California has lost its mind
Reflections on the howling insanity of the Calexit movement
The 2016 election has produced a stunning and arguably increasing level of denial from President Trump's opponents. They marked Presidents Day with protests using the slogan "Not My President." Protesters held a sprawling march for women in Washington, D.C., and other major cities even before the new president had begun setting policy, and now want a general strike on March 8. Opponents of Trump's immigration policies held a strike last week called "A Day Without Immigrants," the most immediate consequence of which was hundreds of people getting fired for walking off their jobs.
By far, however, the strangest reaction to losing the election comes from my native state of California, where activists want to take their electoral ball and go home. Political activist Louis Marinelli has organized an effort to qualify a ballot initiative in the spring of 2019 that would demand that Congress repeal the 1850 law that officially added California to the United States of America. The initiative requires more than 587,000 signatures from validly registered voters to get added to the ballot. Failing that, Marinelli plans to petition for an Article V convention to transform the Golden State back into a separate republic.
Officially called Yes California, the secession effort picked up the nickname "Calexit" on Twitter, an obvious reference to the "Brexit" referendum that ordered the U.K. to leave the European Union. That name also evokes a feature for which California is particularly well known — its freeways. Marinelli and his supporters want an off-ramp from the United States, and claim that "our Calexit referendum is about California joining the international community. … California could do more good as an independent country than it is able to do as just a U.S. state." Calexit organizers seem to forget that the United States fought a civil war over the issue of secession, and the secessionists lost.
Now, the Calexit vote is entirely meaningless — even if successful, it would only make a toothless "demand" of Congress. Still, the movement's rationale for trying to secede are telling in their ludicrousness.
Organizers lament that they cannot keep California's "coal, oil, and natural gas" for the state's own use, only to later argue that California has to lead the way on climate change by vastly reducing the use of those carbon-based energy sources. They complain about California schools being "among the worst in the nation" — as if the state government had nothing to do with that outcome. The petition also complains that California subsidizes the rest of the nation at the same time that the federal government has poured billions of dollars into a high-speed rail system that has barely progressed at all.
The more political arguments are equally ludicrous. They complain that California's Electoral College votes "haven't affected a presidential election since 1876." Actually, Electoral College votes have an effect in every election, regardless of outcome, and California's have more sway than any other state. Furthermore, the petition notes that Congress consists of "382 representatives and 98 senators we can't vote for," which can be said for California's legislature by every one of its counties and cities, too. Unless the Republic of California is to be governed by referendum or dictator, the petition is basically complaining about the very nature of representative government that it uses for itself.
As political initiatives go, Calexit is more incoherent than most. But if only Marinelli and his cohort had delved a little more carefully into the Constitution, they might have found a better solution to concerns from states about an overbearing and politically hostile administration: federalism.
A return to the federalist principles of the U.S. Constitution would solve most of the complaints in the Calexit petition. Tired of federal interference in educational choices? Want more of California's revenue to remain within California? Believe that the state's land should be returned to the state, rather than controlled by bureaucrats a continent away? The solution to that is a return to the principles of the Ninth and Tenth Amendments, which could be codified in an Article V convention through a further amendment. If California wants better fiscal discipline — a rather amusing demand, considering its own budgetary history — it could join a nascent Article V movement demanding a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution.
Calexit supporters might not find that terribly popular in a state dominated by Democrats, a party that has worked over the last several decades to consolidate power in Washington, D.C. Indeed, California's Democrats helped build the leviathan government that they suddenly loathe — now that Republicans have control of it.
Until they lost an election, Trump's opponents around the country didn't seem to have any problem with Washington controlling outcomes in their states. That makes their pleas for self-determination somewhat less than convincing as a principled stand. Rather than dreaming about a People's Republic of California, perhaps the supporters and opponents of President Trump can unite to restore federalism to the United States and make Washington a lot less relevant in all our lives.