There is some irony in the fact that the “Calexit” movement is so named and inspired by “Brexit,” given that it was from Great Britain herself that the thirteen original states seceded in 1776. Of all countries, it turns out to be Britain—in its contemporary desire for national self-determination—which has reminded Americans of their own origins and secessionist heritage. No doubt many reading this noticed the circulating quip this past Independence Day about “Brexit 1776.” Granted it was probably only intended as a mere witticism, it is really a very apt analogy.
The claim that California has just as much constitutional right to secede from the Union as the Confederacy had, and has just as little chance of pulling it off, will seem counterintuitive to many. Counterintuitive because, one might argue, the Confederacy and contemporary California have diametrically opposed values. What these values are I will not discuss, insofar as doing so would only obfuscate the issue at hand; whatever “values” each state or states do or do not share have very little to do with the matter.
The root or core of both movements is the principle of secession itself. That is to say, when states do not like where the Union is headed, for whatever reasons, they have the right to exercise their principal check on the central government: They may—in the same spirit in which the colonies seceded from Britain—assert their claim of originary state sovereignty and withdraw from that Constitution which is a compact, essentially a treaty, among the several states.
A President’s Precedent: The Leviathan Strikes Back
This, at any rate, is how the United States are supposed to work. Abraham Lincoln, however, set a precedent which is unlikely to be ignored in any serious attempt at secession. Regardless of the “values” held by North or by South, the cause of the so-called Civil War was the simple fact of southern secession. All other factors—the social, economic, and political reasons for the South’s decision to secede—are ancillary to the main point; for Lincoln’s singular purpose in launching his invasion against the Confederate States was to, as he put it, “save the Union.” In his opinion, secession is the legal equivalent of “treason” or “rebellion” (even though, curiously enough, he can be found in the decades prior to his presidency to have defended—along with so many other American statesmen prior to 1861—the states’ right to secede).
Leaving on one side whether or not he was right (I don’t believe he was), there is a much larger game afoot: the fact that in its deepest essence the modern State is a totalitarian institution. Indeed, the State has had few agents so fierce as Abraham Lincoln, and the achievement of his war was to transform the United States from a loose federation of sovereign states—with Washington serving at the pleasure of the states in policy areas which concerned their interests as a whole (such as continental security)—into a consolidated and unitary state, with Washington as “capital” and the sole sovereign entity of the land. The states would now be subsidiary governors, as it were, to this absolute monarch.
Lincoln, that is to say, set a precedent against all future secessionism and changed the philosophical substratum of the Constitution and the United States—namely, the meaning of the states and their relationship to Washington. The monolithic State—the proverbial Leviathan from which the colonists fled across the Atlantic—is a wholly modern phenomenon. Unlike premodern political forms, the State is not a spontaneous formation of political society by natural human association, but rather the invention of callous modern political philosophers. Leviathan bid its time, caught up with the colonists’ progeny, and ultimately executed its agenda of hegemonic consolidationism under a consummate enforcer.
In the realm of political theory, it is arguable that American consolidationism was an inevitability, simply by virtue of the fact that such absolutism is of the very fabric of Modernity. If it didn’t happen under Lincoln, it would have happened under someone else. This vision, to superimpose the quintessentially “modern” political form (the State) upon the United States, was by no means original to Lincoln. It was first conceived by Alexander Hamilton—who was, paradoxically, inspired by the very empire from which the Americans had just seceded, Great Britain—and gradually unrolled and developed by Henry Clay and the Whigs; but it finally found its executor in the sixteenth president.
Geopolitical Ramifications of Secession
I said in the beginning that California has every constitutional right to secede, but the reality is the United States no longer lives under the Constitution of 1789 but under the “revised version” of the Constitution which was set in stone in 1865. Consequently, Washington will not allow Calexit to happen for the same reason the Confederacy was not allowed to happen. Regardless of the Framers’ intentions, the U.S. no longer functions as a federation of states but as what political philosopher Francis Slade calls a “universal and homogeneous State.” As a fully furnished and polished off modern State, the U.S. now behaves accordingly, and it is not “values” but geopolitical imperatives and constraints which determine the actions of a State properly so called. Washington’s fundamental imperative is to command “sea to shining sea,” and will not have it otherwise.
With regard to California itself, a few of the more concrete imperatives come to light when taking the state’s geographical reality into consideration. Comprising roughly two-thirds of the U.S.’ west coast, California is of vital strategic importance to Washington, both militarily and economically.
The west coast is a crucial base of operations and point of departure for the U.S. Navy, and the secession of California would put U.S. maritime sovereignty into dispute. Given the level of uncertainty and instability with respect to American interests in the Pacific—such as securing trade routes in the South China Sea, maintaining an already fragile relationship with the Philippines, and growing hostilities with North Korea—it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which Washington would freely give up California. But it cannot be said that these issues would utterly nullify the prospect of Calexit, at least in theory. In such an instance, some manner of military deal would be struck between an independent republic of California and the U.S. The latter does, after all, guarantee the security of a number of foreign states in the Pacific, and California could be one of them. But Washington is much more likely to avoid these headaches and assert its dominance as the sole sovereign of the land—appealing to the Lincolnian precedent—and block all attempts at secession; e.g., instead of agreeing to an alliance, it might instead coerce California to abandon its secessionist aspirations by threatening to take away any military protection in the event of secession.
Calexit would entail the U.S.’ loss of the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, which are vital to Pacific trade. The secession of California would present Washington with a number of difficulties in doing business with China and other Asian countries directly. California would always be present as a buffer state between the principal ports of the west coast and the continental United States. As an independent state, of course, California could benefit a great deal economically from such an arrangement. But rather than allowing Calexit and then working out how California and the continental U.S. might form a mutually beneficial trade partnership, Washington is more likely to avoid these economic complications, the same as it would avoid aforesaid military complications, by simply reasserting its assumed sovereignty, which was earned for it by the War of 1861-65.
Another economic angle that makes it difficult to imagine Washington giving up California without a fight is the state’s population, property values, and overall affluence. No doubt the federal government rakes in a substantial amount from California in tax revenue. (Analogously, it’s worth noting that one of the principal reasons for the secession of the southern states in 1860-61 was their being fleeced by Washington. Significant appropriations of southern tax dollars were allocated to finance northern “improvements” courtesy of the federal government.)
In the end, geopolitical imperatives shape and determine geopolitical constraints: the U.S. could not give up California even if it wanted to. Given the dangers of the time we live in—the age of the unitary nuclear state—Washington will claim that in suppressing any manner of secessionism it does so under the onus of protecting the interests of the people—namely, their security—even if, at the same time, it is protecting its own political and economic interests. This claim can especially be made at the present moment with regard to the west coast states insofar as they, more than any others (except Alaska), are most at risk so long as the North Korean threat remains. National security and foreign policy certainly play a much bigger role in 2017 than they did in 1861, and technology has, for better or worse, made the world a much smaller place. This being the case, secession is even more likely to be suppressed today than it was 150 years ago. If it was suppressed then—and suppressed it was, with severe prejudice—its being suppressed now is all but a moral certainty.