For one quarter of the 19th century, Mexico City was California’s national capital. 

I wish it could be again.

I’ve been visiting Mexico City to plan a direct democracy conference there next year. And I’ve been struck by how well the Mexican capital’s sprawling greatness fits California. I also wonder if Mexico City’s recent advances in democratic sovereignty might inspire Californians as we defend ourselves against the U.S. government.

Mexico City, with nine million people within the city proper and 21 million in the metro region, is a giant global capital, worthy of the giant global state of California. Set in a large elevated valley, its landscape and weather feel more Californian than that swamp alongside the Potomac ever could. 

Mexico City would also be a practical improvement as California’s national capital. It’s hundreds of miles closer to California, and its major cities, than D.C.; a flight from LAX to Benito Juárez International Airport is more than an hour shorter than a flight to Dulles. 

But what really connects California to Mexico City is a shared interest in local sovereignty. In these areas, recent advances  in Mexico City are a story that should inspire California improvement. 

Until the 2010s, Mexico City and Washington were both federal districts—the “Distrito Federal” and the District of Columbia—with limited local power. That’s still true in DC, which hasn’t achieved statehood. But in recent years, Mexico City established itself as its own Mexican state. 

This new state needed a new constitution, or “Carta Magna.” So Mexico City embraced an unusually participatory constitutional processes, with an assembly of citizens and an online method that used, the San Francisco-based company, to allow citizens to propose constitutional provisions. 

Proposals receiving 10,000 signatures earned their sponsors a meeting with the drafting committee. In the end, online proposals on parks, gay rights, and disabled rights were included in the constitution. 

This Carta Magna created openings for forms of participatory and direct democracy, like the ones we use in California. But the document went even further, giving mayors and city halls of  to Mexico City’s 16 alcadías, or boroughs, and giving neighborhoods more control over public resources. This structure is already producing more small public spaces, and greater attention to neighborhood concerns. Imagine how transformational this model might be in California, where local communities suffer under a governing system that centralizes power in Sacramento.

Mexico City’s constitution is innovative in other ways. One article establishes the “right to the city.” This guarantees that Mexico City’s services and attractions are available to everyone. Another constitutional article, “Global City,” commits Mexico City to “peace, solidarity, hospital and asylum” and to participating in cooperative efforts with other cities and countries to improve policy around the world. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if California had a national capital with that opening and welcoming policy, instead of a Washington committed to nativism and protectionism? 

This Mexico City constitution has produced leadership of the sort that would fit the Golden State. Mexico City’s elected head of government is Claudia Sheinbaum, a climate scientist who did her doctoral research at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Sheinbaum has visited California to urge closer ties. We should take her advice; Mexico is rising economically and educationally, and producing more of the engineers and skilled workers that California lacks. And we’d be wise to cooperate with Mexico in rebuilding infrastructure, with an eye towards promoting sustainability and boosting trade with our largest export market.

But closer ties can’t be all about economics. We should also shift our attention and cultural exchanges from D.C. to Mexico City. (Full disclosure: this column is produced by a Los Angeles nonprofit, Zócalo Public Square, whose name is an homage to Mexico City’s greatest square).

California schools could start by teaching more Mexican history and by replacing the traditional class trip to Washington with journeys to Mexico City. California universities with programs in D.C. might consider relocating scholars and students to the Mexican capital, which also happens to be North America’s greatest city. 

At a time when D.C. has abandoned soft power and world engagement, Mexico City is all about soft power and world engagement. While D.C. embraces strong-arm tactics and digital surveillance, Mexico City shows what might be done by getting people to expand rights, rather than take them away. 

Mexico City may be a capital out of California’s past. But it now feels like a capital of the future.

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