Either way, California could be the change America wants to see
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In the wake of Donald Trump’s election night win, progressives across the country have struggled to understand how they fit into a large swath of the country that expressly rejects liberal values. Californians seem particularly at odds with red state priorities, as evidenced by the fact that Hillary Clinton’s 2.6 million popular vote lead largely came from the Golden State. As a result, more Californians are seriously considering the option of seceding form the nation, rallying behind the “Calexit” label both on social media and in the street.
Watching #Calexit create a firestorm online reminded me of a book published in 1975 that predicted this very idea. In Ecotopia, Ernest Callenbach tells the tale of a West Coast utopia that secedes from a nation consumed by capitalistic greed. According to Callenbach’s vision, Northern California joins Washington and Oregon in seceding from the United States, essentially writing off Los Angeles as a car-obsessed bubble of heathens. While maybe the car-obsessed thing hasn’t changed, the prevailing attitude of young Los Angelenos has. And, as this last election proved, Orange County dwellers might be more progressive than we thought, switching from red to blue for the first time since the 1930s.
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The book was initially rejected by dozens of publishers who saw ecology as a fading trend. While there are archaic remnants of ’70s sexism and racism sprinkled throughout, the novel was still well ahead of its time, anticipating a push for sustainable materials, local food movements, female leadership, and advanced public transportation. What was once considered part of the radical Berkeley fringe has now become commonplace in liberal, urban centers.
Fast-forward to 2016, and much like the book prophesied, we have a state that is directly at odds with the rest of the nation. As columnist Michael Hiltzik detailed in a piece for the Los Angeles Times, we can count on California and the federal government having serious confrontations on key issues from immigration to healthcare to women’s reproductive rights. The biggest disconnect, though, clearly lies in climate change, where California leads the nation in environmental reform. Now, with a Democratic supermajority in both houses of the California Legislature, an independent West Coast nation—or something like it—doesn’t seem too far off. With the power of a supermajority, Democrats can enact laws swiftly and override the governor’s veto—abilities that will become more important as Trump and his cronies threaten to pull federal funding.
But how realistic is a Californian secession movement? And what can secessionists really hope to achieve in the process? With several options and ideas on the table, one thing is certain: Californians have the unique ability to influence national politics. Here’s why:
A Case for Independence—and Acknowledgement
The sheer volume and diversity of groups leading separate charges for California’s independence may leave many wondering who’s at the helm. Grassroots organization Yes California gained more attention than most after driving momentum with an online petition and a ballot measure recently submitted to the state attorney general’s office. Venture capitalist Shervin Pishevar, best known for co-founding Hyperloop One, jumped into the discussion after tweeting that he would fund a “legitimate campaign” for California’s independence in the event of a Trump win.
Then you have the California National Party, a politically engaged group that has been operating since 2015. Thanks to the impending threat of a Donald Trump presidency, the burgeoning political party has received an unprecedented amount of interest. CNP General Secretary Jed Wheeler told GOOD, that based on Facebook statistics alone, the organization saw a 3,000 percent increase in engagement in the two days following the election, and those numbers haven’t let up since. Since Election Day, the group has gone from 38 active volunteers and 1,500 supporters to almost 400 active volunteers and nearly 8,000 supporters and is adding people to their ranks every day.
For most people, the rationale behind this push for autonomy is fairly straightforward. As the sixth largest economy in the world, California—at least from an economic standpoint—seems equipped to be a standalone country. And unlike the country in which they currently reside, Californians want better public services, environmental reform, and are willing to pay higher taxes to get there. Because of these stark differences with the majority of U.S. states, most secession supporters tell Wheeler that they’ve always considered themselves Californians first and Americans second.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]The same issues that drove the American Revolution, frankly—taxation without representation—are also on the table.[/quote]
While the cultural differences have been laid bare by this election, Wheeler argues that there are bigger factors at stake—the most pressing being tax benefits, or lack thereof. “Californians end up subsidizing the rest of the United States to the tune of 60 billion dollars a year,” says Wheeler, “That’s more money we pay than we get back in spending.” It is true that red states tend to benefit more from federal taxes than blue states, with California getting a return of about 87 cents per dollar invested in federal taxes. This dependency paradox has been reported time and time again, yet red states continue to push for lower taxes and less government spending while also benefiting the most from those services.
In the case for independence, there’s also the matter of adequate representation. If you add up the 22 smallest states (according to U.S. Census figures), you get a population that is roughly equivalent to California’s. “All together, they get 102 votes in the Electoral College to (California’s) 55,” says Wheeler, “They get 44 seats in the senate to our two for the same population. The same issues that drove the American Revolution, frankly—taxation without representation—are also on the table.”
From our Facebook group: "Bottom 23 states have a population roughly equal to California. They get 102 electoral vo… https://t.co/5FpocTb32x— California National Party (CNP) (@California National Party (CNP)) 1480390896
While Wheeler makes a compelling argument, the odds of gaining independence are nearly impossible. Two-thirds of Congress would have to approve a constitutional amendment opening up the possibility of secession, and 38 state legislators would then have to agree to let one of the biggest states in the country go. That being said, if the CNP gains enough petition signatures or the number of registered voters needed to become a bona fide political party, it could be part of the growing sea change away from bipartisan politics.
Starting a revolution with the tools we already have
Dr. Stephanie Pincetl, Director of the California Center for Sustainable Communities at UCLA, sees a lot of opportunities for measurable, radical change within our existing framework. As for a Californian nation existing entirely independent from the United States? “It’s unrealistic to think any part of the world can sustain itself without the rest of the world,” says Pincetl. Instead of focusing on the implausible, she suggests we turn our attention back to the tools we already have at hand, stressing commitment to civic engagement over participating once every four years. She encourages attending public hearings, learning about local issues, and using the democratic tools we have at our disposal. Not doing those things deprives us of the right to be upset with disappointing results. “That’s what happens in a democracy,” she says, “If you don’t participate, the outcomes are not going to be the ones you want.”
[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]Californians could provide a model for creating the very thing conservatives prize most: jobs.[/quote]
In an ironic twist, Californians could provide a model for creating the very thing conservatives prize most: jobs. By turning our focus toward revitalizing local environments, we can create new skills and professions without the fear of losing them to automation. “We can’t automate things like ecological restoration,” says Pincetl, nor can we find robots to rebuild watershed capacities, install solar panels, grow renewable fuels, or construct green buildings. California has already proven that transitioning to a green workforce can be a boon for the economy.
But working toward meaningful, sustainable jobs will require sacrificing the damaging individualism we’ve accepted as an American right. As Pincetl explains,
“Individualism is a fake issue. No human being is an individual. All human beings are created by the context in which they live … It’s an attractive lie, and I think we just need to push back and say, ‘You know, actually, you can’t do anything as a single individual.’ You rely—whether you realize it or not—on the context that was set up for you.”
In this way, we find ourselves circling back to the core of a 41-year-old manifesto. Without a deep regard for community, we can do nothing. Once we embrace our ability to work together, there’s nothing we can’t do. A true reimagining of California—and, in turn, the world—is going to require a lot more than any one social movement or technological advancement. It’s going to take activating our imaginations and believing in impossible goals, along with a willingness to do the tedious, frustrating work necessary to get there. No matter which route Californians ultimately choose, there are endless opportunities for the state to set an example of utopian proportions.