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Joe Donnelly

COUNT ME AMONG THOSE WHO WOKE UP on November 3 and thought: secession!

I wrote those words sixteen years ago, and I'm only more convinced now. Biden may turn out to be a bridge to a better era, but I’m skeptical. I’m not sure what the unifying principle is anymore, and I’ve been in the place before. I made the case for California seceding from the increasingly shaky union after the incompetent and inane George W. Bush somehow managed to stay in the White House.

You can call me a dreamer, as John Lennon sang, and, sure, let’s hope it doesn’t come to this. But unless we get it together, what’s the choice?

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The Modest Proposal: A Free State of California

My turn toward the idea that California should secede from the Union was based on some bedrock logic that my father used to admonish me with as he suspiciously eyed my derelict teenage friends: You can tell a lot about a person by the company he keeps. That Wednesday morning, I looked at the sea of red in between the coasts and in the South, and I listened to the hypocritical crowing by misogynists and homophobes about values and strength and “the real America” and thought: If these were my friends, I’d try to get new ones.

Since then, when I’ve tried to have rational conversations about secession, I have heard the idea dismissed by those who would call themselves progressive or even radical as “middle-class parlor games” or “not even worth discussing” or, they say, very emotionally, “That’s just plain crazy.” I’m a pretty conventional person and an unadventurous thinker myself, and still the radical notion of seceding seems logical, necessary and even inevitable to me. What I want to know, and have yet to hear anyone explain — based on reason and not emotion — is why not secede?

To the middle-class parlor-game argument, I say, since when have revolutionary changes not started out so? Only back in the day, they called them salons. These coffee klatches for the leisure class were considered so dangerous that salons were forced underground after the French Revolution. Fact is, revolution is the only trickle-down theory that works — most revolution comes from above or at least slightly above the middle.

The landed and moneyed classes started the American Revolution, one of the world’s great secessionist movements. It was the furthest thing from a workers’ revolt. Vladimir Lenin was the highly educated son of a Russian aristocrat, Che Guevara was a medical student son of a doctor, etc. Unfortunately, the working classes are usually too busy surviving to start revolutions — though they are usually called upon to finish them.

I also keep hearing the plea that “We have to stay and fight.” To which, I ask — fight what? The answer I get back is “the right-wing takeover” or “the Republicans” or “for America.” But, you know, we had an election and “they” won — somewhat fair and square. And they’ve been winning. I was four years old when Nixon got elected. Think about this country’s leadership since then. Think about the values represented by that leadership.

Except for the sad blip of Jimmy Carter, it’s been 36 years of reaction against the better angels of our nature — against Roosevelt, the Kennedys, Dr. King and even LBJ and his Great Society. If you were born in the ’70s, it’s a safe bet that whatever progressive victories you’ve seen in your lifetime were either powered by the last fumes of the ’60s or were local and not national. The only time a Democratic president has been elected since 1980, he was a closet Republican. The next time a Democrat gets elected, he’ll probably be the same.

News flash, everybody: The “Republican takeover” is sadly what this country is now and has been for a while. So, are you suggesting taking back the country by force?

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We Didn't Fight The British for This

When I was arguing the merits of seceding recently, a friend finally said, “But, but, we live in America.” I thought — we do? I live in California. I sometimes visit other places in America, but not that much anymore. Having lived all over this country and having been to every state but three, I know we’ve got it pretty good here. We’ve got great mountains and beaches, fruit and vegetables out the gazoo. We’ve got the fifth biggest economy in the world that is so highly diversified it’s almost recession-proof. We’ve got a public-education infrastructure that used to be the envy of the world. Maybe we can repair it with some of the nearly $60 billion we’re currently sending out in taxes and subsidies so the ignoramus “red” states can continue to lord over us in their fat, Jesus-loving state of bliss and denial.

Okay, that’s a slightly unfair generalization about the red states, and there’s always talk that we can’t leave behind the other 50 million of “us” who voted blue . Sure you can. I mean, I only really know a handful of those other 50 million — okay, maybe 50 — and frankly, they don’t care where I go, so long as I keep in touch and maybe visit every now and then. I don’t think seceding would mean we couldn’t do that. People visit further places than Ohio all the time. Plus, those blue brothers we’re so worried about leaving behind can feel free to come along.

I also keep hearing a sentiment-soaked refrain from anti-secession friends to explain their attachment to the idea of the United States that goes something like: But we fought for this great experiment called America . . . and I believe in it. I believe in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. It’s called the United States . . . of . . . America....

First of all, we didn’t fight for it, some guys in white wigs and funny pants did, and that was 230 years ago. Remember, too, their forebears once thought that the Magna Carta was the be all and end all; but the drive for freedom didn’t stop there, why should it stop now? Look at Europe: In the past couple of hundred years it’s gone through often bloody upheavals of nation building, unification, de-unification, and now it’s unifying again. I’m sure they thought they had it right every step of the way, but instead they keep changing with changing times.


But in case you’re really prone to sentimentality, here’s the first article of the California state Constitution:


All people are by nature free and independent and have inalienable rights. Among these are enjoying and defending life and liberty, acquiring, possessing, and protecting property, and pursuing and obtaining safety, happiness, and privacy.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Secession has also been assailed as impractical — something that’s just too hard to do, as if the San Fernando Valley didn’t come within a hair’s breadth of seceding from the rest of Los Angeles for many of the same reasons secession would be logical for California: taxation without representation, local sovereignty, the difficulty many Valley residents had in figuring out what Los Angeles had to do with them or vice versa. These were practical reasons that had nothing to do with the city’s noble, if abstract, mission as stated in the charter’s preamble:

We the people of the City of Los Angeles, in order to establish a responsive, effective and accountable government through which all voices in our diverse society can be heard; to provide fair representation and distribution of government resources and a safe, harmonious environment based on principles of liberty and equality, do enact this Charter.

What I’m getting at is that just because you want to start fresh doesn’t mean you reject everything that came before, and seceding wouldn’t mean a sudden embrace of strange ideals. After all, our legal system is still based on English common law.

But for all those who like to argue that America is a “grand experiment” and a shining beacon to the world that deserves our continuing participation, I’ll say, You’re right, so long as we overlook nearly 100 years of slavery following our nation’s birth, 100 more of apartheid following emancipation, the continuing stain of racism, bigotry, gross economic inequity, inner-city genocide, a dubious record as a global citizen that continues to subject the rest of the world to its insatiable appetite, etc.

As inconceivable as it may be to many Americans, a survey by The Economist, using such criteria as freedom, health, economy, political stability, security, equality and community, the good ol’ USA ranked 13th in the world, behind such irrelevant “Old World” countries like Ireland, Switzerland, Norway, Luxembourg, Sweden, Australia, Iceland, Italy, Denmark, Spain and others not easily spotted in the ranks of the “coalition of the willing.” 

Still, for all that, this has been a good experiment. America has a lot to be commended for. It showed much of the world it could get by without kings or dictators, and those marks against it are, unfortunately, largely the common histories of any prominent country. Even now, for a lot of people (nearly 60 million on record) this place is doing just fine.

But maybe we can do better. Maybe California can do better. Maybe it can be a better shining light of hope for the world. (Hell, even our most recent Republican governor was a progressive by current standards, a bankable movie star who channeled and at the same time, mothballed, the B-movie actor who once held that office and kicked off the destruction of F.D.R.'s grand experiment in post-war stability and prosperity.)

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Hey, We Could Have a Good Neighbor Policy!

Maybe California could be an example to its new next-door neighbor, the U.S., if we free ourselves from a system that gives South Dakota as many senators as we have. Or if we are no longer subjected to a $58 billion net giveaway to the U.S. Treasury that helps prop up those rugged individualists in the subsidy states who seem to like living off government cheese but don’t like our ideas about gay rights, abortion, stem cells or even evolution, and are dangerously close to imposing their absurd ideas about all that upon us.

Confounded by the logic of seceding, a friend recently broke down and pleaded, “But I don’t want to give away Utah.” I was surprised to learn she owned it. The people of Utah — who have their own ideas about life and are welcome to them, so long as they don’t force them on me — will be, too. Which brings me to my ultimate point: Why should we keep fighting to impose our ideas upon one another? And don’t try to tell me that’s not what this is about — from both sides. We have clearly entered the “with us or against us” stage in this country. How about we here in sovereign California decline either invitation and just be on our own?

It’s actually a very rugged, very American idea.

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Joe Donnelly is Visiting Assistant Professor at Whittier College and the editor of Red Canary magazine.