California Really Has What It Takes to Secede

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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.

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.

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