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Calexit? Sad.

If we leave, the Trumpists win.


Editor’s note: This story from the December 2016 issue is an updated version of an online story that ran the day after the election. Read more post-election reactions here.

Before election night
was even over and the Donald J. Trump presidency an unavoidable reality, the hashtag #Calexit had already begun trending on Twitter. Venture capitalist Shervin Pishevar rode the tweetstorm, vowing to fund a campaign to secede and form the nation of New California. The next day, a fringe group called Yes California held a rally in Sacramento to call for a referendum on secession. Their campaign had actually begun in 2014, but its charges—that the feds bleed the Golden State of tax dollars while catering to the politics and demands of the other 49—suddenly had renewed oomph. “We’ll just take our avocados and legal weed and go,” read one election-night tweet shared thousands of times.

Twitter is right: The idea of a Calexit (and its regrettable synonyms, Caleavefornia and Califrexit) is seriously tempting. “We’re all really freaked out by what happened. It’s terrifying,” says state senator–elect Scott Wiener. But Calexit is also supremely misguided—like realizing your ship is taking on water and, instead of fixing it, prying away the most seaworthy lifeboat and ditching the crew. “We would be abandoning millions of marginalized people around the country if California were to try to secede, even assuming we were able to do that,” says Wiener. (Short answer: We can’t, not without an armed revolution or consent of the states, both of which are nonstarters.)

Even if California could pilot an American Brexit, that’s not a reality to wish for. Imagine: California’s reliably Democratic 55 electoral votes: gone. Progressive leadership on everything from gay marriage to immigrants’ rights to climate change policy: kaput. State senator Mark Leno isn’t shy about the wrongheadedness of this: “We are the moral compass and the social conscience of the United States of America,” he says. Just think: How many same-sex couples across the U.S. would be married right now if not for what Mayor Gavin Newsom started in 2004? “The Supreme Court does not lead on social issues,” says Leno. “They follow.”

If you want an America that doesn’t buckle under President Trump—that protects Latinos, Muslims, gays, women, journalists, and whatever other groups he comes for—California has to stay and fight. Somewhat perversely, Pishevar seems to agree with the Cal-Remain stance even as he pushes for a Calexit: Unlike Yes California’s secession, which would be permanent, Pishevar’s hinges on “temporary withdrawal”—a forcible exit followed by a reentry on certain conditions, such as dismantling the Electoral College. Why our fellow states would agree to send us packing but accept a return with strings attached remains a head-scratcher. Pishevar did not answer multiple requests for comment by press time. (It’s worth remembering that this is the same guy who’s currently the executive cochairman of Hyperloop One, an exercise in magical thinking if there ever was one.)

New California would have lots going for it: a booming Silicon Valley, Hollywood’s big bucks, legal weed, agriculture that can feed the rest of the continent (if our export power isn’t kneecapped by a vindictive United States). But it would also be a deeply hypocritical paradise. “You don’t have a huge commitment to democracy if your response to losing one election is to pull out of that democracy,” says Thad Kousser, a political science professor at UC San Diego. Spurning the rest of the country out of disgust—does that remind you of anyone?

“Calexit is saying, ‘We’re California, and we’re better than them,’” says San Francisco State political science professor Jason McDaniel. “Just as Trump instinctively defines people who are not white as people who are not American, the Calexit people are instinctively trying to do the same thing.” In other words, seceding is the Trumpiest thing that California could do. And becoming the very thing we most despise would be very sad indeed.


Update, 11/19/16: After this story went to press, Shervin Pishevar distanced himself from the idea of secession, tweeting that he will instead focus his efforts on boosting states’ powers. He added that he will soon announce a “new political movement.”

Originally published in the December issue of
San Francisco

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