I haven’t lived in California for almost 30 years, but I still remember my driver’s license number: C3001816. I’m not sure I’m patriotic about anything, but if I were, it would be California. I was born there, grew up in Redondo Beach – at night, in winter, if the surf was high, I could hear the waves. I’ve driven its highways and sat in its traffic; I’ve breathed its air, and seen its snow-topped mountains when the smog cleared.
I’d have to get out my wallet to tell you my Indiana license. I’ve lived here nearly a decade; I like it, but I’ll never be a Hoosier. I don’t even know what “Hoosier” means (neither does anyone else). But I know where California’s name comes from: a mythical island – a place apart. I love California, which is why I remember a string of numbers.
And why I have mixed feelings about Calexit, the movement calling for California to secede in response to Donald Trump’s electoral victory. I don’t want to pack a passport when I fly home, but I do want Californians to have the right to decide if they want to stay. Besides, letting them choose might be the best way to bring our country together.
Independence would be painful. Going it alone is risky – just ask the Brits – and Canadians know you don’t escape the shadow of your giant neighbor by drawing a border. Unstitching California’s economy from the United States’ would damage both, because California isn’t actually an island. But while those might be reasons to vote against secession, they aren’t reasons not to vote.
There are legal obstacles. We had another secession movement 150 years ago; one Civil War and an 1869 Supreme Court case later, unilateral secession was declared unconstitutional. The obvious fix is a constitutional amendment allowing any state to secede through an orderly referendum. Even without an amendment, the federal government could commit to negotiate with any state that voted to secede. That’s the formula Canada committed to 20 years ago with Quebec, and what the United Kingdom agreed to with Scotland.
The question would need to be clear – independence, yes or no? – subject to a clear majority, perhaps two-thirds. A fair process would allow areas opposed to secession to stay. If Californians want to escape the tyranny of America’s choice, they should give the same right to their fellow Californians in the far north and mountains, who voted for Trump and resent the tyranny of the coast.
If Californians truly feel they have become a place apart, there is no good reason to force them to stay. But a vote on Calexit could actually renew our shared union: Californians would have to ask hard questions about who they really are, and the rest of us about what we’d do to make them stay. If they stayed – in Trump’s America – well, nothing would do more to repair our national community than that.
And they might. Quebecois separatism declined after Canada’s Supreme Court acknowledged their right to negotiate separation. Britain let Scots vote on independence – and they chose against it. (True, Britain recently voted for Brexit – but that simply shows Brits were never practically and emotionally committed to the European Union in the same way many Scots are to the United Kingdom.)
We are a nation of immigrants, which is why Trump’s walls are so troubling. Yet we build a nation not only by letting people in, but by giving those already here a reason to stay. We cannot do that by locking the doors through which our ancestors came – we must persuade ourselves of the delusion that we are one people. The French historian Ernest Renan said that a nation “is a daily referendum.” Once in a while, it’s good to actually check in with the voters.
I don’t want to have choose between the state I live in and the state I love – to be left with just numbers and memories. But I do want to live in an America Californians want to live in – that we all want to live in, together, in contestation and complexity, not because the lines are already drawn, but because we choose to draw them around ourselves, every day. We cannot choose if we may not ask.
So let Californians vote. And may they stay. With love, C3001816.
Timothy William Waters is a professor at Indiana University Maurer School of Law, and associate director of its Center for Constitutional Democracy. He is writing a book on the right to secession.