Tuesday, September 25, 2012

“South California” Statehood Movement Reignites in Election Year

The movement to make part of southern California the 51st state of the United States has reemerged this election season.  California’s famously left-wing governor (and a nemesis to conservatives), Jerry Brown, on September 19th vetoed a law that would have returned $14 million in vehicle-license fees to four cities in Riverside County, a vast rectangular swathe of inland southern Californian desert.  Those towns’ loss of funds in a move by Brown and the Democratic-majority legislature last year would, according to Jeff Stone, the county supervisor, have caused the towns to go bankrupt, and it was that diversion that first lit the fuse of separatism last year.

Stone now heads a South California statehood movement called Rebellion 2012, which has about 600 members, 1,400 or more supporters (to judge by its Facebook page), and a budget of, ahem, $1,200, but Stone’s chief of staff said this week that he still believes in the cause “absolutely” and “passionately ... because the state is so dysfunctional.”  Its rallying cries are smaller government, decentralization, and deregulation, key themes in the Obama-era “Tea Party” movement that has turned the national Republican Party upside-down.  A major Rebellion 2012 rally scheduled for September 29th in Vail Lake, however, has just been rescheduled for the spring (by which time, one assumes, it will be renamed Rebellion 2013).

The counties in Stone’s envisioned South California are Riverside, San BernardinoImperialSan DiegoOrangeKingsKernFresnoTulareInyoMaderaMariposa, and Mono (see map below).

“South California,” a new state proposed by Jeff Stone’s Rebellion 2012 movement

This draws a quite different map than the usual, unofficial division between “Northern California” and “Southern California,” which tends to use the straight line that has San Bernardino, Kern, and San Luis Obispo to its south and Monterey, Kings, Tulare, and Inyo to the north (see map below).

“Southern California,” as envisioned in common parlance

That division makes some sense culturally and geographically, but modern state-partition movements in the U.S. tend to be about partisan politics, often ultimately national partisan politics.  And in California, a “blue” (Democratic Party) state, the divide between “red” (Republican Party) and “blue” counties tends to be, as elsewhere in the country, an urban–rural split, and to some extent (as in Oregon and Washington as well), a coastal-vs.-inland one.  Here, for example, is how California’s counties voted in the 2000 presidential race, the race that has come to define the modern deep partisan divide in American politics:

... and here are equivalent maps for the 2004 election ...

... and the 2008 election (blue is Barack Obama, red is John McCain) ...

... and for the breakdown, by party, of California’s federal Congressional districts, after the last two elections:

Though there have been some distorting effects over the years—such as the enormous popularity of Ronald Reagan, a charismatic Californian Republican who carried many traditionally Democratic jurisdictions in 1980 and 1984—these maps give a general picture of the urban–rule, coast–inland divide.  And the above map shows how the trend is toward an ever-shrinking reliably-Republican zone in California.  This is due to a number of factors, including the increasing numbers of Hispanics—who tend, especially in the Obama era, to be Democrats—in parts of California.  You can see here that, in the American electoral system—under which the presidential candidate who gets the most votes in a state gets all the electoral votes for that state—many Republican Californians feel that they may as well not vote at all.  Dividing California would create a blue North California and a red South California and would re-empower some of California’s Republicans in national races.  In this, Stone is far more astutely attentive to real-world politics than, for example, a 1992 proposal for a three-way partition of California which would have created three states that would each have the same internal partisan divides as California as a whole:

Given that, Stone’s choice of his 13 counties is a bit counterintuitive in places.  Obama’s sweep of southern counties outside Los Angeles and Orange may be ephemeral—due to his appeal to non-whites that might otherwise vote Republican, perhaps.  So, clearly, Stone is relying on San Bernardino and Riverside being, at base, Republican counties—as non-presidential races in those counties tend to confirm.  Less supportable is the idea that San Diego and Imperial counties are, at heart, Republican counties.  Although it is true that San Diego is a more politically conservative city than many cities its size, especially in local politics, both those counties are trending blue (and trending more Hispanic) and, though they were evenly split in 2000 and 2004, went strongly for Obama in 2008.

Stone openly excludes Los Angeles County as “too liberal,” and, indeed, the county does seem to be Democratic across the board.  Orange County, likewise, is red across the board.  Orange is, in fact, by some measures, the most consistently Republican-voting county out of all the U.S.’s 3,033 counties (Louisiana’s parishes and Alaska’s boroughs being considered “counties” here).  Orange County is also the birthplace of Richard M. Nixon, it was ground zero of “Reagan Country” in Reagan’s gubernatorial and presidential races, and the county’s main airport was renamed the John Wayne International Airport ... do I need to go on?  The South California movement’s reasoning seems to be that Orange County cannot be excluded from any envisioned new, southern state, while Los Angeles cannot be included.  Thus, San Diego and Imperial need to be brought into South California so as not to leave North California split into two noncontiguous chunks.  San Diego also brings South California a respectable coastline, rather than consisting only of Orange County’s smaller coastline, which contains mostly public beaches anyway, not usable harbors.  And San Diego would make a much more respectable capital for the new state than a backwater like Fontana, Barstow, Bakersfield, or Irvine.  But the idea of San Diego County residents consenting to leave California and becoming the most, almost the only, Democratic part of a solidly-Republican state is quite far-fetched.

A statue of the Duke himself greets arrivals
at John Wayne International Airport in Orange County.
Also, why not include some of California’s far-northern Republican counties in “South California”?  Surely, there would be—and probably already is—more enthusiasm for getting out from under Sacramento’s thumb in any of the inland counties north of Lake Tahoe—Lassen, Siskiyou, etc. etc.—than anywhere in San Diego County, for example.  Here, the secessionists’ motivations might be psychological or symbolic.  A reorientation of the partition to the political realities of the coastal–inland split would make the separatists look more rural and remote than they are, and thus less likely to be taken seriously as a movement and as a state.

Secondly, South California separatists might desire to not appear to be asking for more than half the state.  Stone’s smaller “South California” sends the message: “Look, we’re just a small group of people that disagree with the way things are run.  Let us leave, and you might not even notice.”  (Though South California would still be gigantic by any standards other than western North American ones.  One of its constituent counties alone, San Bernardino County, is the largest county in the U.S., larger than, say, Connecticut, and larger than countries such as, say, Costa Rica, the Netherlands, or Albania.)

Here, Stone and his supporters are perhaps savvier than Bill Maze, a former state legislator who represented Inyo, Kern, Tulare, and San Bernardino counties, and heads a movement called Citizens for Saving California Farm Industries.  He advocates a partition involving hiving off a relatively small part of the coastline as “Coastal California” (see map below), leaving the rest of the state as a larger, more Republican jurisdiction.  But his rallying issues are mainly agricultural, and in the Central Valley, and he has not tapped anywhere near the strong feelings across the state that Stone’s movement has.  Plus, Coastal Californians would not consent to losing so much valuable real estate; they rightly perceive Maze’s movement as a version of “let’s just kick the hippies ’n’ queers out of California.”  (The same problem vexes a conservative-Republican-led movement to eject Cook County, which includes Chicago, from Illinois, which I discussed in a blog post several months ago.)

Bill Maze’s vision for a State of Coastal California

Leaving northern inland California under Sacramento’s control also has a political logic to it.  Those counties are far less populous and so would be less important to the success of the statehood movement.  They also include areas of natural beauty and, more crucially in the coming decades, water resources that Sacramento might fight much harder to keep control of.

So “South California,” as it is delineated, is an odd gerrymander but one that makes some sense.  The question is whether it could ever be implemented.

Partition of California is an old idea.  It was floated in the run-up to the Civil War, when many states and territories were torn between joining the slave or free parts of the U.S.  In the late 19th century, and then again in 1965, dividing the state using a straight line across the approximate Southern California–Northern California divide was proposed.  In 1965, it passed in the Senate but died in the Assembly.  And, of course, in 1941 there was a proposal to take the far-northern counties of California and the far-southern ones of Oregon to create the State of Jefferson.  That idea is still raised wistfully by modern Tea Party types in that region who feel that the liberals in Sacramento and Salem don’t listen to them.  Some barns in northern California and southwestern Oregon display large State of Jefferson flags to make their point.  (The two “X”es refer to the area’s residents feeling that they have been “double-crossed” by urban elites.)

Speaking of flags, one way that you can tell the South California movement is not serious is that they don’t have a flag yet.  And to judge by the flag of Stone’s own Riverside County ...

... there is no reason to expect anything impressive in the flag department.  In fact, let’s just admit it, Riverside County’s flag looks like shit—in composition, colors, image quality, typeface, everything.  (See one of my favorite blogs, Bad Flags, for much more nuanced rants in this vein.)  Most U.S. counties don’t even have flags at all, but merely use the county seal to place upon a plain background to serve as a flag.  Orange County, however, has done a nice variation on this that is reminiscent of the New Mexico flag (the most striking and aesthetically pleasing of all state flags, incidentally):

Or, as another possibility, South California could play on California’s excellent (almost as good as New Mexico’s) bear flag ...

... and have a flag showing half a bear.  If so, I can suggest which half would be appropriate.

But to be implemented, any new states admitted to the Union must be approved by the U.S. Congress.  Just as in the Civil War era, it was only politically possible to admit new states in pairs—one slave, one free—to maintain the tense political balance, so in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries with partisan politics.  Alaska and Hawaii were admitted in tandem in 1959 because Hawaii is a Democratic state and Alaska Republican one.  If South California is made a state, then the rest of California would remain reliably blue, so it would amount to creating a new red state, and that would have to be balanced by the admission of a new blue state.  Perhaps, if the right alliances are made across the aisle and across the continent, this could be the moment the District of Columbia has been waiting for.

(Then there’s Puerto Rico, but that I will leave to a later blog post.  Watch this space.)

[You can read more about South California, the State of Jefferson, and many other separatist and new-nation movements, both famous and obscure, in my new book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas just published by Litwin Books under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements and Aspirant Nations, from Abkhazia to Zanzibar.  The book, which contains 46 maps and 554 flags (or, more accurately, 554 flag images), is available for order now on Amazon.  Meanwhile, please “like” the book (even if you haven’t read it yet) on Facebook and see this interview for more information on the book.]

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