May 15, 2020
by Emmanuelle Perez Tisserant, Professor in history at the University of Toulouse 2 Jean Jaurès, Institut de Amériques thesis prize in 2015.
On April 7, 2020 the governor of California Gavin Newsom declared on television that, since the federal government was not providing the hospital supplies he needed to fight against the Covid-19 epidemic, his state would use its "nation-state" purchasing power to get them, adding that California could even "export" the equipment toward other federated states. The vocabulary used certainly startled a number of listeners: had California surreptitiously seceded? Was Newsom then providing his support to the "Calexit" backers?
Of course, the democratic governor, who wasn't born yesterday and has a strong political career behind him (he's been the San Francisco mayor, then the lieutenant governor of California), had chosen his words carefully and did not question the unity of the United States. In the middle of the 2020 presidential campaign, he wanted to fuel a personal power struggle between himself, a rising democratic star, and the republican president Donald Trump, and an institutional power struggle between California and Washington.
Yet, it wasn't the first time that Newsom used the term "nation-state" where California was concerned, a term he uses to express the stature and the role California plays in the Union: a federated state, yes, but because of its economy and its demographic density, it can and must adopt bold measures that other Union states can follow. The pride and exceptionalism of the Californian dream have often been in tune with and at the forefront of the American dream. But under Donald Trump, the priorities of the Californian governor and his democratic allies (accessible health insurance, environmental protection, protection of minorities, women and LGBT rights, etc.) were often in opposition with the White House's, term after term.
In fact, for the past eighteen months, conflicts between California and Washington have increased, with at stake court decisions on the limits of state sovereignty and the Constitution. The states are, for example, subject to tougher budget constraints than the federal government (since they don't control the currency). Certain programs, such as minimum health insurance coverage, are managed conjointly with the federal government, and they don't have authority over the borders.
And yet, Newsom, like others before him in fact, has tried to push the enveloppe as far as possible using the ambiguities and blind spots of the federal system, that are often resolved only after long court proceduresthat go all the way to the Supreme Court. This is how California was able to legalize same-sex marriage (in 2008) and the recreational use of marijuana (in 2016). More recently, when Donald Trump declared a state of emergency at the US-Mexican border and attempted to activate the National Guard, the Californian governor pulled them from what he called a "so-called emergency" and deployed them to a "real threat", such as the forest fires.
Car emission regulations is a perfect example of how California's economic and demographic clout helps him play with federal laws. Under Obama, the federal environmental agency (EPA) had allowed California to adopt stricter standards for cars sold within state lines. Though Trump has ordered that this exemption be revoked, Newsom's California was actually able to extend it because its market is so important that manufacturers preferred maintaining the more stringent standards than risk being excluded from the Californian market (and the other states having adopted the same measures) in the near future - for example in case of a democratic victory in 2020 or 2024...
The power struggle between Trump and California has taken an even more dramatic turn with the Covid-19 pandemic. While the president, as many other heads of states, was minimizing the threat, Newsom stood out by implementating relatively early measures, again by using the nation-state vocabulary. If California, up against a wall, could not depend on a needed "reliable partner", it would take on its responsabilities. Independently.
Historically, none of this is new. The United States' federalism (and federalism in general) is forever questionning the limits of the entities and the union's sovereignty. The ratification of the 1787 constitution was beset with famous debates and the topic of states not having to apply, if not cancel, federal laws was discussed several times in the 19th century. The most striking example was of course the Civil War, when the southern slave states decided to leave the Union after the election of a president whose position, they believed, threatened their "freedom" to have slaves. We can remember that at the time, though the Pacific coast states supported the Union (specifically California with its abundant gold), they had also formed a short-lived independent "Pacific Republic" project.
Though the North winning the Civil War marked a turning point, it did not stop the contention and the conflicts continued all through the 20th century, for example in regards to the New Deal, the organization of the war efforts and civil rights.
In the case of California, these controversies are also fueled by the history of Mexican federalism and of the first hopes for Californian independence, which can be found much later represented in the Zorro episodes and movies (that the hero thwarts, being the good legitimist that he was).
Prior to being annexed by the United States in 1848, after the Mexican-American War, California did belong to Mexico, which was a federal country between 1824 and 1835 (and became one again later). California was not an acting state, but a territory of the federal government. However, the possibility of becoming a full fledged state over time was dangled before the Californians. So, when the majority changed and adopted a centralized government in 1836, California declared its independence as long as Mexico did not become a federation again; the Californians even went so far as to proclaim "the free and sovereign state of Upper California". Finally, the leaders of the rebellion accepted to rally together after realizing that, because of the distance between the capital and their territory, the government wasn't likely to get involved in their business. Also, in those days, because of the lack of local resources, what little the central government could bring was always welcome.
In those days, an annexation to the United States, like the one in process in Texas, was not really on the agenda. The issue of the national future of California would become serious in the 1840s. Mexico had less and less means to insure the security of this distant border and the United States explicitely coveted the region because maritime and continental traffic presented new possibilities of East-West connections.
As soon as 1846, when there were rumblings of war between Mexico and the United States, several United States settlers established in the central valley of California declared the independence of a "California Republic", imitating Texas. They hoisted a flag, featuring a bear, which inspired the one adopted during the ratification of California in the United States federation in 1850, after the start of the gold rush and at a time when Americans had gone from a handful to several dozens of thousands. For Californians of Mexican descent, on the other hand, this flag represented a humiliation since it was a reminder of American conquest, preceded by an illegitimate rebellion and marking the beginning of an era where they no longer had control of their territory. Today, some see the potential independence as a kind of revenge since the majority of the population is of Mexican descent.
Today, Newsom leads a state that has many more resources, but just like the Californians of the times, his vision puts California's interests first, even if it means competing with the Union.
Studying the United States leads to getting used to thinking at the national level, but California's example proves that it is important to remember to observe at the state level. It is even interesting to go a little further and look at the county and city level, as can be seen with the power struggles over the closing and re-opening of public spaces (such as the beaches).
The tendency toward a confrontation between central governments and local authorities can be seen all over the world since the Covid-19 pandemic. In the western United States, it confirms a specificity already well anchored and could eventually lead to a much stronger process. Fiction has already explored the possibility of a Californian separation: in Ecotopia (1975), Ernest Callenbach imagines that in 1980 the West coast of the United States secedes from the rest of the Union for ecological reasons; in American War (2017), Omar el Akkad describes a second Southern Secession, after a federal ban on hydrocarbons... As in these books, we find ourselves in elusive times, where possibilities seem to re-emerge. Past choices are coming up again, today's agreements no longer seem eternal, past alternatives come back to haunt the present, and the future.
Emmanuelle Perez Tisserant is a Professor in history at the University of Toulouse 2 Jean Jaurès in the Framespa laboratory. She did her thesis at the research center Mondes américains and received the Institut des Amériques thesis prize in 2015.