Saturday, September 13, 2014

Beyond Breaking California Up into Six States: A Federalist Alternative

In any epoch and in any culture, the human mind displays a marked tendency to accept the status quo as the default—being so ensconced in fact that efforts at real change almost inevitably face formidable road-blocks. In this essay, I analyze the 2014 failed ballot-petition that would have put the proposal of breaking California into six separate states to Californians. I contend that the proponents could alternatively have taken up a more optimal alternative—one much easier to put into effect. Interestingly, that idea comes from the E.U. rather than the U.S.

When the U.S. constitutional convention hammered out a constitution in 1787, the thirteen states together had about 7 million people. In 2014, at the time of this writing, California alone sports a population of roughly 38 million. In terms of population alone, California would be five early United States with seven states each. George Washington had held his tongue in the convention so he could preside neutrally until the last point, when he asked the delegates to change the minimum representation in the proposed U.S. House of Representatives from 30,000 residents to 20,000, the House being the repository of democracy in the federal government. Washington would likely shake his head in utter disbelief at such populous House districts as well as those at the state level. Additionally, the direct election of U.S. Senators is popularly taken to translate into California’s two senators representing 38 million people (technically, the senators represent California as a polity rather than its citizens directly). In contrast, the two U.S. senators from Wyoming “represent” only roughly 600,000, which, while much better than 38 million, is significantly more than 20,000.

In terms of territorial-related diversity, California’s rivals that which existed between New England and the southern states in 1787. Redding is not exactly San Francisco or L.A., and the central valley is like a world away from Santa Cruz. In terms of public policy, the practical necessity of compromise can easily result in a lowest common denominator very distinct from any of the regional preferences. In other words, no one is happy with the result that gets through the intractable blockages.

So it is perhaps no surprise that a proposal sought the light of day in 2014 to split California into six states, and neither is it any surprise that the ballot-petition fell short. As much as it might make sense, the institutional conflict-of-interest that would face U.S. senators from other states in deciding whether to approve of the ten additional senators in what would have been California. According to three Californians who work on such issues, “The other states, through their congressional representatives, have no incentive to approve a subdivided California; indeed, they have a huge disincentive to do so.”[1] This is so not only in terms of the U.S. Senate, but also the Electoral College as having more U.S. senators would mean more electoral votes in presidential elections. Furthermore, the movement for smaller states would need to deal with James Madison’s point that a political minority is more likely to be oppressed in a smaller republic—although the six states would on average each have significantly more people than did the thirteen states in 1787. Even so, the obstacles to a member-state in the U.S. splitting into two or more states are certainly more than in the E.U. The state of Britain does not need federal approval to split into four states, for example, or to have the Scottish region secede from the state.

Interestingly, Tim Draper, the venture-capitalist Californian who was behind the failed Six-State ballot-petitions, suggested in a talk at The Commonwealth Club that the counties could alternatively be given more of California’s retained and even residual sovereignty (the federal government’s being limited, or enumerated). The counties could then build support for eventual regional states from the ground up. Counties in Northern California would doubtless legalize marijuana in a split second and Napa would pass legislation enacting a grape-studded flag, while L.A. county would legalize drunk celebrities in public places and San Diego county would ok bad weather on a probationary trial-basis as if it were akin to stem-cell research.

While from a democratic standpoint, this strategy is preferable to Draper’s own, the “home-grown” proposals would still face the inexorable political obstacles because both in process and outcome, the proposal would be a closer fit to the people. 

As still another doable alternative, Californians could look at the E.U. states that are themselves federal systems, such as Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany. The independent state of Switzerland could also serve as a model, should Californians want most of their state’s governmental sovereignty at the county or regional level. That is to say, California could have a confederal or (modern) federal system of governance. California would still be a member-state in the U.S., so U.S. approval would not be necessary, and Californians would benefit from the check-and-balance that federalism within their state could give them as the counties or regions could check excesses in the California Federal Government (and vice versa). Sadly, such a mechanism had succumbed to a lop-sided federal system at the state-U.S. Government level. In short, federalism can be applied not just as it was long ago at the empire or alliance level, but also at the modern-day member-state level—a large and diverse state being a federal system unto itself. I suspect that George Washington would agree.

[1] David Carrilo, Jack Citrin, and Ethan Rarick, “Carving Up California: Been There, Tried That,” Daily Journal, July 22, 2014.