Opinion column by Joe Mathews:
To encourage us to think about the unthinkable, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists sets a Doomsday Clock, showing how close humanity is (in metaphorical seconds) to the “midnight” of apocalypse.
California now needs an independence clock, showing how close we are to that seemingly unthinkable moment when our state might seek to depart the U.S., and become an independent nation.
Last week, that prospect drew closer, courtesy of the U.S. Supreme Court.
First, justices overturned a century of legal precedent that had allowed California communities to limit public gun possession, endangering laws that have saved lives. Then, the court reversed Roe v. Wade and eliminated the federal constitutional right to abortion — a right enshrined in our state constitution and supported by majorities of Californians of every political party, region, and demographic group.
These decisions were like earthquakes — unsettling but unsurprising. They were enacted by a far-right court majority that exists because America’s anti-democratic Constitution gives less representation and less voting power to Californians, both in choosing a president (who nominates justices) and in electing a Senate (which confirms them).
The two decisions follow a fusillade of federal failings that have harmed Californians. These include a pandemic response that cost nearly 100,000 Californian lives; a generation-long “war on terror” that killed more soldiers from California than from any other state; attacks on our efforts to end the drug war and police abuses; attempts to cancel our environmental laws; denial and delay of disaster aid; accusations that our elections are fraudulent; and the violation of the rights of our immigrants and their families.
To cope, California has had to behave more like a separate nation than a state. We have adopted our own immigration policy, signed our own environmental treaties with other countries, funded our own research on subjects from guns to stem cells, and successfully pressured corporations to privilege our state regulations over national ones.
But how much more can a state handle, governmentally, economically, emotionally?
The Supreme Court made clear last week that we can expect no future respite.
I say this not just because Clarence Thomas declared that the courts should cancel the rights to contraception and same-sex marriage. I say this because the court’s method of decision-making does not account for Californians’ lives or preferences.
Both the guns and abortion decisions rely on peculiar readings of history, focused on American and English practices of the 18th and earlier centuries, generations before women’s suffrage, before slavery’s end, before California was even a state. The decisions employ a mode of historical analogy that lacks the rigor of palm reading, much less serious constitutional analysis.
The troubles will persist beyond this court. Given our disenfranchisement, what is to stop a future Congress and president from cancelling our protections for women, gay people, minorities or immigrants, our climate laws, or even our commitment to making it easier for our people to vote?
As an optimist, I’ve previously argued that democratic reforms in California and elsewhere could solve this American crisis. With more and better participatory tools — from citizens assemblies to national referenda — the U.S. could re-found itself as a modern democracy. But the open hostility to democracy of this court suggests that such reforms do not stand a chance.
That’s why, as fanciful as California secession might sound, the Independence Clock is ticking closer to midnight.
Last year, a University of Virginia poll found 41% support among Biden voters and 52% support among Trump voters for blue or red states seceding to form their own separate nations. A Bright Line poll found 47% of Democrats in West Coast states favor forming their own nation.
Is it time for California to go? Probably not. But it’s not too early to pack a bag. We badly need an open and ongoing statewide conversation, including major media and our elected leaders, about independence.
The day after Roe v. Wade fell, I found myself coaching in a youth sports tournament, which starts every game with the Pledge of Allegiance. I stood and put my hand over my heart, but found that I could no longer bring myself to recite the words.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.