The Republic of California
Copyright © 2007 by Stephen W. Potts. All rights reserved.
As we watch the regime of Bush II slouching toward the landfill of history, it merits remembering that only two years ago, as term two began, the media buzzed with awe for the “genius” of consiglieri Karl Rove and dropped to its knees before the power of the Christian Right and the “values voter.” Meanwhile, serious talk of emigration ensued as many a Californian and New Yorker eyed the kindlier, gentler America of the North — i.e., Canada. And once again there was talk of secession.
Out of the ashes of that November sprouted an organization called the Committee to Explore California Secession. Founder Jeff Morrissette, a Santa Barbara resident, acknowledged that true secession was a long shot, but he wanted to begin a serious conversation about the option. As he phrased it, “Most Californians do not want to live under government that is controlled by right-winged [sic] religious conservatives.” And he observed that other states, such as the blue-green Oregon, Washington, and Vermont, had entertained such discussions as well.
Historically secession has been an obsession of, notably, the red states. Die-hard Southern Confederates and their Northern neoconfederates have long defended the actions that began the Civil War, burying the slavery issue under arguments about “states’ rights”; indeed, today’s conservative coalition was born in Barry Goldwater’s embrace of states’ rights against civil rights during his disastrous presidential campaign of 1964.
Nixon, Reagan, and the Bushes have all championed one form or another of “new federalism” — that is, devolving more power to the states at Washington’s expense. At least, they have done so rhetorically. But even such a non-con as Gore Vidal has declared that Lincoln was wrong to maintain the Union at all costs: He should have ended the barbarity of slavery then let the South go. If he had, neoconfederates would not be running the Republican Party today, and our biggest immigration problem would be the perennial flood of the desperate from the Third World nation to our southeast.
The majority of Americans today continue to assume that the Civil War settled the issue. Apparently, however, that was not a given even in the immediate wake of that conflict. According to revanchist blogger Dave Black, who champions “our biblical and constitutional foundations,” Confederate President Jefferson Davis could not be tried for treason after the war “because the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Mr. Salmon Portland Chase, informed President Andrew Johnson that . . . nothing in the Constitution forbids secession.”
As Black also blogs — and he is not alone in saying so — the “Declaration of Independence was, in fact, a declaration of secession.” Our response should be, “Well, duh!” — but official expertdom seems to treat this courageous act of our Founders as sui generis, like the Big Bang. We have been told that the Constitution contains no provisions for individual states declaring independence. Right — as if English Common Law did in 1776.
When Morrissette broached the question of California secession in 2004, UC Davis history professor Clarence Walker observed that the Confederacy’s attempt failed “because the North was more powerful and wouldn’t let them break away,” adding “No nation today will allow a part of itself to independently walk away.”
He was undoubtedly thinking about the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse, when the Russian megastate prevented the likes of Estonia, Uzbekistan, and the Ukraine from breaking free. Or perhaps alluding to the endurance of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, despite intranationalist independence movements.
In some other universe, anyway — not ours. Maybe the professor meant to say that this nation would not allow a part of itself to walk away.
Spring 2007 might seem like an odd season to bring up secession again. After all, the Evil Empire of 2004 has all but collapsed. California Democrats Nancy Pelosi, Henry Waxman, and Barbara Boxer all now wield gavels in the halls of Congress, and Republicans are running for cover like cockroaches when the kitchen light goes on. Rumsfeld is gone; even some in the mainstream media ask if Cheney is certifiably loony; Rove is cowering in the White House basement fearing the knock of the Congressional Sergeant-at-Arms, and everyone can see at last that Emperor George has no clothes. He still has his army of defenders, but they increasingly look like residents of a different reality.
It is a reality, however, that shares space with ours. We will be living with the scars of this administration for a generation to come; Bush’s legacy of shattered nations and burned bridges will be ours no matter what subsequent presidents do, and our revanchists would not be revanchists if they were not determined to continue to push the clock hands backward. If anything, the Continental Divide between blue states and red will grow. Indeed, expect calls for secession to surge from the reddest chambers of the Heartland should Democrats sweep in 2008 — and the people in those regions live by the gun.
It is valuable, even if just as Gedankenexperiment, to think the question of secession through. California, of course, has a real advantage over other states. Whether one accepts that it possesses the fifth, seventh, or eighth largest economy in the world — assertions differ — it is clearly in the top ten. Furthermore, imagine how that economy could grow if all the tax revenues it generates remained in the Golden State instead of being bled off to D.C.
While federal funds do trickle back, California still contributes more to the national treasury than it gets; again, assertions differ, but most suggest the state receives no more than ninety percent of what it pays. It could use that money to, if nothing else, bring its per capita spending on public education back up to historic levels.
None other than Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has hinted at the separateness of the California Republic. As he was inaugurated for his first full term this January, he declared that Californians “have the economic strength; we have the population and the technological force of a nation-state.”
Schwarzenegger has set an independent course on a number of issues: advocating research for both stem cells and energy alternatives, expressing willingness to reduce greenhouse gases in concert with foreign countries and other maverick states, proposing universal health care for Californians. If Sacramento follows through, it will simply turn its back on an increasingly obstructionist and irrelevant regime centered on the East Coast.
The Schwarz himself represents something one does not see in the rest of Bush’s America: a Republican who can admit he is wrong and change strategy. After his humiliating drubbing of November 2005, when the special election he had called to push his own initiatives past a Democratic legislature resulted in a resounding rejection, the Austrian Eisenpumper stopped acting like an Übermensch and began thinking more like a public servant.
When the movement to change the Constitution to permit him to run for president lost momentum, he had to realize that leading the most populous and powerful state was as good as it was going to get. In short, California is Arnold’s one shot at being Chief Executive. By default this ambitious, independent Republican is setting the Republic of California on its own course.
Megastates like the United States and Russia may have made sense in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when size really did matter. But in our increasingly interconnected world, grossness has some stark disadvantages. As we globalize, big boundaries become harder to defend or justify, and big armies are less and less cost-effective; look at the price we are paying in Iraq and elsewhere, and compare the returns on our investment.
Economists Alberto Alesina of Harvard and Enrico Spoloare of Tufts have recently shown that past some upper limit, a nation becomes less able to supply the needs of its citizens. Others note that the whole idea of democracy becomes absurd in a nation such as ours, where the center of government is so remote and so dependent on extraordinary wealth that it inevitably becomes abstracted from the needs of the population.
Besides, as George F. Kennan worried a half century ago, when a strengthened United States faced a bloated Soviet Union, a “monster country” would develop “hubris of inordinate size” and become “an evil in itself, quite aside from the policies pursued in its name.” As evidence, just reflect on what the Bush League has done with the American Dream of a unipolar world.
The wave of the future is the “metastate,” associations like the European Union, where the states are economically and politically integrated, but with plenty of cultural individuality. While these are still experiments in progress, the successful entities of the coming century will not be the same as those of the past. California has already discovered that, on many matters, it has much more in common with Japan or Spain than with Mississippi or South Dakota. Still, even a California Republic would maintain important and enduring links with its fellow North American states.
We must stop thinking of secession, per our history, as inevitably part of a shooting war. California independence would not begin with a Fort Sumter. Anyway, this Pacific state is too laid back to shoot first, and the majority of Californians believe in evolution.
Take conservative philosophy at its word: embrace states’ rights; when tax cuts and deficit spending hollow out the federal treasury, D.C. will have no power to enforce its hegemony over the West Coast. At home, continue a course divergent from Old America’s. For example, follow up on voter-generated initiatives like Prop. 215 and Prop. 36 by dumping the nation’s idiotic drug war altogether; decriminalize cannabis and dare the feds to do anything about it.
For more ideas, consult with such groups as the American Secession Project. Self-determination is at least worth talking about.