It was gun violence that ultimately caused California to secede from the United States.
A series of mass shootings culminated in a savage attack on a Sacramento-area school that killed 35 children and two cops. The shooters used high-capacity rifles, pistols and magazines – weapons that were illegal in California until the United States Supreme Court overturned the state’s gun control laws. Californians raged that Tory judges had indeed murdered their children.
That anger escalated into a cold civil war, with California’s elected leaders openly defying federal authorities and laws by banning most firearms. An authoritarian Republican president retaliated with an economic blockade of the state. After right-wing militias invaded the state and slaughtered California Highway Patrol officers, the governor declared his intention to leave the Union, subject to the outcome of a voter referendum.
This path to Californian nationality is a fiction, at least for the moment. But this narrative – coined by writer David French in his 2020 book Divided We Fall: America’s Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation – might be the most realistic scenario for a Calexit I’ve encountered.
The scenario has a particular power because the French is a careful and rigorous thinker who desperately wants the United States to remain united. A lawyer, military veteran, and champion of socially conservative causes, he is also true to America’s tradition of pluralism: he broke early and decisively with his allies to oppose President Trump and hard-line partisanship. His book is an unbiased examination of how Americans, not only across the political spectrum but also across the country’s geography, have come to hate those with whom they disagree.
French argues that this negative polarization is so extreme that the country may well separate. To demonstrate just how real the threat is, he offers two too possible scenarios – a departure from Texas rooted in abortion politics and a standoff over gun rights in California.
The Calexit scenario is based on Californians’ fears of a minority and illegitimate regime due to issues with the Senate, Electoral College and Supreme Court.
In French’s Calexit scenario, Republicans eliminate Senate filibustering to give their president extraordinary powers to subdue California. The Supreme Court is filled with conservatives because Republicans blocked previous appointments of Democratic presidents. Californians consider the president illegitimate because he lost the popular vote in an election marked by the suppression of voters.
When the governor of California declares her referendum on independence, she asks the president to respect the results of the vote. The Republican Commander-in-Chief, acknowledging that leaving California will ensure a conservative-dominated America, is seeking to encourage Californians to leave the Union. He is suing a conservative who is anathema to California and says that if Californians vote to stay in the Union, the state will come under military rule.
Thus, Californians vote overwhelmingly to leave the Union. Soon Oregon and Washington join them.
The French believe Americans can prevent such a split in their country by embracing tolerance and pluralism. He defends “the rights of communities and associations to govern themselves according to their values and beliefs – as long as they do not violate the fundamental rights of their dissident members”.
Despite his conservative views, he advocates, in the service of national unity, to let progressives in states like California go their own way.
If Americans don’t rediscover pluralism, the results will be bad not only for the country, but for the world, argues French. With the United States distracted by its own breakup, French suggests, China could seize Taiwan, Russia could reclaim Eastern Europe, and other secessionist conflicts could escalate.
It is sobering analysis. But in the light of this Californian, the end results of French’s Calexit scenario don’t sound so bad. New England is creating its own democratic nation. Millions of Americans are moving to places better aligned with their politics. And Californians seem happier.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.