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California Really Has What It Takes to Secede
But is America's largest state ready for the wars that would follow?
With the election of Donald Trump and the backlash to some of his early moves in office, Americans are rediscovering nationalism. But confusion reigns over what American nationalism really is. Does it have to be federalist, for instance? Does it have to be liberal? In one of the great ironies of the political season, these kinds of questions are thrown into sharp relief by the strangest nationalist movement now underway — in California.
Drawing inspiration from breakaway groups in Europe, organizations like the “Yes California” movement and the California National Party want to peaceably, legally transform the West Coast of the United States into a “pragmatic progressive” paradise. From one angle, California nationalism, and this particular expression of it, makes perfect sense. Despite marked divides between its northern and southern halves, the Golden State has always nourished its own identity. That stamp was apparent even when Californians played a leading role in fueling all-American patriotism, from the early days of the space program to the closing days of the Ronald Reagan administration.
But now California’s cultural and political leanings have begun to shift away from most of the rest of the country. At a time when only five states in the union boast both Democratic governors and majorities in the state legislature, California is the last place in America where the political left rules unimpeded over a society and an economy large enough to prosper as a nation. Critics warn that the state’s progressive management has grown paradoxically sclerotic, overseeing a slow-motion public pensions crisis, neglecting infrastructure, and building a budgetary house of cards hostage to fluctuating income tax levels from the resident superrich.
But mores matter even more than money, and most Californians have been more than willing put up with the state’s problems so long as their way of life is protected and perfected. Resistance from a stubborn conservative remnant in the far north and central valley has never been able to halt the libidinous, drug-friendly, welfare-statist juggernaut that is the state’s dominant culture. From climate law to immigration law (or the lack thereof), California’s elected Democrats see themselves rightly as the strongest center of opposition to American conservatives and to Trump alike, and the one with the deepest popular legitimacy.
California secessionists also understand that there are fewer practical hurdles, compared with other parts of the country, to parting ways with the USA. A smaller or more parochial corner of America would never contemplate secession, if only because the achievement of such willful idiosyncrasy would come at the cost of isolation and obscurity. For California, however — approximately the sixth-largest economy in the world — independence wouldn’t necessarily bring economic hardship. Perennial worries about entertainment and tech flight to states dangling incentives might spike in the early days of a new California Republic. But citizens won’t blink at the inevitable higher subsidies lawmakers and a Democratic governor will be quick to offer those anchor industries. And the other pillars of California’s economy — tourism and agriculture — can’t be relocated by skittish investors.
But, even among enthusiasts, there has not been much thought devoted to imagining what exactly a post-secession California would look like. In part, that may be because of a general reluctance to consider what the essence of a nation really is.
Secessionists don’t seem to realize that independence would be just the beginning of the messy political questions. Their laboratory of democracy would be confronted with several immediate experiments. Most American secession movements have been group efforts, from the Confederacy’s wave of departures to New England’s Hartford Convention flirtation with Yankeexit. Theoretically, in late 1860, South Carolinians were prepared to run an independent nation on their own, prompting unionist James Petigru to call the state “too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum.” No one, however, had designs on fragmenting the “Palmetto Republic” into even smaller pieces.
But California is large enough to function as one or several different nations — or one nation made up of, say, six states, in accordance with venture capitalist Tim Draper’s so-called “Six Californias” ballot initiative. There’s Jefferson, the far-northern hotbed of rebellious rural folk who’d probably push Humboldt County’s hippies to seek a statelet of their own; Los Angeles-anchored West California, dependent only on northern water; the greater San Francisco Bay state of Silicon Valley; Central California, a Texas of the Pacific ringed by liberal neighbors; a swath of land with Sacramento at its center called North California; and South California, stretching from LA-adjacent Inland Empire to the desert hinterland and the Mexican border. If Californians did manage to come together behind the difficult task of securing a peaceful and legitimate withdrawal from the union, they’d be forced to confront that abandoning federalism wouldn’t be nearly so easy.
Without doubt, California’s many minority Republicans — assuming they didn’t all flock to Texas — would push at once to formally institutionalize decentralized government. A quick look at November’s county-level electoral map underscores how strong resistance remains in the far north and Central Valley to Democratic policies. Even many conservatives and libertarians in counties that voted for Hillary Clinton, such as traditionally Republican Orange County, would find it hard to endure life under direct rule from Sacramento.
Indeed, California liberals, as soon as they’re unshackled from Washington, could conceivably take a sharp turn toward illiberal left progressivism, pushing for draconian limitations on guns, smoking, speech, and traditional private property rights. Yet doing so would aggravate regional factionalism and stoke reactionary politics on the right. (California gun sales have already gone through the roof.) It’s easy to envision the reasonable middle of politics clearing out as Golden Staters, not always immune to the appeal of cults and fantasies, rushed toward militant extremes.
With no blueprint to borrow from the United States for making states entirely from scratch, Californians would likely have to resort to the initiative process, where their judgment is notoriously questionable, to hammer out how many states, if any, the Second Bear Republic would include and where exactly their borders would be drawn.
In the alternative, of course, they could fight a civil war. It might be, for example, that state-level secessionists in the State of Jefferson — up in the same northerly region that tilted toward Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary and toward Trump in the general election — would prefer to hive off on their own, outside both California and the United States. And some urban enclaves might wonder if the time had finally come to go full city-state. After all, can anyone really imagine President Xavier Becerra sending the Army of California to take back the Principality of Mountain View, street by bloody street?
Such internal enmity, however, is the stuff of foundings — even in the United States, which enjoyed an unprecedented opportunity to establish its own unique society and culture before taking the fateful step of political independence. The question is whether Californians would truly be up for it. Most Californians — especially the most independently minded — see martial vigor and armed vigilance as a hallmark only of the past. The California National Party allows for the necessity of a “small professional military,” but offers a civil corps out for objectors, and plans on sharing defense duties with the armed forces of the United States. Militarized borders with the United States and Mexico would, of course, be anathema for the California electorate. Activists, including some libertarians, would likely seize their chance to encourage the free flow of people and goods.
It’s easy to let your imagination run away with itself. But one thing does seem clear: California secession wouldn’t be a one-way ticket to the one-party progressive utopia some frustrated Democrats seem to dream it could be. On the other hand, in an ever-more-hopelessly polarized America, it could encourage a nationwide embrace of those two quintessentially West Coast ideals — wishful thinking and conscious uncoupling. California Über Alles indeed?
Photo credit: MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images