On the evening of November 8, millions of Californians watched their country elect Donald Trump to the presidency. Their disbelief and frustration quickly manifested into one cry that echoed across social and news media with fervor: secession. Disheartened Californian college students and San Francisco liberals shared “Yes California!” on Facebook with excitement, and Silicon Valley billionaires announced their intentions to fund any viable movement that came across their desks.
There are thousands of reasons why California’s secession is a bad idea and will never happen. For starters, the secession of any state has been definitively illegal since 1864. It is easy to write “Califrexit” off as a reaction to the 2016 election, a pipe dream without any actual momentum or feasibility. But the reactionary nature of this movement overshadows many legitimate, reasonable arguments for the secession of the union’s most populous state.
The secession of California is not a new idea. The Yes California movement is about two years old, and based on complaints that have nothing to do with Donald Trump. Petitions for the division of California into multiple states, or for the secession of the entire northwestern region of the United States, have plagued the state since its entry into the union. None of these proposals has ever carried serious weight, and the results of the 2016 election will do little to change that. But California is a highly anomalous state, one that policy makers and citizens alike have struggled to reconcile and accommodate.
California is often criticized for being politically out of step with the rest of the country. Overall, California’s state-level policies have consistently been to the left of the rest of the nation for decades—a trend that persisted even under the conservative leadership of Richard Nixon, congressman and later senator from California from 1947 to 1953, and Ronald Reagan, governor of California from 1967 to 1975. The 2016 election definitely highlighted this discrepancy—Donald Trump won only 32 percent of the California vote, and only 9 percent in San Francisco County. Despite the results of this election, California’s political division from much of the rest of the nation is an old trend, and one that is likely to persist.
Even more importantly, California contributes more to the federal government in tax revenue than any other state, paying $370 billion in 2014. Despite this, in WalletHub’s ranking of states by dependency on federal funds, California ranked forty-sixth out of fifty states. California receives approximately $0.78 in federal spending for every $1 its citizens pay in taxes. In simple terms, California contributes much more to the system than it receives in return. California’s budget is stretched thin across a struggling education system, deceptively high poverty rates, a budding housing crisis, and decaying infrastructure. California operates with a budget of $168 billion: reclaiming the revenue generated by federal taxes could make a significant difference to the lives of many Californians.
Despite all that California gives to the United States in tax dollars, the state is dramatically underrepresented at the federal level of government. California’s fifty-five votes in the Electoral College do not accurately reflect the state’s relative size. Wyoming, for example, has three electoral votes to represent its 584,000 residents, while California has fifty-five electoral votes and 39 million residents. This November 8, one vote for president in Wyoming was worth three votes in California, because of the lack of proportionality of votes to population in the Electoral College. Similarly, in the House of Representatives, each of California’s fifty-three representatives speak for over 100,000 more people than Wyoming’s one representative. California has relatively little power to shape the federal government to which it contributes more than any other state. This underrepresentation is further exacerbated by the growing political division between California and the rest of the nation, as Californians increasingly find that their votes and views count for nothing next to those of the inhabitants of less populated states.
Now more than ever before, California could feasibly survive and thrive as an independent country. The state of California alone is the world’s sixth largest economy. California’s GDP is estimated to be $2.46 trillion, over 40 percent larger than that of the next highest state, Texas. Bloomberg View writes that California’s economy is also one of the most diverse in the country: “The state’s largest companies are in banking, biotechnology, communications equipment and other technology hardware, health care, online retail, integrated oil and gas, movies and entertainment, semiconductors, and various software fields. In contrast, more than 60 percent of the largest publicly traded Texas firms are tied to oil and gas.” California’s technology industry, worth $732 billion, accounts for 53 percent of U.S. technology revenues. In addition to its thriving industrial sector, California continues to be an agricultural powerhouse, with the most profitable agricultural sector of any state.
Furthermore, in the context of globalization and global democratization, the historical advantages carried by “big” countries have all but vanished. In the past, small countries were less prosperous and at greater risk of invasion; today, this is no longer the case. Eight of the top ten most peaceful countries are small countries, and six of the World Economic Forum’s ten most economically competitive countries have populations under 20 million, and five have populations under 10 million. Moreover, the United States’s costly and prolonged engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan show that it is not easy for large countries to exert their military might over smaller countries without incurring great costs of their own. Small countries also prove easier to govern, and are therefore more secure, because of their relative cultural and political homogeneity.
Although it is interesting to consider how California may benefit from independence, there are many reasons why secession could never happen successfully—too many to analyze in detail in this article. However, the arguments for secession do shed light on very real problems that surround California’s place within the federal system. The most concerning of these issues is the discrepancy between the state’s size and its representation in Washington. The fact that California’s fifty-five votes in the Electoral College are not proportional to the state’s population is a flagrant violation of the principle of “one man, one vote,” which should be the heart of our democracy. The debate over the Electoral College is a separate issue, but if the institution is to be preserved, it must be reformed. Limiting the size of the House of Representatives is similarly problematic. How can this government be a truly fair and effective representative democracy when its citizens are so unequally represented? There may be no perfect solution to either dilemma, but the persistence of both will continue to undermine the fundamental principles of this nation and be a source of frustration and unrest among Californians until they are addressed.