It’s one of the oldest tricks in the California book of governance and public relations.
You’re an important person in an out-of-the-way California place, you’re mad about something, and nobody’s paying attention. So you announce your city, or your county, or your region, or your half of the state is going to secede.
Instantly, reporters from the Bay Area or L.A. are calling. They might even turn up in town and have lunch with you at the drugstore. Soon enough, you’ve had your statewide hearing.
So it’s hard to blame the supervisors of Siskiyou County for recently declaring their intention to leave California and create a new state with neighboring counties in the far north. Media lemmings across California – your columnist among them – promptly checked Google Maps to remind themselves where Siskiyou County is, and then dutifully broadcast the county’s concerns about fire protection fees, environmental regulation, dam removal, and Sacramento’s disrespect for the county’s rural, gun-oriented culture.
This, of course, is precisely the way that the “California Secession Threat” game is supposed to work. And fear not: It is a game. There’s no danger that such threats will drive the state apart. On the contrary, the California secession threat is part of the glue that binds our state together.
California requires a lot of this glue. When I attempted a count of California secession threats a couple of years ago, I found that public declarations of secession or proposals for splits had been made more than 200 times in our state’s history. That works out to more than once per year. In just the past three years, we’ve had secession threats from farmers in the San Joaquin Valley and from newly incorporated cities in Riverside County. Indeed, secession talk helped us become a state in the first place; the idea of splitting California drove some of the discussion at the original state constitutional convention in 1849 in Monterey.
One enduring characteristic of the California secession threat is that it tends to originate with people and regions that benefit the most from being part of California. Siskiyou County is a case in point: It’s one of those poor and rural places that receive far more in cash and services from Sacramento than they ever send in taxes. Maybe it’s all the fresh air up there, but sometimes those welfare cases on the Oregon border forget they’re being subsidized by those of us who toil on the urban coast.
If Siskiyou were serious about leaving the state, its supervisors would have launched their secession threat not with criticism of Sacramento (in a meager two-page resolution) but with some serious sucking-up to the state Legislature, which, along with the U.S. Congress, would have to approve any departure. The supervisors would have told their fellow separatists that they were happy to become an even poorer place – leaving behind rich friends in Silicon Valley and Hollywood – to enhance their sovereignty. And since forming a viable state would probably require the consolidation of costly local governments in the far north, the supervisors could have shown seriousness by offering a plan to dissolve the county and vote themselves out of office. But no: Siskiyou County quietly knows it needs those awful Maoists in Marin, or at least their tax dollars.
Still, just because secessionists aren’t particularly serious doesn’t mean their grievances don’t have some merit. California’s major regions have the size, the economies, and cohesive cultures of entire American states, yet these regions aren’t allowed to govern themselves. California has the most centralized governing system of any state (thanks to power-hungry governors, meddlesome courts, and our weakness for ballot initiatives), so it’s natural that people resent all the decisions made in too-distant Sacramento.
But it’s important we not forget the perverse bright side to frustration with California’s centralization: It helps keep us together. Our regions and communities are so different that, without our shared resentment of Sacramento, we would hardly have anything in common. The state government, in all its dysfunction, keeps giving us reasons to talk to one another.
I admit: Shared grievance over bad governance is not an ideal source of cohesion – but let’s build on what we’ve got. Our sprawl, our size, and our distance from one another define us a state. California is not unlike those couples who live separate lives but never divorce. (No wonder Bill and Hillary Clinton thrive here politically.)
So the rest of us Californians shouldn’t have any hard feelings about this secession talk from the good folks in Siskiyou. We know that, in threatening to leave, you’re just being Californian. Because if you live in this state and don’t dream of breaking away once in a while, you probably don’t belong.
Joe Mathews wrote this Connecting California column for www.zocalopublicsquare.org.