One of the founders, Jack Parsons, became a prominent member of an occult sect in the late 1940s based in Pasadena that practiced “Thelemic Magick” in ceremonies called the “Babalon Working.” L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology (1950), was an associate of Parsons and rented rooms in his home. The counterculture, or rather, countercultures, had deep roots in the state.
Youth culture was born in California, arising out of a combination of rapid growth, the Baby Boom, the general absence of extended families, plentiful sunshine, the car culture, and the space afforded by newly built suburbs where teenagers could be relatively free from adult supervision. Tom Wolfe memorably described this era in his 1963 essay “The Kandy-Colored Tangerine Flake Streamline, Baby.” The student protest movement began in California too. In 1960, hundreds of protesters, many from the University of California at Berkeley, sought to disrupt a hearing of the House Un-American Activities Committee at the San Francisco City Hall. The police turned fire hoses on the crowd and arrested over thirty students. The Baby Boomers may have inherited the protest movement, but they didn’t create it. Its founders were part of the Silent Generation. Clark Kerr, the president of the UC system who earned a reputation for giving student protesters what they wanted, was from the Greatest Generation. Something in California, and in America, had already changed.
California was a sea of ferment during the 1960s—a turbulent brew of contrasting trends, as Tom O’Neill described it:
The state was the epicenter of the summer of love, but it had also seen the ascent of Reagan and Nixon. It had seen the Watts riots, the birth of the antiwar movement, and the Altamont concert disaster, the Free Speech movement and the Hells Angels. Here, defense contractors, Cold Warriors, and nascent tech companies lived just down the road from hippie communes, love-ins, and surf shops.
Hollywood was the entertainment capital of the world, producing a vision of peace and prosperity that it sold to interior America—and to the world as the beau ideal of the American experiment. It was a prosperous life centered around the nuclear family living in a single-family home in the burgeoning suburbs. Doris Day became America’s sweetheart through a series of romantic comedies, but the turbulence in her own life foreshadowed America’s turn from vitality to decay. She was married three times, and her first husband either embezzled or mismanaged her substantial fortune. Her son, Terry Melcher, was closely associated with Charles Manson and the Family, along with Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys—avatars of the California lifestyle that epitomized the American dream.
The Manson Family spent the summer of 1968 living and partying with Wilson in his Malibu mansion. The Cielo Drive home in the Hollywood Hills where Sharon Tate and four others were murdered in August 1969 had been Melcher’s home and the site of parties that Manson attended. The connections between Doris Day’s son, the Beach Boys, and the Manson Family have a darkly prophetic valence in retrospect. They were young, good-looking, and carefree. But behind the clean-cut image of wholesome American youth was a desperate decadence fueled by titanic drug abuse, sexual outrages that were absurd even by the standards of Hollywood in the 60s, and self-destructiveness clothed in the language of pseudo-spirituality.
The California culture of the 1960s now looks like a fin-de-siècle blow-off top. The promise, fulfillment, and destruction of the American dream appears distilled in the Golden State, like an epic tragedy played out against a sunny landscape where the frontier ended. Around 1970, America entered into an age of decay, and California was in the vanguard.
Up, Up, and Away
The expectation of constant progress is deeply ingrained in our understanding of the world, and of America in particular. Some metrics do generally keep rising: gross domestic product mostly goes up, and so does the stock market. According to those barometers, things must be headed mostly in the right direction. Sure there are temporary setbacks—the economy has recessions, the stock market has corrections—but the long-term trajectory is upward. Are those metrics telling us that the country is growing more prosperous? Are they signals, or noise?
There is much that GDP and the stock market don’t tell us about, such as public and private debt levels, wage trends, and wealth concentration. In fact, during a half-century in which reported GDP grew consistently and the stock market reached the stratosphere, real wages have crept up very slowly, and living standards have flatlined or even declined for the middle and working classes. Many Americans have a feeling that things aren’t going in the right direction or that the country has lost its societal health and vigor, but aren’t sure how to describe or measure the problem. We need broader metrics of national prosperity and vitality, including measures of noneconomic values like family stability or social trust.
There are many different criteria for national vitality. First, is the country guarded against foreign aggression and at peace with itself? Are people secure in their homes, free from government harassment, and safe from violent crime? Is prosperity broadly shared? Can the average person get a good job, buy a house, and support a family without doing anything extraordinary? Are families growing? Are people generally healthy, and is life span increasing or at least not decreasing? Is social trust high? Do people have a sense of unity in a common destiny and purpose? Is there a high capacity for collective action? Are people happy?
We can sort quantifiable metrics of vitality into three main categories: social, economic, and political. There is a spiritual element too, which for my purposes falls under the social category. The social factors that can readily be measured include things like age at first marriage (an indicator of optimism about the future), median adult stature (is it rising or declining?), life expectancy, and prevalence of disease. Economic measures include real wage trends, wealth concentration, and social mobility. Political metrics relate to polarization and acts of political violence.
Many of these tend to move together over long periods of time. It’s easy to look at an individual metric and miss the forest for the trees, not seeing how it’s one manifestation of a larger problem in a dynamic system. Solutions proposed to deal with one concern may cause unexpected new problems in another part of the system. It’s a society-wide game of whack-a-mole. What’s needed is a more comprehensive understanding of structural trends and what lies behind them. From the founding period in America until about 1830, those factors were generally improving. Life expectancy and median height were increasing, both indicating a society that was mostly at peace and had plentiful food. Real wages roughly tripled during this period as labor supply growth was slow. There was some political violence. But for decades after independence, the country was largely at peace and citizens were secure in their homes. There was an overarching sense of shared purpose in building a new nation.
Those indicators of vitality are no longer trending upward. Let’s start with life expectancy. There is a general impression that up until the last century, people died very young. There’s an element of truth to this: we are now less susceptible to death from infectious disease, especially in early childhood, than were our ancestors before the…
Read More: Commentary: An Age of Decay