Cal-Gone: Seceding from the U.S. Is a Bad Idea

Although the appeal of independence may only grow, CalExit has drawbacks.

Having evaded death for 30 days, President Trump has officially lasted in office longer than William Henry Harrison did. But after an epically terrible press conference, a failed Muslim ban, a poly-tentacled scandal involving Russian meddling, and meager legislative output, his approval rating has begun to crater. As we’re locked into a four-year term under an incompetent fascist who may not actually be able to read, some sort of permanent American decline appears irreversible.

Yet California, the world’s sixth-largest economy, is booming economically and culturally. Since we can’t clamor for a devolved parliament of our own, like Scotland or Wales did, the emotional appeal of leaving an ailing America behind and becoming the Republic of California may grow. But while not as silly as the proposal to cleave California into six states, CalExit is a really bad idea.

Above all else, it’s a non-starter, politically speaking. It’s dishonest to say the Civil War was primarily fought over anything but slavery, but by preserving the Union, Abraham Lincoln answered the question of a state’s right to secede pretty dispositively. That answer was no. We are all in this together. California is as stuck with Alabama as Alabama is with California — and you know the Trump administration would consider even the stirrings of secession an act of war.

But let’s assume Trump does something truly terrifying — a war with North Korea leading to a global recession, say — and the concept continues to gain momentum. Would an independent California survive intact? Probably not. You can’t argue on the basis of a right to self-determination that a state can secede from the nation but a county can’t secede from that state. And while Northern versus Southern California makes for an easy cultural divide, the more salient separation might be coastal versus inland.

With a few exceptions, like hippie- and resort-filled Nevada County, blue California is urbanized, affluent, multiracial, and progressive. Even notoriously conservative Orange County backed Hillary Clinton. But would rural, Trump-supporting counties like Kern (where Bakersfield is) or Mariposa (home to Yosemite Valley) necessarily join us? The 24 California counties that voted for Trump over Hillary only have a little more than 3 million residents, but they comprise nearly half the state’s total area and, worse, virtually all of the Sierra snowpack. Some might merge with southern Oregon into the fabled State of Jefferson, but as they’re not contiguous, the resulting borders would be messy. Destabilization could invite further chaos: Would cosmopolitan Clark County, Nevada, home to Las Vegas and two-thirds of that otherwise staunchly conservative state’s population, throw its lot in with California? Could Vermont, briefly an independent republic of its own, secede as well?

There are also thorny questions about the mechanics of our new nation. Would Gov. Jerry Brown automatically become president of the California Republic, with the state legislature suddenly a congress of its own? Would Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Kamala Harris be expected to simply relinquish their now-abolished offices and retire? Would all California residents forfeit their U.S. citizenship and, with it, the right to travel freely (or live and work) within the remaining 49 states? Would California and the United States be peaceable neighbors or eye one another suspiciously?

The exit of the most populous state would also screw over rump America pretty badly. Take the House of Representatives, for instance. California has 53 seats, of which 39 are held by Democrats and 14 by Republicans. Remove them, and the GOP majority goes from a daunting 45 seats (238-193) to an insurmountable 70 (224-154). Even if Congress reallocates the vacancies to other states, that’s still guaranteeing a permanent Republican majority far into the future. Same goes for our 55 electoral votes, an absolutely indispensable chunk of any Democrat’s path to the White House. The United States would be an unchecked rogue superpower with the politics of Oklahoma, more or less forever. California might benefit from a brain drain, but an exodus of freaked-out American liberals would further impoverish their former homeland.

A more sensible alternative to CalExit might be Greater Cascadia, a coastal autonomous zone connecting the Bay Area to Vancouver, or possibly stretching up the coast from San Diego-Tijuana to Juneau. And if we want to be true visionaries looking to forms of governance after the decline of the nation-state, we should create a sustainable confederation of socialist bioregional heterotopias connected by high-speed rail. It would be like carbon-neutral student housing at UC Santa Cruz, but with plenty of Delta smelt and coast redwoods, and everyone would wear unisex silver lamé apparel. The biggest downside? To visit New York City, the Grand Canyon, or Dollywood, you’d first need to get a visa at the American consulate in the Marina.

Peter Lawrence Kane is SF Weekly’s arts and culture editor.

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