Several weeks ago I wrote a long essay on American polarization, noting that Americans aren’t just divided on politics. There are deep cultural differences that are driving us apart, running from our church-attendance habits, to the neighborhoods we move to, and even to the shows we watch on television. Separate cultures live increasingly separate lives, and they view their ideological and cultural opposites with increasing animosity.
The political answer — to the extent one truly exists — to this alarming trend is a healthy federalism. In other words, states should protect the fundamental constitutional rights of all their citizens at the same time they enact economic, environmental, and social policies consistent with the state’s ideology and values. In short, let Massachusetts be Massachusetts and Tennessee be Tennessee, but only within the bounds of the federal Constitution.
And that brings us to the state of California, which not only is increasing its resistance to the Trump administration but also is increasingly belligerent against other states and increasingly hostile to fundamental constitutional rights. In other words, it’s turning healthy federalism into a “soft secession” (to borrow Jason Willick’s excellent phrase). California is violating fundamental constitutional rights at the same time that it tries to use its economic power to coerce other states to adopt its social policies. To Golden State progressives, California should be California, and Tennessee should be California, too.
Take, for example, California’s ever-expanding “travel bans.” Last week California “restricted publicly funded travel” to Texas, Alabama, Kentucky, and South Dakota. California now restricts travel to eight states, including my home state of Tennessee. Their sins? Enacting robust religious-liberty protections that California deems insufficiently progressive. For example, Tennessee passed a law that protected counselors from counseling or serving a client “as to goals, outcomes, or behaviors that conflict with the sincerely held principles of the counselor or therapist.” Under the law, counselors are required to arrange a referral to another counselor, one who has no conflict. In other words, it’s a win-win. Clients get counseling, and counselors are protected from compelled speech. That’s worth a travel ban?
It is when California progressives believe that every citizen has to bend the knee to the sexual revolution. As I’ve outlined before, California progressives are trying to carve out wholesale exceptions to the First Amendment whenever free speech or religious freedom conflicts with the demands of the abortion industry or extreme LGBT activists. They compel crisis-pregnancy centers to provide information about abortion, they push bills that would require Christian groups to hire and retain employees who abort their children, and their attorney general launches selective prosecutions against pro-life journalists.
And that’s just the tip of the First Amendment iceberg. California progressives are also pushing blacklists of any company that helps to build Trump’s proposed border wall, then–attorney general (now senator) Kamala Harris attempted to impose unlawful disclosure requirements on nonprofits fundraising in California, and the city of Berkeley and California’s flagship state university have effectively ceded control over free speech to violent left-wing protesters, refusing to protect liberty and impose order. There are 50 states, but there aren’t 50 First Amendments.
Californians’ rhetoric is increasingly separatist. Imagine the outcry if a Texas governor had made statements like the one Governor Jerry Brown made after Trump withdrew from the Paris climate pact:
“It is a little bold to talk about the China–California partnership as though we were a separate nation, but we are a separate nation,” Brown said of the state, with nearly 40 million residents and the world’s sixth-largest economy. “We’re a state of mind. I include Silicon Valley, I include the environmental activism, the biotech industry, agriculture. This is a place of great investment in innovation.”
To be clear, if California wants to work within the law to create its own environmental policy or even implement single-payer health care, then that is its constitutional prerogative. I may doubt the wisdom of its progressive policies, but I do not begrudge California citizens the government they choose. If only California’s social-justice warriors felt the same way about the government Tennesseans select.
National unity depends on a certain degree of tolerance for dissent, disagreement, and political diversity.
National unity depends on a certain degree of tolerance for dissent, disagreement, and political diversity. Every meaningful cultural, religious, and political trend is pushing Americans toward greater separation. We’re walling off into ideologically and spiritually homogenous cocoons. Any effort to impose centralized ideological control is doomed to contentious, bitter failure.
Thus, California’s actions are particularly ominous not because the state has any particular influence over Tennessee (in fact, Tennessee legislators have penned a defiant response to California’s travel ban), but because they indicate both an increasing alienation from the rest of the country and a willingness to push through constitutional limits for the sake of “social justice.” California progressives may someday rule Washington, and it is by now abundantly clear that they have little respect for federalism, no respect for dissent, and zero hesitation to use whatever levers of power they control to impose their will.
— David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and an attorney.