Yesterday, Robert Paul Preston and Tom Reed launched “New California,” a movement that would make the rural, inland part of California into the nation’s fifty-first state while leaving the coastal cities to their own devices (but keeping San Diego for themselves.) This is the third movement in two years challenging California’s current statehood and relation to the rest of the country: in 2016, the “Six Californias” initiative that would create six separate states out of the Golden State failed to make the ballot; and the Yes, California/CalExit movement has never escaped its suspicious ties to Julian Assange and the Kremlin. This one will most likely fail as well, but it raises some strong, debatable questions.
In their declaration, Preston and Reed write, “The current state of California has become governed by a tyranny, which rivals those expressed in [the founding documents]…After years of over-taxation, regulation, and mono-party politics the state of California and many of its 58 counties have become ungovernable.” Rather than place the issue on a statewide ballot, as CalExit and Six Californias attempted, Preston and Reed base their plan off of Article IV, Section III of the Constitution: “no new state shall be formed…within the Jurisdiction of any other State; nor any State be formed by the Junction of two or more States, or Parts of States, without the Consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned as well as of the Congress.” They would raise the issue in the California Assembly, and once it passed there, it would then go to the House and Senate in Washington. They would then follow the examples of the founding documents by establishing local governing councils that would, presumably, evolve into new state legislatures, leading to a new state constitution and governor. Once accepted into the union, New California would be the sixth largest state, with 25-27 seats in the House, whereas the Old California would become the second most-populous state after Texas.
The German filmmaker Werner Herzog, who now lives in Los Angeles, says, “In the last half century, every significant cultural and technical trend has emerged from California,” a statement which I endorse both as a native Californian and an observer of its culture and politics. The United States doesn’t just need California, California needs California, and for the mass of land east of the coasts to become their own governing body would be cutting off their nose to spite their face. They believe they can do just fine without the big cities, like Los Angeles and San Francisco, and the state capitol in Sacramento demanding they pay higher taxes. But without access to California’s education and healthcare systems, how would they thrive? What would they do without access to tech money? What would happen to the Central Valley as part of New California if it couldn’t access water from the old one? If these counties feel vexed by state politics, then they should start organizing on the local level first rather than pushing for independence. If the state saw that their community improvement initiatives were successful, then they could be a model for other small-town organizers. That way, they wouldn’t feel left out of the larger world of politics.
But New California does raise one issue worth debating, as New York reporter Eric Levitz wrote in today’s “Daily Intelligencer” column – disproportionate representation in the U.S. Senate:
“At the republic’s founding, the most populous state in the union was home to 11 times more people than the smallest; today, that disparity is more than six times as large: California’s 39 million residents have as much say in the Senate as Wyoming’s 585,000…Small states leverage their disproportionate influence to secure themselves more federal aid per capita than large ones. More critically, while there are bastions of progressive overrepresentation…the combination of the Senate’s bias towards conservatism and its use of the filibuster has killed many pieces of popular, progressive legislation in recent years.”
Levitz raises an interesting point: the two chambers of the legislative branch were created with two different purposes in mind, but they’re now at odds with each other as demography makes one more progressive than the other. This is partly why the Democrats have better odds at flipping the House this year than the Senate (although that may go our way too.) Senators wield more influence than representatives, serve longer terms than representatives, and can wreak more havoc on our government than representatives – after all, it was the Senate that refused to hear Merrick Garland, not the House. New states would, Levitz argues, help move the Senate towards progressivism, starting with the additions of Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico. And, while “New California” is more conservative than the coast, it still votes for the Democrats pretty regularly, as reporter J. Miles Coleman pointed out on his Twitter page.
For now, California seems likely to remain whole. But the issue of secession should force us to ask tough questions as shifting demographics will create greater disparities in the populations from state to state. Is the best way forward to split larger states into smaller chunks? Are we better off organizing all states around their urban economies rather than their agrarian ones? And if we fear the electoral college mitigating the popular vote, would we be better off splitting larger states so they have less influence, or just eliminating it all together? We may not have answers, and Preston and Reed may not either, but to quote 1776, “I never seen, heard nor smelled an issue that was so dangerous it couldn’t be talked about.”
Jeremy Fassler is a writer and journalist living in Brooklyn, New York.