Imagine if President Trump announced that he wanted to oust California from the United States. If it weren't for us, after all, Trump would have won the popular vote he so lusts after by 1.4 million. Blue America would lose its biggest source of electoral votes in all future elections. The Senate would have two fewer Democrats. The House of Representatives would lose 38 Democrats and just 14 Republicans. The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, among the most liberal in the nation, would be changed irrevocably. And the U.S. as a whole would suddenly be a lot less ethnically diverse than it is today.
For those reasons, Trump, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, Republicans with White House ambitions, opponents of legalizing marijuana, advocates of criminalizing abortion and various white nationalist groups might all conclude –– for different reasons –– that they would benefit politically from a separation, even as liberals and progressives across America would correctly see it as a catastrophe.
So it makes sense that the leader of the Yes California Independence Campaign, Marcus Ruiz Evans, was — contrary to popular assumptions — a registered Republican when he formed the separatist group two years ago, according to the San Jose Mercury News. He briefly hosted conservative talk radio shows in Fresno, and would not tell the newspaper if he voted for Trump.
And yet he's pitching independence to Golden State progressives. In a Mercury News op-ed article, Evans announced that his organization will soon start circulating a petition for a "Calexit" vote and thus begin the long, multi-step process for withdrawal from the United States. "Californians are better educated, wealthier, more liberal, and value healthcare and education more than the rest of the country," he argued. "Our views on education, science, immigration, taxation and healthcare are different."
The Yes California Independence website, moreover, is clearly addressed to Trump-haters, some of whom tweeted out support for a Calexit after election day. If Trump's enemies go down this road, he doesn't need friends.
At a moment of great urgency, as a subset of those who govern us veer toward authoritarianism, Yes California Independence is sucking up attention on a gambit that is highly unlikely to succeed, and that existentially threatens Democrats if it does. The 2018 midterms could change the course of U.S. history. They will determine whether Trump will continue to govern without meaningful restraint from congressional Republicans — who've abandoned conservative principles to exploit his populism — or face a newly invigorated opposition party willing to investigate his conflicts of interest.
There's a huge downside to the Calexit movement, and no real upside.
For decades California has exerted more influence on American politics and culture than vice versa. Secession would not improve our values. But it would practically ensure that the rest of the U.S. would drift farther away from our laid-back tolerance and easygoing diversity. And they'd still be our neighbors, geographic reality unchanged by political independence.
It reminds me of the old joke about a libertarian complaining to a conservative about civil liberties violations in America. "Bah! Love it or leave it," the conservative scolds. "What," the libertarian retorts, "and subject myself to its abusive foreign policy?"
Many of the arguments offered by the Yes California Independence Committee don't even pass a sniff test. "California has some of the best universities," one talking point begins, "but in various ways, our schools are among the worst in the country." If most other states are outperforming us in education, why would secession be necessary for improvement?
"California is a global leader on environmental issues," another item begins. "However, as long as the other states continue debating whether or not climate change is real, they will continue holding up real efforts to reduce carbon emissions." But if the United States minus California continues to do little or nothing nothing to combat climate change, Californians — along with the rest of the world — will suffer.
Evans acknowledged some of the dangers that secession invites in his newspaper op-ed article, though he naively dismissed all of them. "No one is going to pull money out of California if it secedes," he wrote, apparently oblivious to the fact that several major companies have already pulled out of the state and moved to cheaper ones even without the costs secession would impose.
"If the banks are too big to fail," he declared, "then a top 10 economy is too." But the banks did fail! And the odds of a Washington bailout would be rather slim once we cut ties. We'd be more like Greece to its Germany –– nicer weather, sure, but that ain't everything.
And did I mention Colorado River water?
The main benefit of a California exit would be psychic. There is a subset of people here, mostly from the privileged classes, who feel sullied by their political affiliation with Red America. Secession would boost their sense of personal virtue.
The Calexit movement is trying to exploit that.
But satisfying the urge for ideological purity would come at a very dear cost: a worse life for many millions of Californians and tens of millions of Americans.
Conor Friedersdorf is a contributing writer to Opinion, a staff writer at the Atlantic and founding editor of the Best of Journalism, a newsletter that curates exceptional nonfiction.
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