California still wields enormous clout and its trendsetting may not be over. Arnold Schwarzenegger, for example, may offer a model for reviving a politics that bridges deep divides.
Yet Starr now sees two reasons why post-millennial California does not play as pivotal a trend-setting role that it once did. One is a burgeoning US monoculture. The other is the rising sophistication of other American regions from the South to the Midwest. "Whatever California has contributed to other American regions in ideas and styles - from the environment, to fashion, to cuisine - it has done," says Starr. "In a very big sense, the battle is over. The country has been California-ized."
He says the state is still often on the cutting edge of trends, but has been increasingly marginalized by a national life that no longer embraces its regional diversity as it once did. "Now there is a narrowing of the national bandwidth, as fewer people and institutions are interpreting the country as a whole and regions have become the center of their own universes."
With a Harvard doctorate in philosophy, Starr decided in the late 1960s to chronicle California as "an essential and compelling component of the larger American experience." After writing six books on the state through 1950, in 1991 he was commissioned by Alfred Knopf editor Bruce Harris to fast-forward to write on the 1990s. Soon Starr was also state librarian, appointed for a decade by Gov. Pete Wilson in 1994.
"Mr. Harris used to come out and watch the sunset over boats at Marina Del Ray, or the smoky mountains in Santa Barbara, the fog over the Golden Gate Bridge, or groves of Redwoods," recalls Starr. "So I think he wanted a Sunset Magazine view of the state. But when I started writing, I came up with fires, floods, earthquakes, riots, gang warfare ... when I finished I told him this may not be book you commissioned, but it is the only one I could have written."
Indeed, as early as 1989 (Newsweek) and 1991 (Time), magazines did cover stories on the California dream-become-nightmare. They detailed disillusionment regarding sprawl, budget deficits, crime, smog, and traffic. And that was before widespread drought, two major earthquakes, and racial strife after the Rodney King beating and O.J. Simpson murder trial.