Noticed the Calexit talk, and not sure what to make of it? Why not take a look at it through the lens of Brexit.
“Do you think Calexit is going to happen, Fi?”
“Ha, probably not…”
The above is almost a verbatim conversation that I had with a friend of mine from the U.K, shortly after Trump became President-elect. Despite both being students of politics and close observers of current affairs, neither of us continued the conversation. Mentally worn out from the consternation that were hallmarks of both Brexit and the U.S. Presidential election, the conversation shifted to something a bit more ebullient.
Calexit has been on my mind lately, as have other secessionist movements that seek to re-model political geography. While campaign efforts for groups such as Yes California or the Texas Nationalist Movement may be considered a utopian dream for some or an escape to nowhere for others, they should not be completely brushed aside or disregarded. After all, movements start somewhere.
The Scottish National Party (the SNP) — whose raison d’être is for Scotland to leave the UK — started of as a small, fringe party in 1934. Not only have they been the governing party of Scotland since 2007, but they were also at the forefront of galvanizing significant support for Scottish Independence in 2014. Forty five percent of the electorate voted Yes, on a participation rate of 84% — no mean feat when opinion polls throughout the years have indicated support for succession at much lower levels. The 300-year-old union is still on shaky ground, and the SNP are continuing to agitate for another independence referendum in the wake of “Brexit Britain”.
It would be erroneous, of course, to draw any direct comparison between Scotland and any secession movements in the U.S — the histories and constitutional arrangements are so fundamentally different. However, there are some similarities when one considers how grassroots movements gain traction over the years, and what strategies are adopted to mobilize support.
At this moment in history, there is a remote chance that Calexit will become a sociopolitical reality. Not only does the campaign need to gather a phenomenal amount of support, but there are also significant political and statutory obstacles that could throw cold water on the campaign early on. For example, if a Referendum does go ahead in the near future, any (potential) ‘yes’ outcome could be blocked by virtue of voter turnout clauses, not to mention it would require a U.S constitutional amendment that must be supported by Congress, and ratified by at least 38 states. The bar for any state to secede the U.S is set extremely high. Nevertheless, with Yes California asserting that they have thousands of bona fide ‘Calexiters’ energized to start campaigning, it could be more than achievable for the 585,407 required signatures from registered voters to materialize. This is the magic number if the initiative has any chance of appearing on the 2018 statewide ballot.
Aside from required electoral support, political will and issues relating to legality, the campaign is not without its controversies. Many are questioning why the President of Yes California has opened a “peoples embassy” in Moscow at the headquarters of a Russian nationalist organization. Considering Hillary achieved over 60% of the vote in California and the Democrats remain politically dominant within the state, it is difficult to imagine many being comfortable with any movement that is even considered to be aligned with a far right group. It is possible that this revelation — in the public domain — could impact support levels for Yes California. However, Trump may very well be the carrot at the end of the stick that encourages further support for secession and some Californians may vote with their feet — come hell or high water.
Yes California are not only using the Presidential election as political capital, but engaging in a form of identity politics that are central to most separatist movements — the ‘us’ v ‘them’ mentality. The organization is going to great lengths to posture California as inherently unique from the rest of the U.S and in a viable, strong economic situation to gain sovereignty. For example, their Blue Book markets California as having a series of identifiable traits, such as being a “global leader” in the fight against climate change, citizens who overwhelmingly support state-sponsored health care, and a land rich in minerals and other natural resources.
To be honest, I can think of several other states that are politically similar to California. Ergo, California is not entirely unique in its political expression, but its size, cultural diversity, presence of an internationally renowned entertainment industry, including its economic importance to the US, has enabled some to present the state as more unique than it actually is.
The Vice President of Yes California did not tiptoe around the issue of divisionism when he declared: “America already hates California, and America votes on emotions”. While this subversive statement is not grounded in reality, it cannot be ignored that the purpose of using such language is to intentionally divide the US, not only politically but also culturally.
Despite support for Yes California gaining a degree of popularity since the election of Trump, it is important to note that its roots go beyond the current Presidency. Both Yes California and the small California National Party (CNP) were founded prior to the US Presidential election — in 2014 and 2015, respectively. Calexit cannot simply be viewed as an antithesis of Trumpism, but partly a reaction to real or perceived sociopolitical differences, while also drawing upon inspirations from modern secessionist movements in Europe — mainly Scotland and Catalonia, Spain.
Since the end of the 20th century, California has cemented its reputation as being a significant bastion of liberalism and as such it is not surprising that some Californians fancy their state as an alternative model to the Federal Government.
While I suspect that Californians will not be leaving the Union anytime soon, Calexit is certainly something to be mindful of. As the saying goes, “the only predictable thing about life is its unpredictability”.