An independent California isn’t that wacky of an Idea

Political scientists suspend their disbelief to explain how secession might play out for the Golden State

Published February 12, 2017 4:00PM (EST)


With recent public opinion surveys indicating that a third of Californians support peacefully seceding from the United States, it’s time for the media to stop dismissing the idea as a zany left coast response to the newly elected Republican federal government. The statistic equates to nearly 13 million people. That’s a lot of people. It’s worth considering what would happen if this long shot became a reality. You know, kind of like our reality-TV president who was never going to win the White House.

It may be logistically implausible now. However, if four or eight years of Trump continue to jettison California values from the mainstream and represent long-term irreconcilable differences for blue and red American states, secession could be a reality in our lifetime. We wouldn’t be the first nation to revisit unresolved issues from a civil war.

There’s been plenty written on the infeasibility and public opinion numbers associated with CalExit, as secession is colloquially known. Few have really gamed it out beyond casually pontificating about constitutional amendments or military action. If you inhale political news like oxygen, theorizing about the implications of California secession is a highly stimulating line of inquiry. When you get into the weeds, you start discovering some fascinating probabilities and strategic options. I highly recommend playing along at home.

Forget about assembling the coalition that leads to a successful outcome for a minute.

Here is a thorough article by Ed Kilgore at New York Magazine detailing the improbability of that difficult endeavor. This argument isn’t about that.  

Instead, think about what Californians would face imagining a new socio-political order.

In the context of the United States, California is a liberal stalwart, delivering 55 electoral college votes, amassing millions in political donations, protecting civilians at enormous military bases, exporting produce and natural resources like oil, facilitating legal and illicit global trade in ports like Oakland and San Pedro, managing migration from the southern border, dictating culture through Hollywood, and uprooting economic and social structures from Silicon Valley. If this enormously diverse geography and people were to answer to itself, this identity might mature or shift significantly.

Californians could expect to initiate advanced-level progress in racial justice that might dramatically alter the state’s concentrations of power. Factions of privileged hippies and tech libertarians would likely spar with anti-colonialists and both groups would take on the Central California farmers. The use of natural resources would disrupt the transportation and agrarian infrastructures. International trade with the United States and countries around the world could be renegotiated. Secession might even force Trump to build a wall all the way to Canada if he doesn’t want any bad hombres sneaking in through Las Vegas.

It would hardly be the progressive utopia with which the state is often associated, but it could yield breakthroughs in traditionally stagnant political squabbles. To those who argue that California is obligated to stay and fight for the country’s soul, perhaps free of restriction an independent California could actually demonstrate the success of progressive values in action and serve as a better model for the world than the United States. If being one of the stars and stripes means that the populace will be denying climate science and gerrymandering districts in the interests of preserving white nationalism for a few decades, it’s not unreasonable to want to provide California’s 40 million residents with a better life while we can.  

First, Californians would have to consider the sustainability of resources.

Secession or not, California has a great deal of leverage in what the Washington Post recently described as the state’s escalating war with Trump. The state is less dependent on federal funds and boasts one of the largest economies in the world. However, the potential scarcity of natural resources is a serious vulnerability in an independent California, especially in the face of potential sanctions by a hostile U.S. government.

“If California were to become an independent country, doing so would probably force us to develop new policies, revisit traditional water rights arrangements, and place particular strain on our agricultural economy, which uses around 70 percent of the state's water but produces only around 2 percent of its economic output,” says Peter Alonga, an Associate Professor of History, Geography & Environmental Studies at UC Santa Barbara.

Alonga was quick to tell Salon that he believes secession would be “unlikely and unwise,” but he also described some of the ways an independent California might be forced to account for weaknesses — specifically with respect to the drought and fossil fuel reliance.

California receives about 14 percent of its water from the Colorado River, and losing access would put a strain on Southern California municipal and agricultural water districts in places like the Imperial Valley. Alonga notes, however, that “California's share of the Colorado River's runoff already has declined considerably in recent decades, and is likely to decline further in the future regardless.”

On its own fighting the drought, California would have to continue to look for ways to supply water to citizens and businesses. One of the most popular methods currently being explored is desalination, but Alonga says that would only make a cost-effective impact on residential water use and not solve for challenges in the agriculture sector.

“Desalination efforts, such as the recently opened Carlsbad facility and a new one coming soon in Santa Barbara County, can help increase water supplies in some urban areas. They will likely be part of a future balanced water portfolio for many California cities,” Alonga says. “They are not, however, a panacea. This is because they are costly to operate, they consume vast amounts of energy, and they produce brine sludge waste. More important, on an average year more than 70 percent of the water consumed in California is used for agriculture. Desalinated water is too expensive to use for almost all agricultural purposes. Desalination thus only really applies to residential areas, which make up a small proportion of the state's total water consumption.”

The farm-to-table crowd would likely cheer the idea of locally-sourced produce and divestment from the global supply chain, but that could be met with significant opposition.

In addition to the water supply, for logistical and security purposes California would need to be concerned with fueling its famous sprawl. As even cities like Los Angeles, known for their driving dependencies, are building rail lines and investing in public transit, it’s hard to predict how a U.S. State Department led by the former CEO of ExxonMobil will alter the global energy markets.

“California is the third largest oil producing state after Texas and North Dakota, but before Alaska and Oklahoma,” Alonga says, “so I think we would have a strong position in global markets were we to go it on our own. On the other hand, a state-level regulatory regime for fossil fuel extraction in California would likely look pretty different than the one we currently have at the national level. There would probably be enormous public pressure, for example, to decommission offshore platforms.”

California is also a candyland to the fracking industry, which could potentially increase if the state were to be cut off by sanctions or other means. Since fracking involves injecting chemicals into the ground, it should certainly raise some eyebrows if coupled with a widespread increase in desalination of groundwater.

Companies like Chevron, headquartered in Bakersfield, might also be pressured to further diversify their portfolios, as California is a leader in alternative energy.

Of course, let’s not count out the idea that in this hypothetical reality, the engineers in Silicon Valley might soon devise travel-by-telepathy and feed everyone Soylent, negating these problems for everyone. Why not?

Next, Californians would have to decide who’s in charge and if they’ll adopt a new constitution.

Ohhhhhh, the political realignment is a ripe subtopic of CalExit. From the likely rise of future New California Presidents Gavin Newsom or Eric Garcetti or Kamala Harris, to the emergence of a Latin-majority populace — the questions are juicy.

The team at Yes California, one of the most vocal groups leading the secession movement, has developed an orderly strategy for forming a new government. Yes California President Louis J. Marinelli told Salon that a constitutional convention would yield a legislative body comprised of proportional party representation.

There would be a statewide election for political party preference and seats in the assembly would be allocated to each party based on their share of the vote,” Marinelli explained via email. “If a third party, for instance, received 5 percent of the statewide vote, they would be allocated 5 percent — or four seats in the assembly. The actual members of the legislature would be more in the hands of the political parties, so in that respect, I would imagine that many of the currently elected members of the legislature would stay. A constitutional convention is necessary to revise the current constitution, and this time we would demand that native Californians had a larger role to play in the process than they did when California’s ‘statehood’ constitution was drafted in 1849.”

There is no doubt California’s complex history with colonialism would spark much debate throughout a restructuring of the government. Assistant Professor Melisa Galvan of Cal State Northridge’s renowned Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies told Salon that, while wildly improbable, an independent California could be a great equalizer for various demographics after centuries of marginalization.

“What would we be resetting to is the question?” Galvan says. “Would we be resetting to Mexican rule of this territory? The U.S. has a troubled past with how the territory of California was acquired. Mexicans don’t even touch that issue. It’s so heated and such a sore wound for them that they don’t even want to study it or think about it. Would we go back to our Native American roots? There are layers of colonialism on top of each other.”

The current California legislature is what the San Diego Union-Tribune describes in a headline as “largely male, white.” Latinos hold 22 percent of the seats despite being 40 percent of the state’s population. Women of all races also account for 22 percent of the state legislature. Would these power hierarchies simply reassert themselves in an independent California?

“Ideally what that scenario would look like would be reparations for the people who once lived here. Mexicans would be acknowledged as long-time inhabitants,” Galvan says. “What does a multicultural California look like and who gets included? Ideally it would be everyone because that’s where we’re at now as a society. What would that constitution look like?”

It’s difficult to say whether California’s rich Democrats in coastal enclaves would be down with paying reparations if the independent nation were scrapping its ties to the U.S. and its colonial past. Such individuals, who are the lifeblood of the country’s current Democratic Party political donations, might come to be viewed as more conservative. The exact ideological position could depend on whether the predominantly libertarian attitudes of Silicon Valley would skew left or right in a new California context.

Finally, California would have to establish new diplomatic relations with the rest of the world, including the 49 states.

Hey, maybe they’d finally let Puerto Rico in just to keep it a round 50.

Seriously, though, it would be a complicated struggle of Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez proportions trying to keep things chill with California’s exes in the U.S. Where would all the freelance social media consultants and entertainment producers go if they couldn’t be bicoastal because of a Trump-led California travel ban? Facebook is its own kind of borderless nation-state, but would the tech industry still be able to lead growing hubs in mid-tier cities like Atlanta and Des Moines? There’s no way Austin, Texas, would let Californians attend SXSW if the Golden State successfully seceded first. What if the U.S. took advantage of Standard Operating Procedure 303, which essentially gives the federal government the power to shut down the Internet? Would film executives be able to distribute blockbusters in American cineplexes or would the Avengers only be seen in China? Could California afford to have open borders and welcome migrants? These questions and more would create a lot of chaos and maneuvering.    

Sure, California isn’t wasting time over sentimentality or obligations to would-be former fellow Americans.

The states of the Deep South would lose the most if California left, Marinelli says, because “those are the states that have been benefiting for decades by Washington redistributing California’s taxes to subsidize their states.” He notes their lower or nonexistent sales taxes and ample fiscal support from the federal government.

“Meanwhile, we in California have one of the highest state taxes and contribute more into the federal system taxwise than we receive from it,” Marinelli says. “The good news is that by keeping that money in California, we can do so much to improve the quality of life of the people of California. The bad news for those other states is that they’ll have to start carrying their own weight.”

Marinelli also says that someone like Kamala Harris would become an ambassador to the U.S. — a pretty dramatic shift from her current position as a Democratic Party rising star on the short-list of future female presidents.

Yup, I agree that it’s starting to sound more and more like a late-night college dorm convo gone awry. In fact, Galvan says her Cal State Northridge students were fired up calling for secession on Nov. 9 but that the enthusiasm quickly fizzled.

“I asked them, ‘Is this feasible? Could it happen, and if it did would it happen before Trump is impeached?’” she says. “I walked them back from the idea. We can’t secede tomorrow.”  

It’s hard to say how frustrated members of the Trump resistance should organize going forward if the goal is to reroute to an Obama-era trajectory or Bernie Sanders-style revolution. Maybe supporting secession is just as savvy a tactic as hoping Kamala Harris will save the day. Still, for a state with so much power at its disposal California can’t continue to be taken for granted much longer or those 13 million peaceful secession supporters may multiply over time. While most believe now secession is impossible, at the very least change is coming.

UC Santa Barbara’s Alonga says he fully expects to see a new power dynamic emerge.

“The likely result,” Alonga says, “is that a states rights debate that has been dominated in recent years by conservative states will swing the other direction, with more liberal states making the case for greater independence, but not full sovereignty.”

By Maegan Carberry

Maegan Carberry is a writer and artist. She is the author of the novel “Do I Have To Vote For Hillary Clinton?” about the 2016 election and is hand-making 100 dresses to raise awareness about sexual assault through her project, birdbrain.  

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California Secessionist Movement