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“Go to my website or use the hashtag #LetsGetTheCalOuttaHere!” shouts Gwyneth Paltrow in the Netflix series The Politician. Running for governor on a platform of leading California’s secession from the United States, Paltrow’s character wins 98 percent of the vote.

portrait of columnist Joe Mathews

Joe Mathews

Opinion

This may be fiction, but California independence is gaining cultural currency and real-world urgency. Our own real governor, Gavin Newsom, frequently describes California as a “nation-state,” to make the point that the Golden State must act like an independent country to protect itself during the biggest pandemic in a century.

While conventional wisdom remains that California would never leave the union, who can put faith in conventional wisdom anymore? Polling suggests one-third of Californians support their state’s peaceful withdrawal from the nation. And there are relentless fights between the state and the White House over California’s attempts to protect its immigrants, women, healthcare, water, housing, environment, and elections.

Big Rift Between Nation and State

Those battles are partisan, but electing a Democratic president is unlikely to bring state and nation together. The cause of the rift between Californians and Americans goes well beyond the political to the structural, the cultural, and the constitutional.

California is a modern democracy with a powerful initiative process that allows its highly diverse population to amend its constitution directly. The U.S., in contrast, is a majority-white country that clings to a 1789 constitution that permitted slavery, is nearly impossible to amend and prohibits election of the president by popular vote.

The power of the U.S. presidency is largely unaccountable; one person in the Oval Office can start nuclear war without anyone else’s permission. Other branches are also sheltered from democratic interventions. Too much power lies with a U.S. Senate that gives California’s 40 million people the same two senators as Vermont’s 625,000. Difficult controversies are decided by a Supreme Court of highly politicized, life-tenured judges.

Time for the United States to Write a Modern Constitution

None of this makes California’s departure from the union likely.  But it guarantees state-federal conflict, and more frequent California attempts to escape the union. How best to manage California’s independence bids in the years ahead?

California is a modern democracy with a powerful initiative process that allows its highly diverse population to amend its constitution directly. The U.S., in contrast, is a majority-white country that clings to a 1789 constitution that permitted slavery, is nearly impossible to amend and prohibits election of the president by popular vote.

The essential answer is: peacefully. To ensure peace, Calexit must be something that majorities in California and the United States both want.  To reach such a double consensus, California must create a process that reconsiders the future of the entire United States. If California ever decides to leave the United States and form a new country, it must try to transform the United States into a new country first.

Right now is an auspicious time for reconsideration. With protestors toppling statues of the founders and institutions pledging to end systemic racism, the place to start is by replacing America’s original system—the Constitution.

This suggestion will enrage Americans who deify their constitution. Americans assume, wrongly, that the end of our current constitution would mean the end of freedom and democracy.

But it’s not true: Ending one republic does not mean the end of a nation. It means starting a new republic. The French are on their fifth republic.

California Is Perfect Place to Start

California, the nation’s most creative and populous state, is the perfect place to start rewriting the U.S. Constitution. California should convene scholars and representatives from as many states as possible to draft a new American Constitution. Such a body would examine constitutions all over the world and create the most advanced 21st-century governing system possible.

A new constitution offers the opportunity to re-found the United States under present-day ideals of human rights and justice. Instead of a constitution that started in slavery, we could have a constitution that barred discrimination of any kind. Women could be officially equal. A new constitution could provide for truly national elections, national referenda for major decisions (like going to war), and proportional representation to end our polarizing, winner-take-all political culture. The new constitution could commit America to environmental protection of the planet.

A new constitution could provide for truly national elections, national referenda for major decisions (like going to war), and proportional representation to end our polarizing, winner-take-all political culture.

Once that document is drafted, California voters would decide whether to approve it. Once approved, the proposed constitution would be sent to the other 49 states, asking them to adopt it. The other states could accept our constitutional proposal, or amend it, or call a constitutional convention, under Article V of the current constitution. If a new constitution, California would have given its country a new lease on life; the U.S. could stop measuring policies against centuries-old precedents, and start planning for the future.

If other states rejected the document, California could choose: stay within the U.S. or attempt to negotiate a peaceful exit.

The good news: If the state sought independence, it wouldn’t have to draft a new constitution. It could simply use the constitution it drafted for the U.S. as its own governing document.

In this scenario, California could walk away in good conscience, having done everything it could to save America from itself.

About the Author 

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

7 Responses

  1. Ray West

    (1) Institute term limits for all judges, 12 years, including the Supreme Court.
    (2) Allot States one Senator for each 8,000,000 population, with each State having a minimum of one Senator. California would have 5 Senators, Vermont would have one.
    (3) Popular election of President. Eliminate the Electoral College.
    (4) Reform the legal system whereby each citizen has equal representation in the courts, regardless of wealth.

    Reply
    • Walter L. Williams, Ph.D.

      Ray West gives several good ideas for changes that need to be made in the U.S. Constitution., such as term limits for judges. However, I would go beyond that and have judges nominated by a board of leading members of the American Bar Association, and appointed by a majority vote in the Senate. The U.S. President has entirely too much power, and the power to nominate judges should be moved to the Senate and taken away from the Imperial Presidency.
      Ray’s idea to allot States one Senator for every 8 million people, with every small state having at least one Senator. Thus, California would have 5 Senators, while the next top ten states would have 4 to 2 Senators, and the least populous 39 states would have one Senator each. This is certainly an improvement over the present Senate, but it still severely undercounts the voters in the large states. Since three-fourths of the states have less than 8 million, this is not a good metric. A better number would one Senator for every TWO million people, since 16 states (over one-fourth of the number of states) have less than 2 million, so they would have one Senator each. Those ten states with 4 million, which are exactly at the median size of states, would have two Senators, and the next five states, with 6 million people, would have three Senators each. For the largest populated states: Virginia, New Jersey, and North Carolina (each with around 8 million people) would have four Senators each. Georgia and Michigan would have five Senators each. Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Illinois would have six Senators each. Florida and New York would have ten Senators each. Texas would have thirteen Senators, and the largest state California would have twenty Senators. This is a much more equitable calculation.
      If the Senate is going to be apportioned by population, there is no need for the House of Representatives. This lower body of Congress is so large that it is practically impossible to get the work of governance done. A unicameral legislature is much more efficient than the current gridlock of the two houses of Congress.
      Elimination of the Electoral College has long been a suggestion by reformers, but to change this would require an Amendment to the Constitution. Amendments must be agreed to by 38 states, which makes it almost impossible that these small states would give up their power.
      Lastly, the American criminal justice system (which has little to do with justice) is astoundingly bad, and to change it would require so many changes on so many levels as to be near impossible.
      What this means is that it will be virtually impossible for his logical and important reforms to be made within the current U.S. governmental system. California, Oregon, Washington, Hawai’i and Nevada are getting increasingly discouraged about the bleak potential for change within the United States, no matter which political party is in power. More and more people are favoring a peaceful separation to establish a new nation on the Pacific coast. The name PACIFICA is the most popular name for such a nation, if these five states decide to secede and join together. Also, activists in Baja California in Mexico are pushing to secede from Mexico and join an independent California. The near future will mark the success or failure of such a secessionist movement.

      Reply
  2. The truth

    If California succeeds from Union the Mexican government will waste no time in annexing it’s stolen territory by force if necessary.

    Reply
    • Walter Williams

      Readers could more likely consider ideas suggested by “The Truth” if The Truth could learn to spell. The word for leaving the U.S. is “secede” not “succeed.” However, California might indeed SUCCEED in SECEDING if the only opposition is like this. Second, the word “it’s’ is a contraction for “it is.” This is a common mistake, because the English language is so inconsistent. But any writer should learn the difference between the possessive word “its” (without an apostrophe) and “it’s” (it is).
      Regarding the claim that if California secedes, the Mexican government will launch an invasion to retake its stolen territory: what is the evidence for this claim? The Truth gives no citations or references at all, so it is hard to know where TT got the idea to make this claim. California is much more likely to face opposition from the USA than from Mexico. On the contrary, many local activists in Baja California favor seceding from Mexico and joining an independent California nation. The federal government of Mexico has not reacted negatively to the calls for Baja California to secede and join Alta California. If they have not reacted negatively to secession publicity for Baja California Norte and Baja California Sur (the two Mexican states that are directly south of Alta California), then it seems safe to predict they will not react negatively to an independent California. If “The Truth” makes a claim, evidence to support that claim is necessary. Otherwise, it is just a wild guess by an individual who may or may not know much about the subject. That claim is most certainly not The Truth.

      Reply
  3. Dan Tana

    California government picks and chooses which part of The Constitution it recognizes anyway. The rest of the U.S. would be better off with this bastion of socialism leaving the Union.
    New Constitution? Let me guess, it would leave out the 2nd Amendment? Do people really not understand that the 2nd Amendment helps protect the 1st Amendment and the rest of the Bill of Rights?
    Please do secede from the Union, California, only Chicago and parts of the east coast will miss you.

    Reply
  4. The truth

    After the Mexican American war Mexico started to regenerate economically along with its patriotism. Mexico population is growing and in next hundred years the state of California will be part of Mexico. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=12eNAovkDTM this information is from Stratford. In my humble opinion it is best to preserve the union and fix US Constitution and for California not to secede. We must also apologize to Mexico for bogus treaty and hopefully ambitions can be put to rest between two countries.

    Reply
  5. Sir Walnut I

    Let there be a constitutional convention that includes human rights. California should not secede from Union it is pointless and will require passport checks on entry to California. We should allow Canada and Mexico and rest of the America’s to join the union if they want to so this country can live up to its name America.

    Reply

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