“Go to my website or use the hashtag #LetsGetTheCalOuttaHere!” shouts Gwyneth Paltrow in the Netflix series The Politician. Running for governor a platform of leading California’s secession from the United States, Paltrow’s character wins 98% of the vote.
This may be fiction, but California independence is gaining cultural currency and real-world urgency. Our own real governor, Gavin Newsom, frequently describes California as a “nation-state,” to make the point that the Golden State must act like an independent country to protect itself during the biggest pandemic in a century.
While conventional wisdom remains that California would never leave the union, who can put faith in conventional wisdom anymore? Polling suggests one-third of Californians support their state’s peaceful withdrawal from the nation. And there are relentless fights between the state and the White House over California’s attempts to protect its immigrants, women, healthcare, water, housing, environment, and elections.
Those battles are partisan, but electing a Democratic president is unlikely to bring state and nation together. The cause of the rift between Californians and Americans goes well beyond the political to the structural, the cultural, and the constitutional.
California is a modern democracy with a powerful initiative process that allows its highly diverse population to amend its constitution directly. The U.S., in contrast, is a majority-white country that clings to a 1789 constitution that permitted slavery, is nearly impossible to amend, and prohibits election of the president by popular vote.
The power of the U.S. presidency is largely unaccountable; one person in the Oval Office can start nuclear war without anyone else’s permission. Other branches are also sheltered from democratic interventions. Too much power lies with a U.S. Senate that gives California’s 40 million people the same two senators as Vermont’s 625,000. Difficult controversies are decided by a Supreme Court of highly politicized, life-tenured judges.
None of this makes California’s departure from the union likely. But it guarantees state-federal conflict, and more frequent California attempts to escape the union. How best to manage California’s independence bids in the years ahead?
The essential answer is: peacefully. To ensure peace, Calexit must be something that majorities in California and the United States both want. To rea