With some regularity since California joined the union in 1850, efforts have been made to split the state. Thanks to governmental and bureaucratic inertia, big ideas don’t often move far in politics, and these proposals face odds similar to those of repealing the Second Amendment or abolishing the Electoral College. They have gone nowhere—and they will go nowhere.
The most serious proposals were floated in 1941, 1965, and 1992. In the first case, the idea to create a northern state of Jefferson died when Pearl Harbor was attacked. The other two attempts made it through the state Senate before being killed in the state Assembly.
In 2014, billionaire tech investor Tim Draper campaigned to split California into six states. His initiative failed to garner enough signatures to land on the November 2016 ballot, and now Draper is back with a more modest proposal to split the state into three. He thinks he has enough signatures this time, since he needs fewer than half of what was required in his first attempt, thanks to the arcane way California determines these things.
As Draper’s 600,000-plus signatures await review by the state, another attempt is underway. Informally dubbed Calexit, the California Self-Determination Referendum Act received approval on April 23 to begin collecting signatures to be placed on the November 2020 ballot. If the act passes, the referendum vote for independence will take place the following May. Why 2020 and not 2018? It’s all about odds: Its proponents expect the referendum to succeed if President Trump wins reelection.
“If President Trump is reelected in 2020, Californians will want to secede from the United States just as they wanted to following the 2016 election,” said co-sponsor Marcus Ruiz Evans. “This ballot measure we are now circulating will make this vote possible. We are asking the people to hedge their bet in 2020: vote against Donald Trump, but at the same time vote to schedule an independence referendum for six months later on May 4, 2021.”
Oddly—and fodder for conspiracy theorists—Evans and the other co-founder of the Yes California organization have ties to Russia.
It’s easy to see why some believe California should be split, and even to sympathize. The rural-urban divide in California is enormous and often exacerbated by left-right politics. Water rights loom large: Not too long ago, farmers in some areas saw their irrigation water diverted to protect the endangered Delta smelt. The prisons that have sprouted up in California over the past several decades have been the rural dumping grounds for urban criminals. In short, rural Californians think that those in L.A. or San Francisco don’t understand or appreciate them, but exploit them and leave them to deal with all the state’s problems, and it shows in the politics of the place.
The rural-urban divide, which drives the Tim Draper effort to split the state into three, is not unique to California. Just drive south or west from Chicago, or northwest from New York City, and you’ll get a vastly different impression of Illinois and of New York. The same can be said of many states, including my adopted home state of Missouri, where St. Louis and Kansas City are often antithetical to what lies between them.
This divide is what needs to be overcome. A 2014 survey by Pew on political polarization found that only 4 percent of “consistently conservative” respondents preferred city life, compared with 46 percent of the “consistently liberal.” After the 2016 election, there were numerous calls by progressives for liberals to move to red states and turn them purple. Apparently, this migration is taking place, but not for political reasons. High cost of living and high state taxes are fueling an exodus. An annual study of national moving companies found that the three top “outbound” states in 2017, the ones with the most residents departing, were Illinois, New Jersey, and New York. A Wall Street Journal essay by economists Arthur Laffer and Stephen Moore predicts that up to 800,000 people will soon flee California and New York due to high taxes.
The fact is, the people who are “splitting” California are those who are leaving it—as my family did several years ago. When we left California in December 2000 to move to St. Louis, the state was in crisis and couldn’t keep the lights on—literally, given rolling blackouts in an energy crisis that led, in part, to the governor’s recall in 2003. The high cost of living put the idyllic California lifestyle out of reach for many who needed to reside within commuting distance of the cities, even relatively affordable Sacramento. And, yes, laws and culture were moving leftward quickly. It’s hard to believe that only a decade ago, 52 percent of Californians voted in favor of a state constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage.
Despite our departure and the ways California has changed, I remain in love with California’s beauty as expressed in both its natural and its historic resources. Thinking about this makes me bullish on the state and bearish on splitting.
When my mother passed away in 2010, we flew home to Santa Rosa, a little north of San Francisco, for the funeral. I’ve always considered Santa Rosa my hometown. It’s where my parents grew up and met; where my four grandparents and two great-grandmothers lived, worked, and are buried; and where cousins, aunts, and uncles still live. Much had changed in the area, but the places I loved most had not. We drove to the redwoods along the Russian River and the beach near Bodega. We wandered the Marin Headlands and sampled the Italian cuisine in Occidental, a hidden gem of a town tucked quietly in the Coastal Range.
Back again in 2016 to celebrate my father’s eightieth birthday in Palm Desert, we revisited the places that my wife and I had always appreciated in Southern California, specifically in Orange County, where we lived after we got married, such as the marina at Dana Point (my wife’s favorite) and the mission in San Juan Capistrano (mine).
But it’s not just the scenery—it’s something deeper, a spirit of the place. I’m reminded of how, starting around when the American colonists were arguing with the British, St. Junipero Serra and his band of Franciscan friars erected a series of mission outposts, from San Diego north to Sonoma. Some of these missions are now state parks; some are still operating as Catholic churches. It’s often been said that reading California place names is like praying the litany of saints, and preserving and reflecting on the missions in California is an important way of understanding the historic unity of the state.
Across the decades, from these missions to the 1848 discovery of gold in the Sierras to the relocation of the entertainment industry from New York to Hollywood to the growth of Silicon Valley, California has been fertile ground for innovation and discovery and has brought both good and ill—mostly good, fortunately—to the world.
Living in the Midwest, I smile when someone tells me how crazy or immoral California is. As right as they may be (up to a point), I think of the many ways my beloved Flyover Country has benefited from California—whether it’s the wine we drink, the movie we just saw, or the smartphone in our pocket. I think of the many famous Californians who did great things despite their flaws.
Splitting California will not fix it. More promising are the innovation and unity that span the state and tie it together like the California Aqueduct itself. Every county and community has a role to play, and their roles are as diverse as the counties themselves.
Californians should reflect on their state’s cultural backbone as well, and look to the missions, which some in the state deride as dark-age dungeons to be destroyed, and call on the litany of their saints for help—especially those powerful intercessors for the two major cities, Our Lady Queen of Angels and St. Francis of Assisi. I am sure these two are kept busy interceding on behalf of the cities’ residents; for they surely know that, in the end, what ails California cannot be solved by politics. The real healing lies elsewhere.
K. E. Colombini is a former journalist who works in corporate communications.