California is a wonderful state. It enjoys the world’s best tech companies, bountiful and increasingly eco-friendly energy resources, a entertainment industry unparalleled in global clout, a vast array of productive and innovative businesses, and almost perfect weather.
But in recent years, and particularly since Trump became president, Californians feel increasingly dissatisfied with Washington. On every major policy area, from climate change to healthcare and immigration, the federal government makes decisions which are hopelessly unpopular with Californians. In 2016, there was a swing towards the Republicans nationwide, but a swing towards the Democrats in California. Trump primarily appeals to working-class whites without a college degree, who feel hurt by globalisation and deindustrialisation, and are sceptical of the benefits of America’s shifting demographics. California has far fewer nostalgic nationalists. With its highly globalised economy and socially liberal values, the Golden State couldn’t be more at odds with the Republican Party as it currently stands.
Given that for the foreseeable future, Republicans are likely to control the federal government roughly half of the time, the notion of California leaving the US seems increasingly enticing. Were it to be independent, California would be the fifth-largest economy in the world- larger than the UK despite having 20 million fewer people. Independence would allow it to lower tariffs and taxes, not held back by having to subsidise much of the rest of the US. The opportunity for a clean slate on the tax code and regulatory structure could make the state far more competitive. Equally, California could take decisive action on issues where the federal government has dithered for far too long. Without the bizarre climate change denial of the GOP, California could be even more of a world-leader in environmental policy than it already is. A Sacramento-based EPA would take proper action to reduce the state’s poor air quality. On healthcare, California could deliver a proper system of universal healthcare, not the messy compromise that is the Affordable Care Act. Perhaps most significantly, the state would no longer feel embroiled in a culture war with the conservative parts of the US. California could pass comprehensive gun control laws and immigration reform, knowing those policies enjoy the support of a healthy majority.
Appealing as all of that may seem, I would not vote for independence were I a Californian. Partly because such a move would be economically damaging. There would be no guarantee of Californian NATO membership; trade restrictions with the rest of North America would be immensely harmful. Even if after a long series of negotiations with a potentially hostile Washington, California were allowed tariff-free trade with NATO, the economy would still suffer. As Britain is finding out, tariffs are only a small part of trade. Regulatory standards and customs arrangements are even more significant. If California leaves the American single market, its companies would face vastly increased costs when doing business with the US. Were California to remain aligned to the US, it would have to obey regulations it had no say over. For California to have an independent trade and immigration policy, there would be a border between the state and the rest of the US, which would disrupt the movement of goods and people, particularly given the degree of border militarisation needed to stop drugs and guns being smuggled from Mexico.
More importantly, an independent California would have a stiflingly liberal political consensus. Democrats would win virtually every election, even if the California Republican Party moderated considerably. Even more so than today, liberal Californians would feel superior to the rest of the US, knowing their ideals can be implemented without a serious challenge. Californian Democrats conveniently ignore the shortcomings of their state, something which independence would make more common. Housing costs are extremely high, something which independence wouldn’t solve. Poverty is unusually high, especially after housing costs are taken into account. For all its progressivism, California is amongst the most unequal of the US states. Wealthy tech workers and media figures live alongside deprived immigrants from Latin America. The education system leaves much to be desired, even if it is challenged by a high number of non-English speakers. Gas prices are higher than in the rest of the US, yet the infrastructure isn’t any better. California’s Democrats need to be robustly challenged, and it isn’t clear independence would achieve that.
The point is that California has a lot going for it. But it isn’t so exceptional that it deserves independence. Liberals may resent the conservatism of the rest of the US. But America’s federal system already gives states a lot of autonomy, and conservative ideas have a lot of value, even if Trump’s crude nationalism isn’t fit to hold Californian progressivism to account. Rather, California should lead by example. If its policies result in better outcomes, then other states will follow. Equally, if other states, particularly those governed by Republicans are better off, then California should learn from them. Instead of leaving the US and wishing its often toxic politicians away, California should embrace America and engage with it. By leading from within, California can make everyone happier.