Being on campus, it’s sometimes easy to forget that we live in a world in which Donald Trump is the President of the United States. When my parents call me to ask me if I feel unsafe after the recent hate crimes, I have to remind them that even in Trump’s America, this is still California. That I can safely talk politics at parties or in Lyfts and classrooms because, chances are, everyone one else is a Democrat too — or they’re a Republican surrounded by Democrats so they know what to expect. I’ve seen the neighborhood level maps — I’m surrounded by a sea of blue.
After the election of President Trump, California, a state that he lost by 4.3 million votes, has been at the forefront of several protests against his presidency. According to data collected by Erica Chenoweth of the University of Denver and Jeremy Pressman of the University of Connecticut, California saw nearly 1.2 million people show up for just the Million Women March. Several California representatives, including Senator Kamala Harris and San Francisco’s Mayor Ed Lee, have publicly stood against President Trump’s decisions, especially to protest the executive order for a travel ban.
Another anti-Trump protest is also brewing in California, and the agenda is secession from the United States of America. The movement, called “Yes California,” is currently collecting signatures to get on the ballot — so that, as they say on their website, “In the Spring of 2019, Californians will go to the polls in a historic vote to decide by referendum if California should exit the Union.”
The movement, though spurred by the recent election, was first inspired by the Scottish movement for independence, “Yes Scotland.” The movement also provides other reasons for the secession. Their website claims, “As the sixth largest economy in the world, California is more economically powerful than France and has a population larger than Poland. Point by point, California compares and competes with countries, not just the 49 other states.”
Despite the legal and historic challenges, the movement might have some success with Californians: According to a poll by Reuters/Ipsos, nearly one in three Californians supports a peaceful secession from the United States.
There are many reasons for this apart from a Trump presidency. For example, one figure cited in this argument is that Californians pay more in federal taxes than they receive back — though, as the LA Times writes, the truth might be more complicated, and more likely to reveal that California comes close to breaking even. This kind of reasoning casts doubts on the ambitions of “Yes California” and its claims.
Another fact casting doubt on the campaign is that the founder, Louis J. Marinelli, though a natural-born U.S. citizen, is currently living in Russia — prompting people to ask the same question they’ve been forced to ask multiple times this past year: What role does Russia have in this?
But for Californians supporting this campaign because of President Trump and the policies of his government, an unanswered question remains: Without California as a Democratic stronghold, and the 55 Democratic electoral votes it provides, what will happen to the Democrats in America, and their chances of placing a president in the White House?
But my concern isn’t with this secession working. Business Insider reports that Cynthia Nicoletti, an associate professor of law at University of Virginia School of Law, explained that that would need a constitutional amendment or a revolution. My concern is that somehow our politics has come to a stage where when we lose or face defeat we immediately move to these extreme options. What does it mean for our democracy that when we disagree with our president, we move to secede?
Because California is not the first state to try secession — and I’m not talking about the more famous 1860s example. In 2012, after the reelection of Barack Obama, 125,000 people in Texas signed a petition for the state to peacefully secede from the United States.
On both sides, we’ve become a politics of nuclear options — i.e. we are using political tactics that are meant to be last resorts, which aren’t used when you expect to continue working with the same people to run a country together.
And “CalExit” this isn’t the only example. I was reading an article about the Senate hearing of Neil Gorsuch, and I kept thinking that our democracy is broken, because the hearing reveals what’s wrong with our democracy. With both sides calling each other’s moves a “nuclear option,” it’s hard not to see how fractured this country’s politics have become.
In what seems to be a race to the end, both sides are making moves that undermine their own legitimacy, by making a mockery of the institution they work for — Democrats by using filibusters to block moves instead of trying negotiation or more traditional consensus building, and Republicans by changing the rules of the Senate to get a simple majority because they don’t want to deal with the results of a filibuster.
Both sides show that they are willing to go as far as they have to to achieve their political ends. But these moves — filibustering, changing Senate rules, secession — are last resorts because they are so drastic, because they were designed for situations in which there are no conceivable compromises on the horizon.
Is this what our political drama has come to? The Republicans will deny Merrick Garland, the Democrats will filibuster Gorsuch, even if it is fruitless, and the Republicans will change the rules of the Senate even if they can acknowledge it is a dangerous move? And in the future? What about the possibility of replacing Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and/or Anthony Kennedy? Will we see more use of the same strategies or a slippery slope of new, more extreme nuclear options?
When Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, was asked what the greatest challenge facing him was, he replied: “to build a just society by just means.” Because the goals do matter. In a democracy, the ends are the lives and livelihoods of millions of people, and the questions are ethical, which offer little compromise. But the means matter, too: The means are what protect us from our worst impulses and what make institutions more robust than people. Just means are how we ensure that we aren’t blinded by the end — because there’s always, always a chance that our end is wrong. Just means, then, are an insurance against our own fallibility, because the institutions of our government were built to have corrections built into them.
We hear over and over again that we live in an age of political polarization, and it’s easy to forget what that really means. One of the consequences of that is seeing a political standoff like the one over Gorsuch’s confirmation, where both sides view it as a zero-sum game to be won at any cost, and by any means necessary. Or a movement to secede from the country because the president doesn’t believe what you believe.
Democracy is about fighting for what you believe, but it is also about compromise. And the line there is that we cannot accept some things when it is against our conscience — and we shouldn’t.
But the way we fight for that, even when we have lost, needs to have some rules.
There are two extremes here: When you lose in a democracy, you cannot sit back and let actions contrary to your conscience take place in your name. But also, when you lose in a democracy, you cannot adopt any means possible to fight for your position, because sometimes, those moves make it impossible to engage with the other side in a meaningful way. There needs to be a middle ground of active consensus building and attempts to actually have a conversation — and not obliterate each other through nuclear options, or to secede from those you disagree with. That is a harder place to navigate, but if it wasn’t messy, it wouldn’t be a democracy.
Contact Rhea Karuturi at rheakaru ‘at’ stanford.edu.