Like the talk of secession in conservative southern states after Barack Obama became president, the idea of a separate California Republic builds on long-standing separatist feelings amplified by a momentous national election. Since Donald Trump became president while securing less than a third of the vote in California, the Yes California campaign — a.k.a. Calexit — has gotten a lot of attention and perhaps even some momentum in getting an initial measure placed on the 2018 general election ballot. An estimated 7,000 volunteers have begun amassing the 585,407 signatures necessary to place a constitutional amendment on the 2018 ballot deleting the state’s adherence to the United States and authorizing a 2019 referendum on independence.
The arguments for Calexit are pretty simple: The state is drifting ever-further away from the rest of the country in cultural attitudes and public policies, especially with respect to immigration and the environment. California’s size and wealth (its GDP is similar to that of France) make it the one state that might make a go of it alone. It is also a “donor state” when it comes to the relationship of federal taxes collected from Californians to the federal spending conducted there; one recent analysis showed California ranking 46th among the states in relative dependence on Washington.
But it’s clear the main reason for sudden interest in Calexit is Donald J. Trump, and the possibility a federal Republican regime under his direction would preempt California preferences on a wide range of issues. Even though Governor Jerry Brown and other statewide Democratic elected officials have kept their distance from Calexit, the saber-rattling they have conducted about the state’s willingness to fight Trump and the GOP in court has undoubtedly fed the Calexit sentiment. The latest Trump provocation, threatening sanctuary cities with the cancellation of all federal funds, is being perceived by both his friends and enemies as mainly aimed at the Golden State.
By some definitions, the entire state of California is a sanctuary state. A law passed in 2014 prohibits local jails from holding immigrants any longer than required by criminal law, with exceptions for violent and other serious crimes. And most counties in the state also prohibit holding immigrants beyond their sentence if federal immigration agents do not have a judicial order. And legislation currently making its way through the Legislature would further expand the law, by prohibiting all state and local law enforcement agencies to respond to requests from immigration authorities.
Having said all that, the process required to make Calexit a reality is not just daunting: It’s basically impossible. The first part is the easiest: If Yes California can get its initiative onto the 2018 ballot, it needs only 50-percent-plus-one approval to amend the state constitution. But then the 2019 referendum it authorizes is on shaky legal ground, and according to Yes California’s own ground rules, it would only “pass” if 50 percent of registered voters participated and 55 percent voted for independence. The participation standard alone sets a pretty high bar for success in an off-year election; turnout in the last regular midterm election was only 42 percent.
If a Calexit referendum in California succeeded, of course, it would only take effect if the rest of the country went along with it. That would mean a constitutional amendment requiring two-thirds votes in Congress and ratification by three-fourths of the states, or the first constitutional convention since 1787. The only alternative, unilateral secession, was tried in 1861, as close scholars of history could tell you, and it did not work out well.
What the whole Calexit movement really represents is a cry of defiance against Trump, and against the temporary national triumph of people who are fine with melting down the polar ice caps to build more strip malls, instituting racial profiling as a cherished national law-enforcement policy, and criminalizing abortion. Any number of developments could take the steam out of Calexit, including the collapse of the Republican Party amid internecine quarreling. In any case, it ain’t happening — but it’s still a convenient lightning rod for real West Coast fury. And interest in the idea will get a boost from contemptuous conservatives who have long regarded the state as a nature preserve for hippies, sodomites, and border-crashers. There’s nothing like the prospect of secession to dramatize Americans’ very real differences.