Inspired by Scotland, Catalonia and especially Brexit, some in California want to go it alone

Membership of independence group “Yes California” increased by 400 per cent in the wake of Donald Trump’s election.

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For Marcus Ruiz Evans, Brexit was a political epiphany. “Yes, the pound dropped, there has been a lot of hardship, I get that,” he conceded when we met one recent morning in Fresno, northern California. “But what we saw was: ‘Holy shit, you could actually do it.’ It went from just theory to showing a modern nation can do this legally.”

Evans, a jovial, bearded 41-year-old and self-described progressive, is the head of Yes California, the largest of several groups currently agitating for America’s most populous and wealthiest state – as well as one of its most politically forward-looking – to secede from the United States.

The concept of “Calexit”, or “Wexit” if joined by other progressive western states such as Washington and Oregon, has existed for years, drawing inspiration from fellow independence movements in Scotland and Catalonia. But it was in the wake of Donald Trump’s election as US president that the campaign truly gained traction. On issues such as immigration and free trade, Trump’s politics are diametrically opposed to those of California.

Evans was in Sacramento, the state capital, the day after Trump’s victory in November 2016. “People were just walking around the streets and crying,” he recalled. “It was weird. I’ve never seen that before. People just crying uncontrollably everywhere you went.”

Yes California’s membership increased by 400 per cent after election day. The organisation’s mailing list now has 98,000 subscribers; its Facebook page has 42,000 members, which, Evans pointed out, is only a few thousand less than the page for the California Democratic Party. In January 2017, a Reuters/Ipsos poll showed support for state independence had risen from 20 per cent to 32 per cent; a Stanford University poll the same month found that 36 per cent of 18- t0 29-year-old Californians were in favour of secession, with a further 23 per cent undecided.

There is, however, a disquieting Russian connection. Louis Marinelli, who co-founded the independence movement with Evans in 2013, moved to Yekaterinburg, Siberia, in September 2016, saying that he had become disillusioned with the US and intended to seek Russian citizenship. While Marinelli was president, Yes California reportedly accepted a gift of accommodation from a Kremlin-linked group at a conference for secessionist movements in Moscow.

No one has suggested that Russia is directly funding the group. But Kremlin-backed organisations, such as the broadcaster RT, have covered the movement extensively, while the BBC reported in November 2017 that Russian Twitter bots had been active in repeating and amplifying the group’s message.

Evans, who fired Marinelli and took over as Yes California’s president in early 2017, acknowledged the reports but disputed the suggestion that the group was a confected Russian operation.

“Do we have this baggage? Is there a Russia connection? Yes,” he told me. “Is Russia involved? Sure. Are they creating the whole thing? Hell no. Are they the majority? Hell no.” Support from Moscow is not, in itself, particularly surprising. Under the aegis of Vladimir Putin, Russian trolling operations have immersed themselves in any number of different causes across the Western world.

These include not only Brexit, and the Trump and Bernie Sanders election campaigns, but also Black Lives Matter and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. Any cause that divides a geopolitical rival can attract support from the Kremlin’s troll-farms, and the appeal of  “Calexit” – which would split Russia’s greatest antagonist – is obvious.

The notion of an independent California is far from absurd. The state’s Democratic governor Jerry Brown views “the sixth-largest economy of the world as capable of playing more of a nation state-like role”, his biographer, Orville Schell, told Politico last year.

In May, California surpassed the UK to become the world’s fifth-largest economy with a gross state product (the equivalent of GDP) of $2.747trn. Crucially, it is also a net contributor to the US federal budget: it receives considerably less ($356bn) than it pays in ($369bn). The state’s population of 39.54 million makes it larger than Poland.

Yet despite its size, California is still assigned the same number of votes in the US Senate – two – as Vermont (623,657 people) and Wyoming (579,315). (A separate campaign, led by Silicon Valley investor Tim Draper, proposes to address this inequity by splitting California into three smaller states.) How would secession work in practice? In California, any proposal can become a “ballot initiative” – if it secures at least 365,000 signatures – and be put to a public vote.

The last time states tried to secede from the US in 1861, the American Civil War was the result. Most experts believe the chances of California being granted independence are slim to infinitesimal.

Ultimately, the US Supreme Court would rule on the constitutionality of secession. Evans cited Texas vs White, an 1869 Supreme Court decision, as the only true precedent, and pointed out that while it stated that the Union was “indissoluble”, it added a caveat: “except through… consent of the states”.

That, some argue, implies that a simple majority vote in Congress, rather than a constitutional amendment (which would require ratification by two-thirds of states), could be sufficient for California to secede.

Evans is convinced that even ideologically distant states might be willing to give their consent. He has engaged with conservative leaders in Republican heartlands, such as Nebraska, Indiana, Oklahoma and West Virginia, to assess how they would respond should California vote for independence. “They have all said, on record: ‘Yeah, go ahead and go. Nobody’s gonna be that upset in Red State America. Sure, peacefully leave.’” 

Nicky Woolf is the editor of New Statesman America. He has formerly written for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

This article first appeared in the 09 November 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Revenge of the nation state