The Irish Republican Socialist party and Sinn Fein still dream of a unified Irish republic. The Catalan Solidarity for Independence coalition would see the Estelada flag raised over an independent Estat Català, and there are independence-minded movements as far-flung as the western Sahara. The Uhuru Movement is a kind of separatist movement standing on its head, looking to transcend national borders (with their colonial histories) and unite African people in a single African identity. The United States has the Texas Nationalist Movement hoping to restore the Republic of Texas, and somewhere out there is a very committed fellow who believes himself to be the rightful king of Hawaii. There is a more plausible movement for an independent Puerto Rico and a much less plausible movement for an independent California. All of these have something in common.
The movement for Californian independence expects to have an initiative on the 2018 ballot, which would in turn lead to a 2019 referendum. The organizers of the “Yes California” campaign say that winning the referendum would be only the first step in the long and complex process of establishing a free and independent California, finally liberated from the grasp of Washington and, especially, of the military-industrial complex. “Peace and Security” is, in fact, Exhibit A in the case for Calexit, and the organizers complain that the U.S. government “spends more on its military than the next several countries combined. Not only is California forced to subsidize this massive military budget with our taxes, but Californians are sent off to fight in wars that often do more to perpetuate terrorism than to abate it. The only reason terrorists might want to attack us is because we are part of the United States and are guilty by association.”
If that sounds like it could have been written by Ron Paul or some lonely disciple of Murray Rothbard, that is no accident: The leadership of the California-independence movement has a distinctly paleo smell about it.
“When I talk to people about California independence, they always say: ‘Well, what would you do if China invades?’” says Yes California president Louis Marinelli from his home in . . . Yekaterinburg, formerly Sverdlovsk (city motto: Don’t call us Siberia), an industrial center on the edge of the Ural Mountains in Russia. “Seriously,” he asks, “when’s the last time China invaded another country?” I mention the obvious ones: Tibet, India, and the Soviet Union. There’s Vietnam and Korea. Marinelli is a young man; perhaps much of this seems like ancient history to him. It does not to the Indians, or the Russians, or the Vietnamese, or many others. “No, I mean: When’s the last time China crossed an ocean to invade another country?” he clarifies. “Only the United States does that.”
The American war machine must surely be of some intense concern to California’s would-be Jefferson Davis, inasmuch as there is no legal or constitutional process for a state’s separating from the Union, a question that was settled definitively if not in court then just outside the courthouse at Appomattox.
Marinelli comes from the West Coast of New York, the part of California on the shores of Lake Erie that is known as Buffalo. He says that California is a land of immigrants, and he is proud to think of himself as one of them. He is a relatively recent arrival, having moved to San Diego in 2006, following stints in Ohio, Iowa, and Russia, where he studied in St. Petersburg and where he currently teaches English at a language institute. He believes that Californians are a culturally distinct people who simply live and think differently from the people of the other 49 states. It does not seem to have occurred to him that this represents the California that exists between San Diego and San Francisco west of Interstate 5. I ask him whether he believes that people in Baker and Afton really are part of a single culture that includes the people in the Bay Area but excludes nearby Searchlight, Nev., and Bullhead City, Ariz. He does not quite seem to know where Baker or Afton is, but speaks vaguely about “the interior.” Sure, it is different, but “we’re all West Coast people,” he says. People from Calada, Calif., are West Coast people in the sense that people in Las Vegas are West Coast people, residing as they do in the Pacific Time Zone. But the folks in Calada are a lot closer to St. George, Utah, than they are to San Diego.
Perhaps we can chalk this up to the fact that Marinelli’s immersion in Californian culture is fairly recent. He has been involved in politics and public affairs for some time, most prominently at the National Organization for Marriage, working against gay marriage “as if it were a disease,” as he put it. After boasting of being “the one behind the 2010 Summer for Marriage Tour,” he quit NOM in a sort of dramatic fashion, repudiating his previous work, apologizing for it, and publicly declaring his support for same-sex marriage, only to be mocked by New York magazine as a confused young man going through a “homophobic strategist for an anti-gay marriage activist organization phase.” He is a Trump voter, albeit one who voted for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary, which he dismisses as — the inevitable word — “rigged.”
“I couldn’t vote for Hillary,” he says. “She was the anointed candidate from the get-go. It’s like we’re supposed to have affirmative action in the White House now. We have to have an African-American president just because, and a woman president just because, and every demographic just because.” Mrs. Clinton won nearly twice as many votes in California as Trump did. Marinelli goes on to cite the Republicans’ recent failure to repeal the Affordable Care Act and “gridlock” in Washington as evidence that California would be better governed by Californians. California is in fact one of the states where residents on balance think themselves better off with the Affordable Care Act than without it, according to a Hoover Institution poll. Which is to say, the leader of the California-independence movement is politically at odds, deeply so, with the great majority of Californians.
On the up side, the great majority of Californians haven’t heard of him.
‘I suppose it has a certain romantic appeal,” says Judith Montgomery, a Bay Area math teacher who, like many Californians, is aware that there is a vote coming on a quixotic independence campaign but finds the notion impossible to take seriously. She mentions Ecotopia, Ernest Callenbach’s influential 1975 novel about a different version of California secession, one in which the state joins with Oregon and Washington to form a new “stable-state” nation based on environmental principles, which in 1975 apparently included Bhutanese-style isolation and autarky — the novel’s premise is that the green utopia is receiving its first American visitor in 20 years. “Ecotopia was my favorite book when I was 21,” she says. “I’m in my sixties now, and the world doesn’t work like that.”
The secession talk, she says, is a waste of time and — more objectionable, in her view — a waste of money that might be better used elsewhere. She insists that she’s “not the best-informed person,” but her concerns are the concerns of people who are paying attention, e.g., California’s grossly wasteful duplication of administrative jobs in education, something Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger promised to address but failed to deliver on. That’s the stuff out of which actual governance is made, and it isn’t very exciting.
Redrawing the map is exciting. It is so exciting that Yes California not only isn’t the only secessionist movement under way in the United States, it isn’t even the only active campaign to redraw the map in California. Former UK Independence party leader Nigel Farage, of all people, is involved in a project to split the state into a western and an eastern California, liberating the more conservative and agrarian half of the state from the half of the state where the money and the people are. And there is the longstanding dream of Jefferson, a proposed state that would strip away several of California’s northernmost counties (the proposed capital is Yreka) and some of southern Oregon’s to form a new state — one with a very high regard for the Tenth Amendment.
They hotly dispute any comparison to Yes California — “We want to add a star to the flag, not take one away!” insists Jefferson supporter Terry Rapoza — but there is at bottom a set of commonalities: the sense that the ordinary democratic institutions as currently configured are insufficient for the times; the feeling that some people are effectively unrepresented, a relatively small group of broadly like-minded people who form only a few drops in the vast sea of American democracy; the belief that radical action oriented toward separation is required. “I don’t want to do this,” says Rapoza. “Show me a way not to do this.” He is in regular touch with his state senator and other California elected officials, and says his message for them is: “Help us to help you help us.”
But Rapoza is pessimistic about the chances of California’s Democratic majority — “the monoparty,” he calls it — getting serious about things like the rule of law and fiscal responsibility. He recites the familiar litany: high taxes and fees that contrast dramatically with crumbling roads and infrastructure — the Oroville-dam emergency seems to have opened a great many eyes — poor schools, unfunded pension liabilities, crime, sanctuary cities that encourage illegal immigration. “We have one senator. Los Angeles has eleven. Who wins that football game?” Rapoza asks. He takes a moment to reconsider the metaphor. “Maybe if you had Tom Brady.”
Like the leadership of Yes California, the 21 counties that would form the State of Jefferson went overwhelmingly for Trump. Mrs. Clinton pounded Trump in California and reduced him nearly to third-party numbers in places such as San Francisco, but Trump outperformed her in the Jefferson counties by an even larger margin than the one she enjoyed in California as a whole. The Jefferson activists are old-fashioned patriots who sound like tea-party guys: Tenth Amendment, high taxes, too much debt, too much regulation, too much welfare spending on too many illegal immigrants. Yes California’s Louis Marinelli has a pretty right-wing outlook and history, albeit one that is more Robert A. Taft than Ronald Reagan. What’s funny is that his Calexit campaign wasn’t doing very much until something happened that almost nobody in California was expecting. Marinelli cast a protest vote for Donald Trump, but the guy turned around and won.
Suddenly, secession started to sound more promising not to paleo-libertarian Californians hiding out in Big Sur cabins but to ordinary, progressive, Democratic-voting Californians of the familiar variety. Shervin Pishevar, a big-money tech investor with a hand in everything from Uber to Hyperloop, declared himself a California separatist after Trump was elected and said he was “funding a legitimate campaign for California to become its own nation.” Other Silicon Valley figures such as venture capitalist Jason Calacanis joined in. And Marinelli’s phone started ringing.
“We have thousands of people literally waiting for us to even get the opportunity to contact them by phone,” Marinelli says. “There are 60 chapters, and each has a chapter leader. We have 8,000 registered volunteers.” He says he received more than 17,000 e-mails in November and December following the election. “Some of them are hate mail, but a lot are people who want to help.”
He is getting some help — from the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia, which is, depending on whom you ask, either a group that enjoys some financial backing from the Kremlin or an outright Kremlin front. It provides Marinelli with office space in Moscow, where he has opened a kind of California embassy, a cultural center whose most recent exhibition was on civil rights. (Short version: California good, United States bad.) It provided travel expenses for those far-flung separatists from around the world to attend the conference it organized in Moscow, although the King of Hawaii was unable to attend in person and sent video greetings. Marinelli says he supports the Texas Nationalist Movement and others who attended the event in Moscow. And he scoffs at the notion that the Kremlin might be attempting to use him and his daft little crusade for its own ends. “Meddling in other countries’ elections is the sort of thing the United States does,” he says. His anti-Americanism is deep and it is reflexive. He says it would be “hypocrisy” for Americans to complain about Moscow’s meddling in the internal affairs of other countries. I ask him to consider that even if it were hypocritical, that would not make it untrue. He responds as subtly as people who believe as he believes always respond. “The United States supported the Taliban.”
His Russian friends and allies share his belief that the United States should not be in a position of “dominating the world,” he says, and adds that they share his belief in the self-determination of peoples. That would come as news to, among many others, Rafis Kashapov, a Tatar dissident imprisoned for criticizing Moscow’s annexation of Crimea. He was found guilty of advocating separatism — which of course is illegal in Russia. He did not join Marinelli and the others at the Moscow Ritz-Carlton.
The Russian oligarchs are awash with money and in thrall to a kind of atavistic nationalism, and they have a lot of cash to throw around at things like separatist movements in California or Spain or Ireland or any other place they think they might wrong-foot the West, however slightly. And where the West comes to an end on the sunny beaches of the Pacific, they have an ally. At least when he’s visiting from the edge of Siberia.