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From its inception, the idea of the California dream has served as a potent draw for countless seekers of opportunity, advancement, and personal expression. Public policy scholar Christopher Witko has described this dream, in contrast to the more individualist American dream, as predicated on social goods like “quality schools, lush parks, and good roads, and even less tangible things like respect for civil rights.”1 Indeed, California has long been associated with values like open-mindedness and progress, as well as freedom, creativity, and innovation—all backed by a strong public sphere that recognized the value of government investment in communities, infrastructure, and business.

Still, although the state built a leading public education system and passed a number of bipartisan civil-rights policies in the 1950s and ‘60s, it was also the backdrop for the rise of major conservative figures and ideologies in the decades that followed, such as Barry Goldwater,2 Ronald Reagan, and the beginnings of today’s anti-immigration movement. Today, the enduring reputation of the California dream has perhaps outlasted its reality. The state suffers from some of the highest levels of inequality in the nation and enormous social challenges including a host of racial inequalities3 and urban poverty so extreme that a United Nations expert on housing described it as a “violation of multiple human rights.”4

Perhaps most intriguing, however, is that—despite Californians’ reputation for progressivism—the state’s voters have in recent decades rejected many of the forward-thinking policies to address the state’s social and economic ills.5 This reality is driven by stronger campaigns or argumentation on the part of those who oppose these measures. The default attitudes and beliefs of too many Californians tend to distrust any message that says government or policy can be a force for positive change in their lives. In some cases, even our own messages inadvertently reinforce this distrust when, in seeking to reach voters “where they’re at,” we skirt past uncomfortable subjects that must be confronted if we are to win the long-term fight for equity and justice.

In fact, Californians of all backgrounds share much in common with Americans in general, including a national mythology of individualist achievement, meritocracy, and exceptional self-reliance, resourcefulness, and hard work as what make the country uniquely “great.” Contained within this dominant political narrative is a notion of freedom that has become deeply and increasingly bound up in distrust toward government6 —the unsurprising result of decades of political attacks on the idea of government itself, assaults which often strategically used fears around race and immigration to connect government with “handouts to undeserving minorities.”7

For some groups, particularly people of color or those of other marginalized identities, this distrust toward government is understandably rooted in a deep sense of exclusion and abandonment, the result of lived experiences and real government failures to protect and support out-groups.

Still, we know that if progressives are to win transformative change in the long run, we will not do so by achieving piecemeal policy victories for individual target groups. Rather, victory will be in the shifting of Californians’ dominant narrative about themselves and the kind of society they want, from one rooted in values and beliefs that are individualistic, mistrusting, and cynical, to one grounded in our inherent interconnectedness, shared responsibility to each other, and collective capacity to effect change. 

Movement actors fighting today for a range of economic and racial justice causes must begin to undertake the long-term work of shifting the dominant narrative. Indeed, it is sometimes difficult to convince even those sympathetic to the idea of fighting inequality that more public resources are needed for vulnerable communities. This is due to the reach of the dominant, underlying individualist narrative, as well as a sense of fatalism about the collective ability of those who have so long been denied justice and inclusion to enact their power at the highest levels.

The purpose of this brief is to understand how movement actors can create and put forth new salient strategic narratives that address underlying dominant beliefs while offering an alternative story line that fosters the political and economic victories we want to see. In the pages that follow, we offer a short blueprint for creating a strategic narrative on belonging, relevant for a range of causes or issue areas, with examples from projects by Blueprint for Belonging and our partner networks. A strategic narrative is not meant to be a story for a single campaign, but rather one that will underpin many different activities and tactics for attitude and behavior change in the long term.

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  • 1Christopher Witko, “The California Legislature and the Decline of Majority Rule,” in Remaking California: Reclaiming the Public Good, ed. R. J. Lustig (Berkeley: Heyday, 2014), 60–77.
  • 2Though Goldwater was from Arizona, many see his victory in the 1964 California Republican primary election as having ensured his place as a major force in the trajectory of the party.
  • 3Sarah Bohn, Magnus Lofstrom, and Lynette Ubois, “Racial Disparities Are Widespread in California,” Public Policy Institute of California, December 7, 2020, https://www.ppic.org/blog/racial-disparities-are-widespread-in-california/.
  • 4Greg Rosalsky, “How California Homelessness Became a Crisis,” NPR, June 8, 2021, https://www.npr.org/sections/money/2021/06/08/1003982733/squalor-behind-the-golden-gate-confronting-californias-homelessness-crisis?t=1624455594399.
  • 5Most recently, California voters rejected a measure to reverse a long-standing ban on affirmative action, declined to increase corporate property taxes, and passed a measure to allow ride-sharing companies to avoid classifying drivers as employees.
  • 6“Public Trust in Government: 1958–2021,” Pew Research Center, May 28, 2021, https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2021/05/17/public-trust-in-government-1958-2021/.
  • 7Ian Haney López, Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class (Oxford: New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).