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California is Where You Get to Start Over

View of Los Angeles highway rush hour traffic in Downtown LA

Next Week, California Voters will return to the polls for their first recall election since the 2003 recall of then-governor Gray Davis, that seated Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor of California. With the outcome of this election far from guaranteed, the US Democratic Party is taking no risks in their attempt to keep sitting governor Gavin Newsom in office. It’s even possible that his ouster could potentially trigger a loss of Democratic federal legislative power by their party at the national level. With the political fates of California and perhaps the United States as a whole in the balance, I thought it might be a great time to lay out the many current movements across California to either break away from the United States altogether or partition the state into multiple states. As author Tracy Chevalier put it in her novel, At the Edge of the Orchard: “California is where you get to start over.” Here are just a few approaches to starting over that have been proposed:

The Separation of California From the United States

Among the different flavors of separatist sentiments in California, independence from the United States is probably the boldest. California is not alone in having its own movement for state independence movement. Texas, Alaska, and Vermont are also home to prominent political independence movements in the US States. Where California stands out is in its sheer size. With a population of nearly 40 million, an independent California would become the world’s 37th largest nation by population (ranking between Iraq and Afghanistan). With a 2019 GDP of USD 3,137,469 (according to World Bank figures), It would rank as the 5th largest economy in the world – Between Germany and India. It’s easy to see why – on paper – pulling out of the US altogether might seem like a desirable option.

The main groups advocating for such a break-away are the California National Party, Yes California, and the California Freedom Coalition.

  1. The California National Party (CNP) was founded in 2015 when Californians inspired by the Scottish National Party and the 2014 Scottish independence referendum sought to replicate their efforts in the Golden State. The CNP is a center-left party that advocates for lawful and peaceful secession from the United States, a spirit of civic nationalism, and environmental protection. Presently, with only 425 members, the CNP is 72,575 short of the required number of members to achieve qualified party status by California state electoral rules. While, so far, the party has only run and lost only one campaign – for a community college district trusteeship – they are currently fielding Michael Loebs in the upcoming recall election.
  2. Yes California also came on the scene in 2015, when a New Yorker named Louis J. Marinelli founded the Political Action Committee from his home in Russia. Somewhat more obviously inspired by Scotland’s 2014 “indyref,” Yes California has been accused by the CNP of shadowy ties to the Russian government. Yes California seeks to achieve its aims by getting a “Calexit” referendum on the state ballot and winning majority support for legislation that would force the matter statewide. Yes California has only achieved a few protests and a trending hashtag (#calexit). After a flashy start, they ultimately withdrew their 2018 ballot initiative attempt and have yet to try for another. Whether or not they will again is an open question. 
  3. The California Freedom Coalition was founded in 2017. While its members hold out the possibility of secession – and advocated for such at the group’s founding, they are primarily focused on advocacy for greater representation for Californians at the national level. Unlike the CNP and Yes California, the CFC finds its inspiration in the Catalan separatist movement in Spain. The CFC, who also attempted a secession initiative in 2017, consists primarily of a think tank, an education fund, and an advocacy fund. Aside from political lobbying, they seem to be relegated to supporting the CNP’s efforts.

How any of these organizations intend to get past federal obstacles is a little unclear. However, it would seem that they are content to work within the current system at the local and state level and cross that bridge when they come to it. At present, none of them appear to be anywhere near achieving their goals.

The Partition of Califronia into Separate States

The partitionists are quite a bit more vocal than their secessionist cousins. Since the state’s founding in 1850, there have been no less than 15 proposals for the break up of the state. This might be expected given the shape and size of this 155,959 square mile behemoth of a state (the 3rd largest in the union). However, to date, none of these movements have gained much traction. Sticking to the present century, I’ll delve into just six of these movements:

  • Following the 2003 recall of governor Gray Davis, opinion columnists Martin Hutchinson and Tim Holtboth proposed a four-way divide of the state. They suggested plans which would split the state into geographical regions roughly along the lines of San Diego / Orange County / Inland Empire, Greater Los Angeles, San Francisco / Sacramento/ Santa Cruz / Silicon Valley, and Northern / Central Valley
Hutchinson’s hypothesis
  • Six years later, in 2009, former State Assemblyman Bill Maze pushed for a split that would have separated the Democratic Party leaning “Coastal California” or “Western California” from the rest of the state to make inland California into a conservative state. This 51st, West California would be comprised of Los Angeles, Ventura, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Monterey, San Benito, Santa Cruz, Santa Clara, San Mateo, San Francisco, Alameda, Contra Costa, and Marin Counties.
Maze’s map
  • Two Years later, in 2011, another Republican – Jeff Stone – Pushed for the establishment of a “South California” comprised of Riverside, Imperial, San Diego, Orange, San Bernardino, Kings, Kern, Fresno, Tulare, Inyo, Madera, Mariposa, Mono counties.
Stone’s southern strategy
  • At the End of 2013, Tim Draper – a venture capitalist – gave the California Attorney General a 6-page proposal for the establishment of “Six Californias.” A ballot initiative campaign ensued. Six Californias failed to recieve enough signatures to get on the 2016 ballot.
Draper’s draft
  • Paul Preston – a conservative talk radio host – formed New California in 2018 and pushed for a split very similar to Bill Maze’s 2009 plan and for many of the same reasons.
Preston’s plan
  • Later that same year, Cal 3 announced that it had received sufficient signatures to send their plan to split the state into three states to the 2018 ballot. The State Supreme Court sidelined this initiative for “further state constitutional review”.
Cal 3’s concept

Some interesting patterns emerge when one compares these proposals. Whether or not any future proposals gain any traction is an open question. However, we can reasonably expect any future proposals to follow roughly similar contours to the many schemes previously proposed.

The Separation and Re-Annexation of Part of California

Three breakaway movements in the Western United States seek to break off some portion of California. While legally complicated (these movements would have to achieve secession first and then reannexation into new territory), this approach tends to disregard the relevance of existing state borders altogether in its aim of making something altogether entirely new. The three main movements in question are The State of Jefferson, Greater Idaho, and the Cascadia Bioregionalist Movement.

  • In 2013, county supervisors in the border counties of Siskiyou and Modoc voted in favor of joining the “State of Jefferson” – a theoretical new state which would comprise the northern counties of Califonia and southern counties of Oregon, and has some limited traction among that region’s libertarian-right with roots back to the interwar 1930s.
Jefferson state flag
  • Just last year, a group calling themselves “Move Oregon’s Border For a Greater Idaho” pushed a plan somewhat parallel to that of the State of Jefferson. They sought to split MOST of Oregon and a few counties in Northern California and add them to a “Greater Idaho“.
  • Among the many variations on the Cascadia movement’s “independence of the Pacific Northwest from the US and Canada” theme, the map used by many bioregionalists covers territory overlapping All of Del Norte, humbioldt, and trinity Counties as well as parts of Siskiyou, Modoc, Lake, Medecino, Glenn, Tehama and Shasta Counties.
The Cascadian “Doug Flag” designed by Alexander Baretich

These movements are much more complex than any of the more straightforward secessionist and partitionist movements and I will deal with each of them in their own treatments later on. The coming political fight at the polls underscores political divisions within the state, which have sparked minor movements toward establishing something wholly different from California’s past. Whether or not these movements achieve anything approaching success will hinge upon the coming shifts in the politics of California and the United States as a whole. Stay tuned to these movements. The urge to start over isn’t going anywhere any time soon.

The Hutchinson, Six Californias, and Cal 3 partition maps are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

The Maze, Stone and Preston partition maps are made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

The Doug Flag is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license

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