California First, America Whatever

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

Dear America,

I suppose I should wish you happy birthday. But I’m just not feeling it.

You and I, the United States and California, used to be pretty darn close—“indivisible” was your word and “inseparable” was mine. Sure, we had our differences—I’ve always been a little out there—but

America wouldn’t be America without California, and California was proudly part of America, which tolerated our excesses for our mutual glory.

But you and I have been drifting apart. Today, I look at you and feel like I’m an entirely different place, with different values, even different realities. And I find myself wondering: Do you and I have a future together?

I’ll be blunt—the problem is not me. It’s you. While I’m the almond-producing state, you’re the one who has gone nuts.

Everyone is entitled to a mid-life crisis, even 18th-century republics. But you are having an especially nasty one. I feel like you’ve turned against everything you used to love: immigrants, trade, international alliances, voting rights, women’s rights, science, national parks, infrastructure, and treating people with respect.

These days, you’re constantly freaking out. And the government you installed in Washington—a government my voters opposed by historic margins—is trying to take away people’s health care, make it harder to vote, roll back environmental regulations, restart the failed drug war, and pick fights with my trading partners, perfectly friendly countries like Mexico, Canada, Germany, Sweden, and South Korea.

Your crazy nonsense is pretty bad. But here’s what’s even worse: Your people, your media, and your elected officials keep trying to justify your crack-up as just a natural reaction to what you say is my awfulness. In your narrative, I’m too coastal, too elite, too rich, too educated, too Hollywood, too tech, too globalist, too uninterested in the pain of the rest of the country, and thus too out of touch with you. And so you’ve had to go stone-cold crazy to get my attention, to wake me up.

That thesis is—how do I put this?—exactly what the cows drop in Tulare pastures after a good feed.

I shouldn’t have to say this, but my people and I know the pain of poverty (we’re tops in the nation in it), economic dislocation (just look back at the carnage of our 1990s recession and our 2000s housing crisis), and drug abuse (the opiod epidemic is here, thank you). There is no American malady I don’t suffer, with the exception of bad winter weather.

So the fact that you keep projecting your outrageous behavior onto me tells me that you’ve taken leave of your senses. I’m also worried that you’re going get me nuked by North Korea.

So, going forward, our relationship can’t be the same.

Now, I’m not going to march out the door and become my own country, like the crazy, Russia-compromised #Calexit movement proposed. You are still my country, and I’m not surrendering you.

But I do need to put some distance between you and me. I need some boundaries (and I don’t mean a wall). I must think about my own needs first.

A few weeks ago, a small group of Californians filed a ballot initiative that will give me some space. The initiative, called “California’s Future: A Path to Independence,” does have a separatist bent—it takes “inseparable” out of the California constitution’s line about California being part of the United States. But it’s agnostic on the idea of California leaving the Union.

“America, whatever” is its attitude; “California first,” is its policy. The initiative sets up a structure with the express purpose of “buffering Californians” and their values “against chaos, dysfunction, and uncertainty at the federal level.”

While you slide toward republican authoritarianism, the initiative proposes that California—a place where the people who get the most votes actually win the elections—will stick up for democracy. We will fight for the right of adult citizens to vote and will challenge attacks on our immigrants, our world-class cities, and our anti-smog policies.

“As Californians, we have much to gain and little to lose by pursuing autonomy,” the measure says, adding that it’s time for “California to take stock of the leverage it has over the United States, and to use this leverage to negotiate for ever greater autonomy.” For example, my people should seek changes to tax and budgeting policy so that I’m not paying more in taxes than I’m getting back in services. And I’m not interested in subsidizing your irresponsible debt or your constant wars.

The initiative’s proposed commission — which is modeled on one of California’s existing government reform body, known as the Little Hoover Commission — would pursue both federal and state policy changes and demand progress from elected leaders on ever-greater California autonomy. If we ever wanted to secede entirely, the commission would oversee negotiations with the U.S.

It’s not a perfect idea. For one thing, the initiative would name the commission after Juan Bautista Alvarado, an obscure 1840s governor who supported greater California autonomy under Mexican rule. But he also had a drinking problem so bad that he didn’t make it to his own Santa Clara wedding (his half-brother had to stand in for him). It would be better to name the commission for General William Tecumseh Sherman, who is both a major California figure (as an Army officer during the Gold Rush and a leading banker of 1850s San Francisco) and an American military hero who famously marched through a few red states with voter registration issues.

Yes, I’m going my own way. But my people are just as American as yours, and so on July 4, I’ll still host many millions of barbecues, and enough patriotic parades and fireworks displays for 39.5 million of your citizens. Back east of the Sierra, I hope your celebrations are bigger and louder than ever, and that your people will stand extra close to the fireworks.

Maybe all the explosions will wake you the hell up.

Independently yours,

California

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zocalo Public Square.

Share this article: Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInPin on PinterestEmail this to someone

Comment on this article


Please note, statements and opinions expressed on the Fox&Hounds Blog are solely those of their respective authors and may not represent the views of Fox&Hounds Daily or its employees thereof. Fox&Hounds Daily is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the site's bloggers.