Gavin Newsom isn’t the first governor to describe California as a nation-state but he has been the term’s most vociferous gubernatorial exponent.
What does it mean?
Newsom offered this explanation in a recent interview with The Atlantic magazine:
“Look, we’re the fifth-largest economy in the world, 40 million strong, we’re as diverse a state as exists in this country, (with) 20-some percent of the state foreign-born.”
He continued: “This narrative of punching above our weight, this narrative around being a nation-state – that narrative is a big part of the California spirit, of being dreamers and doers, this entrepreneurialism that the future happens here first. There’s a pride in that; there’s perhaps an arrogance at times.”
With its population and its geographic, cultural, and economic diversity, California does, indeed, have many of the characteristics of a nation, and its governors have at times sought their own connections with foreign nations, whether or not they comported at the moment with Washington’s policies.
Newsom’s predecessor, Jerry Brown, was easily the most active governor in forging what amounted to a separate international relations policy, spectacularly symbolized by participating as a de facto head of state in global conferences on climate change.
The Practical Processes Would Be Daunting
The separateness of California from the federal government obviously widened when Donald Trump became president, especially during the first two years of his presidency when Republicans also controlled both houses of Congress, but it’s always been there regardless of the White House’s occupant.
It raises, not for the first time, the question of whether California could – or even should – go it alone, evolving from a nation-state into an independent nation, or more accurately returning to its brief, pre-statehood Bear Flag Republic days.
The practical processes would be daunting, even were the rest of the nation agree to allow California to break away. Would, for instance, the remaining 49-state nation insist that California pay for all of the federally owned property in its borders? Would California have to repay its portion of the federal debt, currently about $25 trillion? How about Social Security, Medicare, or military defense?
Were California to become a nation, it would occupy a position roughly analogous to Canada – a separate and presumably friendly country that indirectly depends on the adjacent United States for its strategic defense and therefore must only maintain a small military force.
California Could Probably Make It as a Separate Nation
Canada has 38 million people, just slightly fewer than California, and a national budget of $355 billion a year. California’s current state budget tops $200 billion, not counting another $100 billion or so that the federal government adds, principally for health and welfare programs.
Overall, according to a new study by the Rockefeller Institute of Government, Californians are paying $428.7 billion a year in federal taxes. It’s offset by $430.6 billion in federal spending in the state – money that flows into state and local government coffers, direct payments such as Social Security pensions and Medicare, and federal contracts and services.
In theory, therefore, it could be a financial wash were new state taxes to replace those now paid to Washington – but that doesn’t count the additional unknown costs of being a nation, such as creating and maintaining new military, diplomatic, scientific research, and intelligence agencies and a central bank.
California could probably make it as a separate nation and be free to set whatever policies it wishes without having to joust with a federal government. But should it? Were Trump to be re-elected in November, Calexit might become more than a theoretical notion.
CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.