Los Angeles — Liberals used to hate secession, the notion that states could leave the Union as they did before the Civil War because they didn’t agree with the policies of the federal government. But with Donald Trump’s election, many California liberals suddenly have warm words for a budding ballot initiative that has just begun collecting signatures in order to place secession, or “Calexit,” on the ballot.
At the height of the tea-party movement, Texas governor Rick Perry merely hinted at the thought that Texas might react to President Obama’s executive overreach by reclaiming its one-time status as an independent republic. He was denounced as something akin to a traitor; critics lamented that he wanted to return Texas to the era of sharecroppers or Jim Crow. Now Dan Schnur, who teaches political communications at the University of Southern California, says “California is the new Texas,” with its elected officials promoting a “virtual secession.” The secessionists plan to take to the legislature, the courts, and the streets to resist Trump’s agenda. Never before have so many prominent Californians gotten into such a reactionary, defensive crouch.
Some of their rhetoric resembles that of the “massive resistance” movement in the 1950s South, which vowed to fight federal intrusion into the right of states to run their own discriminatory elections, segregate public schools, and ignore federal law enforcement. Assembly speaker Anthony Rendon has warned Trump that he better not dare to go after any of the state’s estimated 2 million illegal immigrants: “If you want to get to them, you have to go through us.” Governor Jerry Brown vows to block any attempt to divert California from its radical plan to limit carbon emissions: “We’ve got the scientists. We’ve got the lawyers, and we’re ready to fight.” State attorney general Xavier Bacerra says one of his top priorities is the “resistance” against Washington’s deportation of illegal immigrants, even to the point of paying their legal fees to fight the federales.
On policy after policy, from dramatically higher minimum wages to the nation’s most steeply progressive income tax, California’s leaders are pursuing a 180-degree departure from the priorities of Team Trump. They say this is the perfect time for a breakup, and they cite a new Reuters-Ipsos poll showing that 32 percent of Californians (mostly Democrats) back the idea.
As a Californian, I view the “Calexit” movement with amusement, since there is zero chance that Congress would ever provide enough votes to allow California to leave peacefully, and the alternative exit ramp would involve a modern-day civil war.
During my recent trips back to California, I have often debated with liberals over the idea. I point out that before they sign up for secession, there is a more serious, more tolerant way of giving Californians more choices: Let the sprawling, diverse state divide up into two or more states to ease tensions between farmers and coastal types, defuse the war of ideology between Left and Right, and allow more policy experimentation,
Efforts to divide California into more manageable and homogeneous parts are as old as the Bear Flag that was raised over the state capitol at statehood in 1850. When I was a legislative staffer in Sacramento in 1980, a state assemblyman named Stan Statham had a serious proposal that attracted bipartisan support. He recognized that California’s people (now 40 million) would be better served if its competing constituencies had more in common.
Lots of people have their favorite maps for new states. For decades, the natural dividing line ran due east from the coast, just north of Bakersfield; it emphasized the differences between northern and southern California. My favorite design was for three states: one centered on Los Angeles, one centered on San Francisco, and everyone else in a third state. More recently, in 2009, then GOP assemblyman Bill Maze proposed creating two states: a Coastal California state and an Inland California state. The big population centers of San Francisco and Los Angeles would be in the first, but the inland state would include some large coastal counties such as Orange (home of Disneyland) and San Diego.
The new states would be far more in sync on policy. The coastal state would emphasize environmental values, the “next big thing” economy of Silicon Valley, and the multicultural diversity of L.A. The inland state would have vast water resources, abundant agricultural lands, and its own cutting-edge facilities in sectors ranging from aerospace to data processing.
The two states would provide an escape from the current political conformity of California, which is dominated by public-sector unions and progressive activists.
Politically, the two states would provide an escape from the current political conformity of California, which is dominated by public-sector unions and progressive activists. Take the last governor’s race in 2014. Democrat Jerry Brown won reelection over Republican Neel Kashkari by 60 percent to 40 percent statewide. But in Inland California, they were separated by just a few thousand votes. The two Californias would include a progressive stronghold able to experiment (even more than the state already does) with new “small is beautiful” ideas; next to it would be a politically competitive state with many constituencies that would favor pro-growth policies. Tensions and gridlock under a two-state model would probably be reduced.
Of course, it’s unlikely that California will ever be divided. It’s even more unlikely that it would cut its ties to the rest of the nation and become a separate country. But the debate on both ideas is healthy. To what extent should we let arbitrary political boundaries established many decades ago curb our imagination and prevent us from creative solutions to our problems?