Secessionist movements are on the rise in the U.S., but ignoring regional histories is a disaster waiting to happen…
With Donald Trump in the White House and Congress at its most polarized since the Civil War, Americans are having a hard time ignoring the fact that our fundamental differences are geographic, even as they are partisan and ideological. As such, there has been increased public mumbling about addressing this either by breaking up divisive states or removing their state or region from the United States altogether.
The remarkable thing about many of these campaigns — from the various schemes to break up California to murmurs of secession from some in Texas or the Pacific Northwest — is how they ignore this federation’s historic fissures when laying out their plans and drawing their maps. Whether seeking to establish more states or a whole new country, secessionists’ maps set up their new entities for the very kinds of internal dissension, regional antagonism, and cultural warfare their projects are seeking to leave behind.
Let me say at the outset that I’m not a proponent of breaking up the federation. Having lived in the Balkans in the 1990s, covering ethnocultural tensions, violence, war, and genocide, I take a rather dim view of human nature. There’s no reason to be assured that a breakup of the United States — an awkward federation with profound regional differences that don’t match state or international borders, a history of civil war based on some of those differences, and an armed and distrustful population that’s shown itself remarkably receptive to crude disinformation and propaganda campaigns — would be peaceful. Let this be a cautionary tale.
Our federation is and has always been deeply divided. I lay out the fissures, their origins, and how the resulting regional conflicts have played out over the past four centuries in my 2011 book, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, and its 2016 sequel, American Character: A History of the Epic Struggle Between Individual Liberty and the Common Good. I also kicked off the Balkanized America series here on Medium with a synopsis. The divisions outlined therein are deeper than those between rural and urban places, profoundly affect our elections and constitutional arrangements, and have even influenced our genetic heritage.
But funnily enough, they’re not well reflected on most secessionists’ maps, which illustrates how difficult it is to divvy up our country and setting up these hypothetically cohesive new states or nation-states for division from day one.
Take California, where yet another effort to break up the nation’s most populous state may be on this November’s ballot. Tim Draper, the billionaire venture capitalist behind the proposal — who also led a previous effort to break up the state — seeks to divide it into three separate states, thus tripling representation of California’s population in the U.S. Senate.
As discussed in American Nations, California has indeed contained three very distinct sections since before it was a U.S. territory. Spain had claimed all of what it called Alta California, but successfully colonized only a small section of it along the southern half of the coast and the current border with Mexico. In this region, Yankee immigrants — prior to the U.S. annexation — tended to assimilate to Alta Californio ways: learning Spanish, converting to Catholicism, and taking Mexican citizenship, spouses, and versions of their names. But the colonial Spanish cultural influence vanished as one moved north of Monterey, and the English-speaking immigrants arriving in the Bay Area and Sacramento Valley generally resented and resisted Mexican rule, culture, and citizenship demands.
After 1848, these Americano-dominated areas bifurcated, as the traditions of the New England–dominated settlements of the northern coast — part of an effort to build a “New England on the Pacific” — clashed with the forty-niners, whose Gold Rush mentality was completely at odds with the Yankee Puritan ethos. A struggle between the Yankee-influenced coast and the Far Western interior ensued — one that continues to this day — with settlers west of the coastal mountain ranges having much in common with counterparts in what would become Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, and very little in common with those residing in the interiors of those same states and provinces. You can see this mirrored in election results or the Proposition 8 vote on gay marriage in 2008.
But Draper’s Three Californias proposal (dubbed “CAL 3”) ignores these fissures, lumping the interior and Left Coast together in their new “Northern California,” slamming Los Angeles in with the southern Left Coast in a rump “California” and hacking off the rest of both the interior west and Spanish-settled and storing them in an awkward state called “Southern California.” If the criticism of the current California is that it lumps entirely different regional cultures together and leaves rural areas at the whims of metropolises, the three Californias Draper has outlined simply repeat the same problems, but in triplicate.
Draper’s 2014 effort to create Six Californias, which fell short of the 807,615 valid signatures required to get on the 2016 ballot, was a little better. Four of his proposed states managed to dodge the fault lines: Central California is a Far Western entity, Silicon Valley falls entirely within Left Coast, and the Spanish-settled region I call El Norte is divided between his South and West California. The other two, North California and Jefferson, make no effort to distinguish between coast and interior.
So, what criteria did Draper use? Draper has said he’s motivated by what he regards as a lack of freedom in the current, unified California and a sense that the state government is distant from the people. “When you work for your government, when your government forces you to do something, it’s slavery. We need to take it back, ” he told a reporter in 2014, though Draper later admitted that he regretted his slavery comparison. “It’s starting to feel like it’s an ivory tower. There’s more and more control in the hands of people that are further and further from the decision.” But an analysis from the WorldPost’s Kathleen Miles suggested Draper’s efforts have been focused on segregating affluent and struggling counties. Writing in the Huffington Post, Miles says, “It would be Ayn Rand’s dream come true, separate states for rich people and poor people.”
Draper isn’t the only one aspiring to redraw the Golden State’s map. The California National Party is promoting its own plan to split the state in two, with “New California” parting ways with a coastal strip extending from Marin County to Los Angeles County, plus the lower Sacramento Valley. It’s an odd-enough map — the new state would claim Contra Costa and Sonoma counties, but not the rest of the Bay Area, and includes Orange County but not Sacramento—that I called a party official to ask what criteria they used in making it.
“The basis of the map is ruralness versus urban, because there’s literally no representation of rural California in any matter,” Paul Preston, the party’s founder, told me from his home in Yuma City. This situation, he says, has led to sanctuary cities and the “normalization” of the idea that illegal aliens could be given citizenship. “We anticipate that California will actually reach the point like what happened in Virginia and West Virginia, where California will be declared a lawless state.”
But New California clearly wouldn’t be a rural republic, as it contains the entirety of metro San Diego, the nation’s 17th-largest city, and densely populated Orange, Riverside, and Santa Clara counties, each of which has a population of 2 to 3 million, plus Fresno, which boasts more people than several states. Why? “To get the population base,” Preston responded, adding that the party intended to exclude San Jose, Santa Clara County’s largest city. Another possibility: Preston appears to have gerrymandered himself a Republican state, one happy to take cities so long as they tend not to vote for Democrats.
To the north, the Cascadia movement presents a different sort of problem. The effort seeks to foster a “bioregional” identity in the parts of the Pacific Northwest and Western Canada that lie within the Frasier, Columbia, and Snake River watersheds. To that, the Cascadia Independence Party wants to make the resulting area an independent nation “that exists outside the current liberal/conservative paradigm that has paralyzed politics in both the United States and Canada” and champions sustainability, “local food networks and economies,” and “open source, dynamic, and associative governing models.”