A group called Yes, California is trying to get a secession referendum on the 2018 ballot, what has been labeled “Calexit.” Secession faces long odds, even if Californians get to vote.
California is not the first state to recently consider secession. Secession petitions circulated in every state after the 2012 election. Over 125,000 signatures were collected in Texas, where the Texas Nationalist Movement is now pushing “Texit.”
Donald Trump’s election in November sparked protests across the nation, with protesters using the Twitter hashtag #notmypresident. Many Blue state liberals seem unwilling to accept Mr. Trump’s election. This perhaps should be no surprise, as many Red state conservatives never accepted Barrack Obama’s presidency as legitimate. Delegates to the 2016 Republican National Convention chanted “Lock her up,” about Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. An August 2016 poll found that 40% of Texans would favor secession if Ms. Clinton were elected.
The secession movements represent a logical extension of the growing Red versus Blue state chasm in American politics. Is the political divide approaching the point where America can no longer be one nation? And if so, what would be the consequences?
Secession offers a policy advantage. Many laws and policies must be the same for everyone within a nation. America has one president: Ms. Clinton cannot be Democrats’ president, with Mr. Trump governing Republicans. Social Security either exists or does not exist. Separate Blue and Red “nations” could set their own policies, reflecting divergent values.
Despite the nastiness of American politics, neither liberals nor conservatives today are realizing their ideal policies. The Affordable Care Act is not government-run healthcare, while a $15 minimum wage has no chance of approval by the Republican congress. Fiscal conservatives fear that Social Security and Medicare will bankrupt the nation, and yet reform does not happen.
Secession offers perhaps the only hope for either liberals or conservatives to experience a government approaching their ideal. Neither side seems likely to force its vision on the other, leaving both continually disappointed with compromises.
What about the consequences? America has enjoyed both economic and political benefits from being one nation. The economic benefits arise from the freedoms to trade and move within our nation’s borders. Economist Adam Smith recognized how the division of labor drove the massive increases in productivity during the Industrial Revolution, and that a larger market allowed for a more extensive division of labor. The U.S. has benefited from being a single large market, relative to the nations of Europe.
The U.S. also experienced domestic peace, with the exception of the Civil War, in contrast with the wars plaguing Europe for centuries. America could maintain a tiny peacetime military and invest in building our economy. Peace also encourages economic integration, since the disruption of an extensive division of labor has terrible consequences.
America’s unity and the ensuing economic and political benefits were, I think, a consequence of America’s founding on the principle of freedom. America’s founders fought for independence from England and then established a constitutional republic to realize individual freedom. This idea was powerful enough to eventually end slavery and to bring freedom to all Americans.
Perhaps the biggest question that Calexit and Texit raise for Americans is whether we still share a common vision of the good society, and consequently are willing to live with our differences.
Allowing states to make more policy choices through federalism can accommodate differences among us. America’s founders established a federal republic, but today federalism is largely dead, I think at least partly because people are unwilling to tolerate violations of fundamental human rights. If health care or gun ownership are inalienable rights, it seems unreasonable to allow states to trample these rights.
California secession is highly unlikely in the near term. But if Calexit prompts Americans to recognize that we no longer want the same things and are unwilling to tolerate our differences, secessionist movements will continue to emerge in the future.
Daniel Sutter is the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University and host of Econversations on TrojanVision. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Troy University.