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‘Calexit’ May Be A Long Way Off, But Balkanization Won’t Be

Gov. Newsom's nation state is moving toward some kind of independence and the rest of the country should be willing to let it go.

Every American Governor thinks his or her state is special, but only California Governor Gavin Newsom regularly refers to his as a nation-state.”

 The coronavirus pandemic has provided a high-profile stage for Newsom to play out his ambitions. He was the first governor in the country to issue a statewide lockdown. Together with Oregon Governor Kate Brown, he became the first to issue an official “roadmap” for ending it. Joining Brown and Washington Governor Jay Inslee, Newsom also announced his intention to create a coordinated regional plan for a phased return to normal social and economic life all along the west coast.

While media fanfare around the roadmap has outpaced the plan itself, California is one of only a handful of states beginning to think practically about how to enter ‘phase 2’ of the coronavirus pandemic—the time after the harsh lockdowns of ‘phase 1’ but before ‘phase 3’ normality. This has put Newsom in particular on a collision course with President Trump over who has the authority―and who will take the political credit―for making America work again.

The California roadmap is the latest in a long line of policies practically and symbolically distancing the Golden State from the rest of the country. California has long been the only state granted the right to maintain its own auto emissions standards. Since 2017 it has prevented state employees from traveling on official business to other states that, in the evaluation of its Attorney General, maintain legal “discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.” California is a self-declared “sanctuary state” limiting the degree to which state and local law enforcement may cooperate with federal immigration officials. In 2019 it began covering certain illegal immigrants in its state Medicaid program, and this year created a state-based coronavirus relief fund specifically for residents who are in the country unlawfully.

There is no doubt that California is both very peculiar and very large. Yet neither quality lends it the status of a nation, nor does it make California a state in the international legal sense of the term. Nonetheless one day it could become so, and the coronavirus pandemic is creating novel opportunities for California to travel down just such a path.

The state already has the political infrastructure to begin entertaining independence. In 2015 a set of quixotic activists formed the California National Party dedicated to the proposition that Californians deserve their own country. The next year a parallel organization, Yes California, formed to support an independence referendum for the state. Both the California National Party and Yes California are self-consciously modeled after the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the organization Yes Scotland that spearheaded the campaign for Scottish independence in 2014. 

Like their California emulators, the SNP was once little more than a fringe player in Scottish politics and for decades Scottish independence was considered a crackpot idea. All that changed in the 1980s and 1990s under eighteen consecutive years of Conservative Party rule in the United Kingdom. While England voted for Margaret Thatcher and her successor John Major, Scotland kept voting Labour. The partisan divide between the two countries grew so large that by the end of this long Tory era in 1997, not a single Conservative Member of Parliament remained in Scotland. As SNP members are continually fond of saying—both back then and under David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson―Scotland repeatedly got governments it didn’t vote for. In the eyes of Scottish nationalists, the only way out is secession.

Californians can make a similar appeal. The state’s Electoral College votes haven’t gone to a Republican in over thirty years. Republicans haven’t controlled a house of the California state legislature in twenty-four years and there hasn’t been a single Republican elected to statewide office in California in ten years. Yet since 2000 Republicans have controlled the Presidency and the U.S. Senate 60 percent of the time and the U.S. House of Representatives 70 percent of the time. For eight of the past twenty years there has even been a Republican trifecta—simultaneous control of the White House and both houses of Congress. While Donald Trump won 46 percent of the national popular vote in 2016, he received a mere 32 percent in California, the third lowest proportion of any state in the country. The day after the election #Calexit became a leading social media hashtag. When campaigning for governor in 2018, Gavin Newsom told voters they were selecting the next “head of the resistance” to the President.

Four years of the Trump presidency have made many Californians grind their teeth, but the state is still far from taking secession seriously. Yes California failed in both its 2017 and 2018 signature drives, and the California National Party is still not a “qualified” political party granted automatic ballot placement. A Trump victory in November, however, could change the state’s mood. Yes California is hoping as much. Its current leader predicts “If Trump is re-elected in 2020 … California will push for secession.” Its former president even voted for Trump in 2016 as a kind of Leninist strategy to heighten the contradictions between California and the rest of the country.

Still, the barriers to a second Bear Flag Revolt are formidable and, contrary to the hopes of the California National Party and Yes California, there are far fewer meaningful parallels between Scotland and California than at first glance. Unlike the United Kingdom, the United States is a federal republic in which the states are powerful and semi-sovereign entities able to exercise considerable autonomy from the national government. If California doesn’t like federal policy, it can (and often already does) follow its own. Also unlike the UK, the U.S. has a presidential system with an independent legislature. In the U.S. this more often than not produces divided government and tempers fears of an unwelcome president. Finally the Twenty-Second Amendment ensures Trump will serve no more than eight years as president, unlike Margaret Thatcher’s eleven-and-a-half as Prime Minister of a deeply antagonistic Scotland.

Most importantly, however, California lacks the makings of a real nation. While the traditional definition of a nation highlights shared race, religion and language, none of these distinguish contemporary Scotland from the rest of the United Kingdom. What makes Scotland a nation is its historical and contemporary sense of self. Scots have a strong identity founded upon a 900-year history as an independent kingdom followed by 300 years as a legally distinct part of the United Kingdom. California’s life as an independent republic lasted less than a month and prior to the gold rush barely 7000 Spanish, Mexican or American settlers lived in the state’s present-day borders. 

Meanwhile, Scotland’s deep historical memory is supported by a remarkably stable population. At its most recent census, 83 percent of the residents of Scotland were born there (a higher total than any U.S. state) while 93 percent were born in the United Kingdom (the same percentage of foreign-born as Nebraska). California’s lack of historical roots is exacerbated by the ephemeral nature of its current population. Only 54 percent of its residents were born in the state while just 72 percent were born in the U.S. In 2018, over 2 percent of the California population had lived in the state less than a year. A territory full of born-and-bred natives with local lineages going back centuries might fight for independence. A place full of transients constantly on the lookout for the next ticket in or out will not.

But if independence isn’t on California’s horizon, a decentralization of political power to the states might be. The current public squabble over the authority to enter and manage ‘phase 2’ of the pandemic is the tip of the spear. Concern over a second wave of the pandemic exacerbated by movement between states with different lockdown dates and practices will tempt governors to make their borders more than simple lines on a map. The country’s considerable size and diversity is the perfect premise for a balkanization of ‘phase 2’ practices lasting a year or more. Differing state capacities and political values will govern different balances between privacy and public health through any possible regime of ‘test and trace’.

As America’s largest state, California is well positioned to ride the federalist wave. But its strong ideological commitment to open borders and maximal social diversity will make a decentralized America a difficult one to manage. While Governor Newsom likes to speak of California “exporting” its excess medical supplies to other states, its less touted and much more significant export is its people. In 2018 nearly 700,000 California residents, almost 2 percent of the state’s population, left for other parts of the country while an untold number more moved abroad. California is a popular staging ground for immigrants to gain a foothold in America and then move onward to more attractive states such as Texas, Arizona, and Nevada. 

A Trump victory in November would obviously put California at sharp odds with much of the rest of the country’s turn to immigration restriction and border enforcement. In response Californians could begin demanding their own autonomous immigration policy, much as Scotland now seeks and Quebec already has. To ensure California’s separate system doesn’t become the tail that wags the larger national immigration dog, California residency requirements for immigrants would have to be imposed. Temporary phase 2 restrictions on internal mobility could easily generate the infrastructure for a more permanent system to serve an asymmetrically devolved immigration regime.

California has already begun to erase the distinction between resident and citizen. It allows non-citizens (both legal and illegal residents) to vote in some local elections, to serve on state government boards and committees, and to receive state-based coronavirus relief funds. A California with its own immigration policy on top of its own nascent sense of ‘residentship’ would be a California that has taken a real step toward independence. And much like the plurality of English voters now looking at Scotland’s continuing demands for independence, the rest of the United States could be perfectly willing to let such a California go.

Darel E. Paul is a professor of political science at Williams College. His latest book is From Tolerance to Equality: How Elites Brought America to Same-Sex Marriage (Baylor University Press, 2018).