California the New Redoubt of Secessionism?
Steven Greenhut
by

The most enjoyable part of the Trump victory has been watching people here in liberal northern California suddenly discover that some of the ideas libertarians and conservatives have long championed — gun ownership, federalism, resistance to federal edicts, even secession — might not be as crazy as they had once thought.

The “Yes California” campaign, which proposes a 2018 ballot initiative that would ultimately let Californians vote on an exit from the United States, has been around since well before the general election. Its backers have been treated as a small group of oddballs who occasionally hand out state flags outside the Capitol. Now they’re getting half-serious attention from the press corps.

A small group of Calexit folks marched through Sacramento after the national election results came in. This is a nice, peaceful bunch of activists, unlike the angry mobs who rioted in Los Angeles and Oakland after the election. (The latter were no doubt frustrated from their months of precinct organizing that they couldn’t help themselves — either that or they answered a “protesters for hire” advertisement in the local Craigslist jobs section.)

Yet a Calexit could be more dangerous than riots for those of us who still cling to our arcane beliefs in limited government. I had a chat with a “Yes California” supporter months ago and wondered what would become of, say, the Second Amendment after the independence movement succeeds and we live in the new nation of California.

There would be a constitutional convention and, given the political makeup of the state, it wouldn’t be hard to guess what would end up in the new version, with its positive “right” to health care, etc. The secession campaign actually makes some good points that conservatives should understand, about “the right to self-determination” and frustration at following edicts from a far-off government.

Yet despite the awfulness of our federal government, it’s still partly bound by some rules that restrict its power. A new Bear Flag nation, unconstrained by the Bill of Rights and 240 years of jurisprudence, would create something frightening to live under. Let’s just say I’d want my property sold and a new one purchased in Carson City or Tucson long before that deal goes through.

No one really believes that a Calexit has any hope of happening. The idea of California joining with Oregon and Washington is even more out there. Even if Californians voted on a referendum to secede from the nation, that wouldn’t mean much of anything. Most scholars — many of whom evaluated the issue when Texans talked about it as they expected a Hillary Clinton victory — argue there’s no realistic way to do so.

As University of California-San Diego political science professor Thad Kousser argued in the Los Angeles Times: “Amending the Constitution — the minimum step required for a state to secede — is a tough trick. Getting a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate, as well as ratification by 38 states, will never happen.” Democrats would oppose it given that California’s exit would relegate Democrats elsewhere to “the permanent minority party in the Remaining States of America.” Even Republicans would miss all the tax money we provide, he added.

That revolution thing isn’t going anywhere. Based on data from the Crime Prevention Research Center, Californians have fewer than 60,000 active concealed-carry permits. That’s in a state with 38.5 million people. The numbers in Pennsylvania, for instance, are nearly 1.2 million. In the tiny population state of Montana, there are more than 50,000 permits — and they’re not even needed there. In virtually all of the state, if you want to carry a firearm, you can legally do so. In other words, California has a lot of catching up to do if wants to gear up for secession.

Liberals here have regularly mocked efforts to break California into myriad separate states. That too is unlikely, but the sentiment is understandable and not really mock-worthy. But, boy, did liberals have fun lampooning the “Six Californias” idea — a proposed ballot initiative that would have started the process of separating the state into six more culturally and geographically similar regions. As I’ve written before, most of California is politically similar to other Western states, but 10 million residents in Los Angeles County alone drown out their voices.

The State of Jefferson movement is alive and kicking. A number of elected officials have even backed the concept. It dates to the World War II era, when California’s far-north rural counties planned to join with Oregon’s far-south rural counties. The Jefferson flag, which is flying outside my little ranch in Sacramento County, features two X’s — signifying the way residents have been double-crossed by politicians in Sacramento and Salem.

It’s corny, but the sentiments are serious. It’s practically impossible to earn a living in those rural outposts thanks to environmental policies hatched in the bigger cities. The Jefferson State advocates I’ve interviewed just want a little more attention paid to their economic concerns, but they generally are mocked or ignored. The Republican victory last week certainly should cause the mockers to at least understand a bit of the North Staters’ pain.

We’re even seeing California officials threatening to defy the federal interlopers. Few people would have previously seen any similarities between San Francisco’s progressive Mayor Ed Lee and Alabama’s George Wallace, who stood in the schoolhouse door resisting integration.

But this week Lee told a large, cheering crowd: “I know that there are a lot of people who are angry and frustrated and fearful, but our city’s never been about that. We have been and always have been a city of refuge, a city of sanctuary, a city of love.”

Lee was defending the “sanctuary city” policy that bars San Francisco officials from cooperating with federal officials when it comes to turning over illegal immigrants. President-elect Trump has vowed to bar federal funds from cities that do this, which could cost the city more than 10 percent of its budget in lost direct federal aid and in aid that first is passed through the state, according to recent news reports.

In 2013, Gov. Jerry Brown sparked comparisons with Wallace when he vowed to defy a federal court order that the state release inmates from an overcrowded prison system. We could see more of this as California goes its own way on immigration, climate change, health care and other issues in an age of Trump and a Republican Congress.

California is not just out of sync on the presidential election, as Clinton won here by more than 28 percentage points. According to an analysis from Americans for Tax Reform, California is one of only four genuinely blue states — states where Democrats control the governorship and both houses of the Legislature. Here, the GOP doesn’t hold a single constitutional office. In 26 states, Republicans control the governor and both houses. It’s a split of some sort in the remaining states, with California, Oregon, Hawaii and Rhode Island the rare all-blue enclaves. It’s a sobering picture for Californians who thought they were riding the progressive wave to the future.

Our founders believed states should be “laboratories of democracy” (a term popularized by Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis), and California will continue to experiment with mostly bad policies. Dreams of secession will fade away and there’s little chance San Franciscans will maintain their “city of love” rhetoric if it means giving up a billion dollars a year in federal funds. But maybe, just maybe, my liberal neighbors will better understand the reason we hold some of our “wacky” ideas. That in itself makes the election worthwhile.

Steven Greenhut
Steven Greenhut
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Steven Greenhut is a senior fellow and Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at sgreenhut@rstreet.org.
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