Secession is extremely improbable. But looking at what could ensue if it happened underscores some fascinating truths about the US – and where power really lies.
Americans have grown increasingly polarised in recent years. According to the Pew Research Center, median Republicans are more conservative than 97% of Democrats, while median Democrats are more liberal than 95% of Republicans. By contrast, in 1994 those figures were just 64% and 70%, respectively. Some scholars argue that ideological tensions have never been greater in living memory.
“We have to go back historically, to something like the 1890s post-Civil War period, to find politics in the US that are anywhere near as bitterly polarised as we have now,” says Bernard Grofman, a political scientist at the University of California, Irvine. “Polarisation in Congress is at levels we have not seen in more than 100 years.”
California is no exception. For the past few years, divides both within the state, and between California and the rest of the US, have sparked at least six initiatives aimed at breaking California into smaller states or cleaving it entirely from the rest of the country.
According to Monica Toft, a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School at Tufts University in Boston, arguments in support of these plans include the belief that the federal government no longer represents California’s economic interests; that the state is so large that proper governance is only possible if applied across a smaller geographic scale; or that irreconcilable differences have emerged between what California and the rest of the US stand for.
To be clear, unless something drastically changes, California is not going to secede any time soon. A constitutional law denies states the right to secession, and there’s scant evidence that the majority of California’s citizens actually want to leave. A 2017 survey of 1,000 Californians conducted by the University of California, Berkeley, found that a bipartisan 68% opposed such initiatives.
Yet exploring what would happen should this improbable event come to pass is still worthwhile for the questions it raises about the precarious balance of power – and politics – in the US.
The possibility of violence, even formal war, is the first and most crucial question for hypothesising what would happen if California tried to leave. Another US civil war may sound unlikely, but consider that the southern US did not expect lasting conflict to ensue when it decided to secede from the north 157 years ago.
It seems unfathomable that the US would have another war of secession, but I think if you talked to people in the mid-19th Century they would have said the same thing – Monica Toft
Civil war did break out, leading to the loss of some 620,000 American lives and shaking the country to its core. “It seems unfathomable that the US would have another war of secession, but I think if you talked to people in the mid-19th Century they would have said the same thing,” Toft says. “The US is not immune to this.”
Other splits throughout history sparked violence too. Pakistan responded with genocide and mass rape when Bangladesh decided to become a separate nation in 1971, while Eritrea’s War of Independence from Ethiopia dragged on for 30 years.
It doesn’t always play out this way; some countries have pulled off peaceful secessions. In 1993, in what is known as the Velvet Divorce, the Czech Republic split from Slovakia with no resulting bloodshed. And despite tough talk between the EU and UK, Brexit is proceeding peacefully.
Whether the US opted to try to forcibly prevent California from leaving would largely depend on who was leading the country at the time and how they felt about secession, says Stephen Saideman, an international affairs professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. “Republicans might actually say ‘good riddance’, whereas Democrats might say ‘we’ve gotta keep California or we might be marginalised forever’,” he says.
Unlike in the US Civil War, however, there is no fundamental issue like slavery to inflame the divide, and most scholars agree that there is just too much shared identity between California and the rest of the US to imagine a scenario in which war breaks out.
“Californians are not akin to the Kurds in Iraq, the Catalans in Spain or even the Scots and Irish in the UK,” says Brendan O’Leary, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “I cannot foresee generals from the Pentagon obeying orders to go occupy California by force.”
Following California’s peaceful secession, though, Democratic fears would come true. California is the largest state in the union by population, and its exit would radically shift the political playing field in the US. The balance of power in Congress would tip toward complete Republican control. Meanwhile, the loss of California’s electoral votes would leave little hope for the US to see another Democratic president in the near future.
Democrats have depended on California since the early 1990s for having a chance to win presidential elections – Stephen Saideman
“Politically, this would put Democrats in a deep, deep hole,” Saideman says. “They’ve depended on California since the early 1990s for having a chance to win presidential elections.”
In response to the red wave, remaining US Democratic representatives would likely shift their politics to the right. “If you no longer have California anchoring the Democratic Party positions, then that dramatically changes the center of gravity,” Grofman says. For Democrats, the most optimistic outcome for a US without California, he continues, would be a more centrist political arena – one akin to the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower (1953-1961), when bipartisan consensus allowed for major undertakings like the construction of the interstate highway system.
No matter how US politics shook out, however, losing California would deliver a significant economic blow to the newly diminished nation. California is the world’s fifth largest economy – bigger than that of the entire UK – grossing $2.7 trillion in 2017.
It also contributes more tax revenue to the US federal government than any other state, subsidising “all sorts of Republican states, for which it simply receives abuse in return”, O’Leary says.
How big the overall impact would be on the US economy would depend on whether leaders struck up free trade agreements or if they imposed tariffs and other trade barriers. No matter what, though, the US would not escape unscathed.
“The dollar would tank,” O’Leary says. “The euro and Chinese yuan could replace it as the global currency.”
The newly divided US would lose international footing and become more beholden to its allies, and some long-standing friendships would be tested. With the US leaning more strongly to the right, nations also run by right-leaning parties, such as Hungary and Russia, might become closer to the US. But relations between the US and Canada – which are generally better when both nations’ leaders sit on the same side of the political spectrum – would fray. So would those with Mexico as the increasingly right-wing US government shifted toward harder-line immigration policies.
California, on the other hand, would become an attractive new ally for those and other liberal countries. “Suddenly, instead of a bipolar system with the US and China, we’d see a multi-polar system with the US, China, California, India and so on,” Saideman says. “In international relations, multi-polar systems produce a lot more confusion because alliances matter a lot more.”
As California vied for a high standing in the international community, it would likely take a lead on key issues such as mitigating global warming. California’s progress, however, would be counterbalanced by the US’s continued backsliding, including its loosening of emissions and pollution standards, defunding of initiatives to develop sustainable energy and opening up of carbon-capturing wilderness areas for prospecting and development.
“California’s much more serious efforts to reduce the pace of climate change would be undone by the rest of the US,” Saideman says.
California could also be more attractive than the US to immigrants. The newly formed country would almost certainly continue to welcome overseas innovators to Silicon Valley and its space agency, but it might also relax policies for less skilled workers as well. “Given the sheer scale of Hispanic populations in California and the role of agriculture there, I can’t imagine that California would not wish to develop a new policy on the question of welcoming people from Central America and elsewhere,” O’Leary says.
On the other hand, while highly diverse southern California might look favourably on immigration, much more conservative northern California could be staunchly opposed. “If you look at maps of the last election, there are deep pockets of red and blue, and areas in between,” Toft says. “It’s not inevitable that California is liberal.”
Grofman adds that, as humans, we are naturally inclined to view the world as a zero-sum game. “People tend to believe that adding new people will simply divide the pie in more ways,” he says. “In other words, anything you get, I lose.”
Though economists have shown time and time again that growth creates positive-sum benefits, Californians, with their newly established borders, also may fall subject to an erroneous us-versus-them mentality. “The standard rule about immigration is that whoever is already there decides that the best thing that could possibly happen is to put up barriers to anyone else coming in,” Grofman says. There’s no guarantee that an independent California would be an exception.
Also contrary to what many might assume, California’s secession probably wouldn’t kick off a sudden mass immigration of US liberals into California and an exodus of Republicans out. “I’m an American in Canada, and after every election, everyone says ‘I’m moving to Canada’, but they don’t,” Saideman says. “If California seceded there would be some flow, but it wouldn’t be as dramatic as people think, and most of it would be driven by jobs.”
California’s secession might, however, trigger a snowballing of similar initiatives in other parts of the US. The north-east, for example, would become increasingly alienated in a Republican-dominated country with no hope of winning political representation. Therefore, states stretching north from Maryland to Maine and west to Pennsylvania may see secession as the only means of escaping a permanent Republican majority.
History has seen such dynamics play out. States such as Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova only seceded from the Soviet Union after the Baltic states led the way. “In this hypothetical situation, you can imagine folks in the north-east thinking that if D.C. allowed California to go scot-free, it would probably let them go, too,” says Saideman.
Following the secession of the north-east, Florida may opt to depart, too, as could parts of Texas. At that point, other states – many of which have the economic capacity and population size to become small countries of their own – may see little incentive to stick around. In other words, California’s secession could be the beginning of the end for the United States of America as we know it.
As Grofman says, “In a world in which California seceded, the most pessimistic scenario is further breakup of the US.”
Did you enjoy this story? Then we have a favour to ask. Join your fellow readers and vote for us in the Webby Awards! It only takes a minute and helps support original, in-depth journalism. Thank you!