Politics & Policy

California’s Soft Secession Accelerates

California AG Xavier Becerra announces a lawsuit against the Trump administration’s border-wall plan at the U.S.-Mexican border, September 20, 2017. (Reuters photo: Mike Blake)
Done correctly, it’s a good thing indeed.

Earlier this week Twitter briefly lit up with news of yet another California progressive excess. The state’s Democratic house majority leader has submitted a bill that imposes criminal penalties on waiters who offer their customers plastic straws. Yes, you read that correctly. Here’s the description, from the legislative counsel’s digest:

This bill would prohibit a food facility, as specified, where food may be consumed on the premises from providing single-use plastic straws to consumers unless requested by the consumer. By creating a new crime and imposing additional enforcement duties on local health agencies, this bill would impose a state-mandated local program.

It’s not worth spending too much time on this absurd bill (and I do mean absurd — Reason investigated and found that the justification for it rests on research conducted by a nine-year old), but it’s a useful segue to a far more significant point. California is in the midst of an experiment in progressive governance and active resistance that is combining to create a simultaneously dangerous and tantalizing experiment in state autonomy.

In other words, California’s progressive government is one part healthy federalism and one part unhealthy separatism. If (and this is a big if) the state can temper its soft secession, California’s progressives may actually — in all their radicalism — show us a path out of our dangerous national polarization.

But first, let’s chronicle what California is doing. Its resistance to the White House is well known. The state government has filed 26 separate lawsuits against the Trump administration. That’s roughly one new complaint every two weeks, with challenges touching at least 17 different subject areas. Moreover, California is now a “sanctuary state” and therefore sharply limits the extent to which its citizens or public entities can voluntarily cooperate with federal immigration authorities. It’s even considered imposing penalties on companies that worked to build a Trump border wall.

In response to President Trump’s decision to pull the United States from the Paris climate accords, California led a coalition of cities and states that vowed to keep American commitments all on their own. It’s also created its own version of a sanctions regime by imposing travel bans on state-funded travel to states that California deems insufficiently LGBT-friendly.

At the same time, California is plowing forward in creating a unique economic and legal environment. It flirted last year with an extraordinarily expensive single-payer health plan, and the issue is likely to come up again, soon. It has its own, comprehensive environmental policy. While I’d fight similar measures were they to come up for a vote in Tennessee, they represent proper examples of federalism in action. A progressive state has a right to implement progressive policies.

But California goes too far. It’s one thing to implement a unique health-care plan or create comprehensive environmental regulations. It’s another thing entirely to try to opt out of the Bill of Rights. Just in the last year alone, we’ve seen California attempt to implement a confiscation program for high-capacity magazines, compel pro-life pregnancy centers to engage in pro-abortion speech, and require the use of preferred pronouns on pain of punishment.

At the same time, only a veto by Governor Jerry Brown prevented the state from requiring a faith-based organization to hire individuals who disagreed with its stance on abortion and sexual morality. The measure would have meant the state directly interfered in its hiring and firing decisions.

To put these actions in perspective, just imagine for a moment the mainstream-media coverage of similar actions in Texas under a hypothetical Hillary Clinton administration. Imagine if Texas passed a law blocking any voluntary cooperation with federal authorities enforcing gun laws, even to the point of threatening to imprison private citizens who wanted to facilitate lawful federal activities. For all too many pundits and politicians, when progressives control the federal government, state autonomy is ominous. When conservatives control, state resistance is heroic.

Go ahead, California, secede from the federal regulatory leviathan. Go your own way on health care, environmental regulations, and economic policy. Build your own bureaucracy.

I have a different view. Go ahead, California, secede from the federal regulatory leviathan. Go your own way on health care, environmental regulations, and economic policy. Build your own bureaucracy. And no, you don’t have to cooperate with federal law-enforcement priorities. If the federal government wants to enforce federal law, it can do so with federal resources. So long as the state doesn’t actively impede the enforcement of constitutionally valid laws, I have no constitutional problem with sanctuary cities or sanctuary states. That’s federalism.

But no, California, you cannot secede from the Bill of Rights. You cannot secede from the Constitution. You cannot “abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.” In other words, craft your own environmental policy, but leave the First Amendment alone. Design your own health-care system, but preserve religious liberty. Revoke your sanctions regime. Other states have their own distinct political and religious cultures.

And that brings us to a critical point. California progressives, understand that the desire for autonomy goes both ways. There will certainly come a time when the balance of national power swings back to the Democrats. Will you preserve for conservative states the same autonomy they coveted during the days of GOP ascendance, or does respect for federalism exist only when it protects the Left?

So much American polarization is due to the fact that, for example, Alabama conservatives reject the notion that Nancy Pelosi should govern their lives, while California progressives have equal disdain for the likes of Ted Cruz. As Americans continue to sort geographically into ideologically homogeneous enclaves, centralized control is less and less rational and ever more destructive. California liberals have the power to build their own progressive paradise. Must they force Tennessee conservatives to transform their own state against their will?

An America that respects state autonomy while protecting civil liberties is a less polarized America. Why? Because you’ve lowered the stakes of national political conflict. You’ve made politics local again.

Simply put, the most significant government decisions, aside from the decision to go to war, shouldn’t be made by the government entity most distant from your life. Thus, part of me wants to see California try single-payer. Part of me is glad that California is telling the federal government to enforce its own laws — but only if those precedents also apply to red states and blue states alike. I would like to see greater state-level conservative experimentation in health care and social welfare. And when a progressive federal government tries to impose its priorities on a conservative state, its governor and legislature should be able to tell the feds to keep to their own work.

This is the promise of federalism. This is the vision of the Founders. But I don’t quite trust yet that Americans fully understand its promise. Too many of us can’t quite give up the will to power or the quest to dominate. Progressives especially seem to be engaged in the federalism of convenience, the federalism of #resistance. I suspect that a President Kamala Harris would seek to impose California values on Texas. Then the cycle of resistance would begin again, this time with the roles reversed.

The bottom line? We’ll do this time and again until Americans re-embrace local control or until our union finally starts to fracture. California’s soft secession can be promising or perilous. No one doubts that our states are different. No one doubts that in many ways those differences are increasing. It’s how we handle that diversity that will decide our nation’s fate.


California Is Seceding from the Constitution

Does the California Model Really Work?

Is California Cracking Up?

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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