Viewing California Politics
Through the Lens of a Science-Fiction Movie

November 10, 2003

The pop-culture pastime of predicting the future through science fiction goes back at least as far as Jules Verne, the 19th-century novelist who foresaw space travel and cities beneath the sea. His view of the future is a picnic compared with the apocalyptic scenarios that dominate science fiction today. Civilization lies in ruins and what remains of the human race is enslaved by the murderous computer from the "Matrix" series or stalked by bone-crushing cyborgs like the one made famous by Arnold Schwarzenegger, the next California governor, in the first "Terminator" film.

Los Angeles in the movies is regularly blown up, burned down or pillaged by aliens. (Life in Southern California recently must have been very much like a fiery disaster film.) But when Californians talk seriously about the future, they inevitably focus on "Blade Runner," the 1982 cult movie that made a star of its director Ridley Scott. It depicts the future of the Golden State as a civil liberties catastrophe where "replicants" (synthetic people) are mass produced as slaves, assassins and prostitutes. The replicants have disappeared from the discussion in real-world California, which tends to focus on the overall civic disaster depicted in the film.

The pollution is horrendous. The rich have withdrawn into fortress-style towers. The avenues teem with unruly, eccentrically dressed immigrants who speak a rough street language instead of English. References to these scenes show up everywhere, from books about politics to civic-planning documents like "L.A. 2000," a look at the future commissioned by Tom Bradley, when he was mayor of the city in the 1980's. The report warned that the region might deteriorate into a scene from "Blade Runner": a featureless sprawl seething with class and ethnic hostilities. In "A California State of Mind," the public-opinion analyst Mark Baldassare writes that Californians who were asked about the future "presented an image more like a nightmare than a utopia" — descriptions that recalled a certain science-fiction movie.

"Blade Runner" exploits two primordial California fears. It depicts the state becoming part of an undifferentiated sprawl. It also plays into the fears of those Californians who think that the state will someday be dominated by immigrants who usurp the national language. Disquiet about the rising immigrant tide has been an undercurrent in California politics for at least 30 years. It was this sentiment that energized the ballot initiatives that outlawed affirmative action in public universities and bilingual education in public schools.

Fear of Blade Runnerization and the belief that the affluent should spend their tax dollars only on themselves have generated a pattern of civic secession. Wealthy and middle-class Californians have increasingly withdrawn into gated communities that thrive while the older, poorer counties they have fled struggle along on a diminished tax base. The people in the new, homogenous communities tend to be extreme localists who drop out of the broader civic life. When they do engage statewide politics, they tend to do it with ballot initiatives that slash tax revenues, hamstring the Legislature and generally cut the civic ties that bind citizens in one place to those at the far end of the state.

This secessionist impulse is as old as California. Proposals for breaking up the state have surfaced and resurfaced like clockwork but have mainly gone nowhere. The secessionists discovered a powerful tool with the passage of Proposition 13, which fueled the tax revolt when it capped property taxes in 1978. Proposition 13 was a secessionary act by homeowners and corporate landowners who were essentially saying that they wished to withdraw from the traditional system in which affluent citizens underwrite schools, social services and infrastructure used by the poor and working class.

Proposition-style campaigns proved the perfect tool for affluent communities to break off from older, poorer counties — taking with them revenue-producing malls and businesses. The breakaway communities further impoverished the counties they left behind by expanding into land the counties had set aside for revenue-generating development that was all the more crucial after Proposition 13 made it nearly impossible to raise taxes. As the California writer Peter Schrag noted in "Paradise Lost," the new cities used planning and zoning authority to "keep poor and low-income housing out."

More than 60 communities have broken away since the 1970's. Many more attempted to do so. The Legislature slowed the defections by requiring that incorporations be revenue neutral, but the urge to secede continues, most notably in the San Fernando Valley, which is seeking to leave Los Angeles, taking with it a huge chunk of the city's population.

California's response to the pessimistic future in "Blade Runner" is a clear indication of what Californians fear and what might be in store for the rest of us if the appetite for secession spreads across the country. Bear in mind, however, that the breakaway communities in California have deepened the civic problems they hoped to flee. The barriers they erect destroy the ebb and flow through which newcomers have historically become part of the mainstream and moved into the middle class. The fortress-style villages — with affluent whites shut up inside and immigrants outside the gates — are hastening the development of the science-fiction scenario that terrified Californians in the first place.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company