What Would Actually Happen if California Seceded from the US?
After #Calexit became a prominent hashtag, I asked some experts what would happen if a post-Trump fantasy became reality.
Photo via Flickr user Martin Jambon
The people of the United States just chose as their president a right-wing, anti-immigrant populist. So, naturally, in the week since Donald Trump was elected president, the left-wing, pro-immigrant State of California has begun toying with the idea of splitting off and doing its own thing.
The seemingly new #Calexit movement is actually less of a movement than a hashtag that sprang up last week, and soon got perpetuated by members of the already-existing Yes California movement. As I reported back in February, the secessionist California National Party has been making small ripples in the California political scene all year, including some (very limited) recognition from the actual California secretary of state. Still, the former platform of the CNP (basically, "believe what you want, as long as you also believe California is a country") didn't exactly seem like it was about to become California's ascendant political ideology before November 8.
But two days after the election, leader of the Yes California organization Louis Marinelli tweeted about a spike in interest in his movement, including 12,000 Facebook likes, 10,000 Twitter followers, 9,000 new party volunteers, 18,000 unanswered emails, and 2 million site visits.
Let me be clear, Californian nationhood is a very unlikely hypothetical, but some crazy hypotheticals come true. Still, not many historians or political scientists were willing to come along with me on this crazy trip. So it's tough to say for sure, but if there really were such thing as Calexit, here's what might happen:
Brendan O'Leary, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania and a former resident of not one but two partitioned countries, Northern Ireland and Sudan, suggested that the mere threat of Calexit could be a bargaining tactic. He told me in an email that it was "interesting to consider how California might bargain in favor of better federal policies." He pondered the idea that if California stayed in the union, and agreed to get rid of President Trump's hated sanctuary city policies, the state could earn concessions without seceding. One possible concession O'Leary suggested: "No federal taxation to be collected from California."
As a Californian myself, that does sound pretty good.
When countries break apart, some people end up inside the new country who want to be in the old country. This happened during the partitioning of India, when Muslims fled to Pakistan and Bangladesh while non-Muslims went the opposite way. Here in the US, there were rebellions by British loyalists during the Revolutionary War, and by Union loyalists during the Civil War.
So in all likelihood, even if Calexit went to a vote and passed, like Brexit did, not everyone in California would cheerfully give up their blue passports to become ex-Americans. If I had to guess who these loyalists would be, I would start with the 2,963,999 Californians who voted for Trump.
The United States doesn't recognize secessionists. It spelled this out in 1869, shortly after the Civil War, when the Supreme Court wrote its decision in the case of Texas v. White: "Acts in furtherance or support of rebellion against the United States, or intended to defeat the just rights of citizens, and other acts of like nature, must, in general, be regarded as invalid and void." In other words, if your state declares itself a separate country, the US still considers it a state—a naughty state, but still a state.
That is, of course, unless you win a war against the US, which no state has done yet.
California's State Military Reserve, a volunteer force that answers emergency calls from the governor, is California's version of a standing army. Could it win a war against the rest of the US? That's hard to picture. California's would-be fighting force would have to compete with—or maybe take over?—US military strongholds inside California like Vandenberg Air Force Base, where intercontinental ballistic missiles are tested from time to time, and the sprawling Marine base at Camp Pendleton. The David-and-Goliath matchup sounds like a fun movie, but probably wouldn't end in a California victory.
The tenor of relations between two countries that used to be one country seems to be a mixed bag, even when the countries are in the developed world. For instance, things seem pretty sunny in former Czechoslovakia these days, given the way Czech citizens recently responded by mostly being pretty open to the idea of a Slovakian citizen being a member of their federal government. Relations between the Republic of Ireland and the UK are also pretty peaceful lately, although memories of factional violence get brought up pretty often. The counterexample is that North and South Korea don't get along.
So really who knows?
Bad News for Liberals
The Trump-led federal government might want to let California go peacefully. It would be a popular move, since according to some 2012 Public Policy Polling results, America on the whole hates California more than any other state. But letting California walk away could also be politically advantageous for conservatives. The state makes up a little over 20 percent of the electoral college votes a Democratic candidate needs to become president. If the most populous blue state vanished from the electoral map, that will most likely still help Republicans secure their next presidential victory.
Given the overwhelming Democratic makeup of its own legislature, there's a real chance that California would become a Republican's nightmare—a bilingual European-style socialist utopia, free to run wild with environmental regulations, laws that support and defend its LGBTQ and minority populations, and progressive drug legalization policies. But it will no doubt leave other blue states feeling politically abandoned. In other words, as O'Leary told me, "As a Pennsylvanian, I need California to stay in the US to keep hopes of sanity alive."
Possible Trade War
"I have one word for you to ponder: water," O'Leary told me. Water is a resource California can't really spare, since it imports huge quantities of the life-giving liquid from out of state. "Would California import its water from Canada?" O'Leary asked. And it's not just a lack of water that leaves California's fate as an independent country a bit mysterious. It's worth wondering whether California could survive without the other resources it simply can't produce, like natural gas and naive Midwestern Hollywood ingénues.
President Trump has already announced that he wants to renegotiate trade with the two countries currently bordering the US. California could wind up being a new fourth member country at the negotiating table for NAFTA 2, but negotiations will ostensibly be more ruthless than ever under Trump. If true, that's a troubling sign for California.
China is already reminding Trump that it holds bargaining chips like America's supply of iPhones and cars if he follows through on his promises to start a trade war. If California found itself in a similar spot, it might remind their president that it could cut off an export we all know Trump can't live without: reality TV.
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Note: Contrary to a previous version of this article, Louis Marinelli is no longer the head of the California National Party, and the party has specified its political platform since February.