At Least California Feels Good About Itself

People often ask when California, once a rock-solid red state on the presidential level that actually elected Republican senators within living memory, went blue in the face and turned crazy. A favored narrative is that it was the 1994 election when Gov. Pete Wilson embraced Proposition 187, the anti-illegal immigration ballot initiative, which supposedly alienated the state’s growing Hispanic population from Republicans. I’ve always thought this narrative too simple if not incorrect. First, Prop. 187 won handily (and was later struck down in federal court, naturally), so the idea was hardly unpopular. Second, this overlooks the fact that Bill Clinton had already flipped the state in the 1992 election. In fact you can begin to see the erosion of Republican strength in the state as early as the 1988 election, where George H.W. Bush’s margin of victory in California was a lot smaller than in previous presidential cycles. (And recall that Oregon and Washington, formerly lean-Republican states, went Democratic in 1988 and have stayed ever since.)

But maybe there’s another signal moment. I missed this terrific article from, of all places, The Guardian last summer about one of California’s goofier moments from the 1980s—the  state’s “self-esteem” task force. If you want to understand the origin and pathology of the “every kid gets a trophy” mentality, it is useful to revisit this lark:

How did we get here? To answer that, you have to go back to 1986 and the work of an eccentric and powerful California politician, John “Vasco” Vasconcellos. That year, the Democrat Vasconcellos managed to persuade a deeply sceptical Republican state governor to fund a three-year task force to explore the value of self-esteem. Vasco was convinced that low self-esteem was the source of a huge array of social issues, including unemployment, educational failure, child abuse, domestic violence, homelessness and gang warfare. He became convinced that raising the population’s self-esteem would act as a “social vaccine”, saving the state billions.

But Vasco’s plan backfired spectacularly, with the fallout lasting to this day. I spent a year trying to find out why – and discovered that there was, at the heart of his project, a lie.

Now, here I must pause to note that I debated Vasco once, on the subject of campaign finance reform, where he held the conventional liberal view that money in politics is bad and should be banned, and that we should have public financing for election campaigns instead. Personally, I rather like the fact that the self-esteem of politicians is dented by the necessity of raising money. Anyway:

Vasco’s team began hearing testimony from people up and down California. They heard from an LA deputy sheriff who toured schools, attempting to reduce drug use by telling pupils, “You are special. You are a wonderful individual.” They heard from masked members of the Crips, who blamed their violent criminality on low self-esteem. One school principal recommended having elementary pupils increase their self-importance by doing evaluations on their teachers. A woman called Helice Bridges explained how she’d dedicated her life to distributing hundreds of thousands of blue ribbons that read Who I Am Makes A Difference. . .

At 7.30pm on 8 September 1988, Vasco met the scientists at El Rancho Inn in Millbrae, just outside San Francisco, to hear the results. Everything hinged on Dr Neil Smelser, an emeritus professor of sociology who had coordinated the work, leading a team who reviewed all the existing research on self-esteem. And the news was good: four months later, in January, the task force issued a newsletter: “In the words of Smelser, ‘The correlational findings are very positive and compelling.’” . . .

Four months after the launch of Toward A State Of Esteem, the papers were reporting that self-esteem was “sweeping through California’s public schools”, with 86% of the state’s elementary school districts and 83% of high school districts implementing self-esteem programmes. In Sacramento, students began meeting twice a week to decide how to discipline other students; in Simi Valley, kids were taught, “It doesn’t matter what you do, but who you are.” Political leaders from Arkansas to Hawaii to Mississippi began considering their own task forces.

As the months became years, the self-love movement spread. Defendants in drug trials were rewarded with special key chains for appearing in court, while those who completed treatment were given applause and doughnuts. Children were awarded sports trophies just for turning up; a Massachusetts school district ordered children in gym classes to skip without actual ropes lest they suffer the self-esteem catastrophe of tripping. Meanwhile, police in Michigan seeking a serial rapist instructed the public to look out for a thirtysomething male with medium build and “low self-esteem”.

The credibility of Vasco’s task force turned largely on a single fact: that, in 1988, the esteemed professors of the University of California had analysed the data and confirmed his hunch. The only problem was, they hadn’t. When I tracked down one renegade task force member, he described what happened as “a fucking lie”. And Vasco was behind it.

The rest of this long article, which is an excerpt from a book, goes through the author’s researches into how the actual social science that reported equivocal findings about self-esteem was suppressed or altered for political reasons:

[Smelser] told me the university got involved in the first place only because Vasco was in charge of its budget. “The pressure [from Vasco] was indirect. He didn’t say, ‘I’m going to cut your budget if you don’t do it.’ But, ‘Wouldn’t it be a good idea if the university could devote some of its resources to this problem?’” It turned out that Smelser wasn’t at all surprised about their dubious treatment of the data. “The task force would welcome all kinds of good news and either ignore or deny bad news,” he said. “I found this was a quasi-religious movement, and that’s the sort of thing that happens in those dynamics.”

Sounds a lot like another current scientific controversy, right down to the “quasi-religious” character of it, doesn’t it? Funny how that works when you mix up politics, government funding, and science.

Meanwhile. . . This is a real photo. Some merry pranksters have posted the blue signs at a few state border crossings.