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The Third World Of California

`CALIFORNIA used to be a bellwether for the rest of the country,'' says Mervin Field, dean of the state's pollsters. But if it says less about America's future, it still says much about the country's present. California is America's leading third-world state, where demographics has overtaken politics.

California whites represent some 58 or 59 percent of the population; on election day, however, whites account for 85 percent of the vote. Of the nonwhite sector, three fourths are Hispanic and Asian. Efforts to enroll minority voters are stymied by language, illegal status, and registration laws. Some 200,000 more new students appear at the school doors each year; bilingual instruction in Los Angeles County schools runs to over 80 languages.

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Many newcomers hang back within enclaves, seeking work but not learning English. And yet night schools for English as a second language run literally around the clock.

Economic forces are driving a wedge between the classes. Million-dollar homes are under construction along the canals of Venice, by the ocean. So-called affordable housing development is diverted inland to the desert scrim.

Los Angeles is losing dominance as urban sprawl creeps toward the Mexican baja, where demographers picture the American Pacific coast's largest city arising early in the next century.

With a love-hate restlessness, the Mexican-American population shifts northward and back south again.

Jerry Brown, the former governor who now heads the state Democratic Party organization, takes no great note of the Hispanic and Asian tide. He says of immigrants: ``They've been coming since the Gold Rush.''

He and Field agree that the state's political structures are losing relevance before the state's human and economic dynamics. ``The parties are quasi-public utilities,'' Brown observes. ``The source of money to register people to vote gets smaller, but the number of people to register gets larger.'' The legislature is captured by special interests, he says. Ballot initiatives, bafflingly worded, intimidate voters.

Field picks up the same theme. ``Elections are not deciding things any more,'' he says. Ballot issues include environment themes with their own shorthand: ``big green vs. big brown,'' ``big stump vs. forests forever.''

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To make elections competitive again, Brown would: 1) Give the parties five hours' television time to allocate as they see fit, 2) extend franking privileges to challengers equal to those of incumbents for the previous two years, and 3) give tax credits for registration.

The governor's race between Democrat Dianne Feinstein and Republican Pete Wilson is close. The issue, to Brown, is change. ``What's the new thrust?'' he asks. ``What's the counter to the Reagan ascendancy? That cycle is now exhausting itself. It's harder to go to school, take care of your parents, buy a house, pay for your health.''

Demographic change is skewing California's education system. ``Kids used to have lots of choices here among colleges, community colleges, universities,'' Field says. ``When 30 percent of the rest of the country had a college education, in California it was 10 points higher.'' Not so now.

The Anglo and Hispanic cultures do not so much clash as look past each other. The Hispanic community has its own divisions. Two-thirds of South and Central American immigrants to the US, in addition to Mexicans, seek out California.

To help bridge the continental divide opening between Hispanic and Anglo readerships in southern California, the Los Angeles Times has just bought a half-interest in La Opinion, the Spanish-language daily hungry for cash to finance its growth.

Self-preoccupied, California by turns seems annoyed by its diversity, and indifferent. Its communities are held together less by common values than by the length of commutes. Californians have been withdrawing their interest from world affairs, Field says. At the same time an influx of immigrants is making it more a microcosm of the rest of the have-and-have-not world.

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