California has the size and economy of a good-sized country. But California is not a nation – which is why it would be so self-destructive to seek to become one.
It’s understandable why the election of an evil white supremacist swindler as president has given the idea of California independence such momentum. A secession movement has taken hold in the media, erected billboards and begun planning a referendum. Many Californians are renewing objections to how America’s 18th century governing system – the Electoral College and the U.S. Senate – works against California’s interests.
Last week, I was constantly asked about the possibility of California’s independence at a global forum on democracy in the Basque country, whose people have sought their own nation within the Iberian Peninsula for centuries.
So I answered California independence questions with my own query: Do you think we would be better off trying to go our own way?
The responses were sobering. The process of winning independence is always costlier than would-be secessionists think. Basques said they’ve sustained their effort only through a culture that prizes stubbornness and a willingness to fight.
Such nationalist feistiness is inspiring. But it is not very Californian.
California is an un-nation. More than a quarter of Californians were born in another country. Nations are defined by common descent, history, language or culture, but our differences make us so diverse.
It is our inclusive un-nationhood, not just our political preference for Democrats, that makes California the natural opposition to the prospect of a federal government peddling racist and xenophobic nationalism. That’s precisely why the idea of an independent California country is newly serious. And dangerous.
To be blunt: Do we really want to answer Trumpian nationalism with our own?
For our un-nation to retreat from the U.S. and pursue its own nationalist project would be nothing less than a betrayal of ourselves, a suicide of the universalist California idea.
It also would be a nasty business. The conflict could last decades, and the costs would mount politically and financially – and possibly in blood. We’d have to battle Congress to get its support if we wanted to leave peacefully, and we’d certainly have to take more than our share of America’s debts with us. And if things got so bad that we chose to leave without permission, do you really think a country as violent and war-prone as the United States would let its greatest province exit without a fight?
Inevitably, the fighting would pit Californian against Californian. Don’t forget: While Hillary Clinton won California by 29 percentage points and more than 3.5 million votes, one-third of California voters cast ballots for Trump, an uncomfortably large fifth column.
An independence war of choice makes no sense when we face so many other consequential fights: climate change, a migration crisis and stagnant incomes. Californians shouldn’t waste another second contemplating independence. We must instead focus on protecting people – regardless of race, religion or legal status – against whatever horrors the haters in Washington, D.C, might send our way.
But in doing so, we must be careful to avoid escalating the conflict. We must relentlessly work to convince Trumpist nationalists of their mistakes, and welcome them when they recognize error.
This Thanksgiving weekend, let’s give thanks for the United States, and for the fact that we’re its biggest, most powerful state, with plenty of weight to throw against Washington.
America, after all, is California’s nation. Why would we ever surrender it?
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at email@example.com.