Secession, or at least political subdivision, is looking increasingly attractive to many Americans. Both ideas were long considered outre, even unacceptable. But as the Civil War, our last such great experiment, recedes into history, the cries to break away, or at least to break up, are growing louder.
CALIFORNIA: Lalaland is the home of full-spectrum crackpotism and Governor Moonbeam, plus the State Commission on Self-Esteem (I kid you not). But its establishment has finally come up with a good idea: subdivide California into three states. Such a plan has been introduced by Assemblyman Stan Statham (R-Oak Run) and endorsed by Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) and Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy. Thus, support for the plan includes both rural and urban elements, both Republicans and Democrats. Although Libertarians support the freedom to subdivide or to secede, there are as yet none in the California legislature.
The advisory measure to subdivide California will be on the November 8, 1994, ballot. In 1992, voters in 27 of 51 northern and central counties voted in favor. That’s an unprecedented 87 percent vote of approval. Maybe the time has come.
The time almost came on several occasions in the past. California was barely a state in 1850 when proposals to bisect or trisect it arose three years running. They were ignored. Five years later came a plan to create the state of Columbia out of north-central California. It met official silence. The plan grew into trisection to form the states of Shasta (north), California (central), and Colorado (south). Again, no action. Then, in 1859, the proposed “Coloradans” voted 75 percent to partition off. Those in power yawned. (The name “Colorado” was used 17 years later for the state surrounding Denver.) As late as 1939, northern Californians and southern Oregonians tried to form a new state. But still, neither their legislatures nor Congress would listen.
“California has become too large and too complex to be managed efficiently as a single unit.” That official statement came from the State Assembly’s Office of Research. There are more Californians (roughly 32 million) than there are Canadians (28 million). The Golden State is three-fourths larger than the Empire State (New York) and almost double the size of the Lone Star State (Texas). Its population exceeds the 22 smallest states combined. One of every eight Americans is a Californian.
NEW YORK CITY For years, there’s been talk of New York City seceding from New York State. If you’ve ever lived there, you know that NYC is even more socialistic than Upstate, if that’s possible. Breaking off NYC, Long Island, and perhaps Westchester County to create another state might make sense.
The Big Apple itself faces serious breakaway sentiment in Staten Island, the least populated, most pastoral of its five boroughs and the only one without a subway. (The others are Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn.) In fact, Staten Island is somewhat closer to New Jersey than to the rest of “the City.” Furthermore, it’s connected to “Jersey” via three bridges but is tied to NYC only by the Verrazano Narrows Bridge—the longest suspension bridge in the world.
Given the option, 65 percent of Staten Island’s voters favored secession last November. Thus, Staten Island—official borough name, Richmond—could become New York State’s second-largest city, replacing Buffalo. However, the state legislature and the governor must approve such a move. Since the governor is Mario Cuomo, this is dubious at best.
MIDWEST: Illinois has toyed for years with the idea of cutting off Chicago and Cook County from Downstate. So far, no real action. And residents of Michigan—which is already in two large geographic masses—have discussed politically separating the “U.P.” (Upper Peninsula) from the highly populated and labor union-dominated Lower Peninsula. But secessionist sentiment, as you might expect, is not strong in these two former fighting states of the bluecoated Union.
FAR NORTH: The incumbent Alaskan Governor Wally Hickel was elected in 1990 from the Alaska Independence Party, whose main platform was to secede from the United States and form an independent republic. Since elected, though, Hickel has ignored the strident calls of his AIP co-partisans for secession. Even sadder, the AIP’s founder, Joe Vogler, mysteriously disappeared in June 1993 while walking in the woods.
Another idea—which was presented to me as an Alaskan legislator from 1985 to 1987—is for Alaska, Yukon, and British Columbia all to secede and form the Republic of Northwest America. Whether that’s a good idea or not, it is far easier for a province to secede than for a state to do so.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA: Statehood has been suggested for D.C., but that would be unconstitutional. The District was specifically set up to house the nation’s capital—to be neutral, not to compete with other states for favors from the government literally in its own backyard. In fact, the Constitution stipulates (Article 1, Section 8) that “Congress shall . . . exercise exclusive legislation . . . over such District . . . as may, by cession of particular states . . . become the seat of government of the United States.” That’s why it is called a district—it is not a state, constitutionally. However, it is heavily Democratic, which is why Teddy Kennedy and Jesse Jackson (its nonvoting “senator”) want to statify it: more Democratic legislators and members of Congress and another Democratic governor.
HAS SECESSION EVER SUCCEEDED? Yes. Secession is not just a wild-eyed dream; it’s actually been done. In 1820, Maine broke off from Massachusetts to become the 23rd state. In 1861, rather than seceding from the United States as part of Virginia, “Kanawha” seceded from Virginia. Two years later, it became the 35th state after changing its name to West Virginia. And Texas seceded from Mexico in 1836—via a bloody, anti-secessionist war—to become the Republic of Texas.
WOULD SUBDIVISION WORK? Consider: as three states, California would be smaller at home but bigger in Congress. The three Californias would still be among the ten largest states. However, each would be one-third its current size, bringing state government that much closer to the voters. And the closer government is to the people, the better it is.
As a separate state, Northern California could abolish its state income tax, lower its property taxes, and rescind regulations that restrict outdoor activities. Central California could liberalize laws to allow more hospices for persons with AIDS. Southern California could characteristically try to limit development by raising taxes and tightening regulations to “preserve lifestyles.” These various changes might be popular in one California but unpopular in the other two. If so, they could only be achieved if California had three state legislatures and governors.
In Congress, Californian senators would increase from two to six. This may sound trivial, but California’s caucus would almost triple, from one of every 50 senators to one of every 17. (Since representatives arc elected by population, that count would probably not change.) If California were a country, it would have the seventh largest economy in the world. Some might say: don’t break that up. But think about it—is California’s economic power ever wielded cohesively, like a hammer? No. It’s what each person experiences that is important. And with three separate, smaller state governments, plus more senators in Congress, things might significantly improve for Californians.
THE FUTURE: Whenever subdivision or secession appears on the ballot, voters should ask themselves; distant, larger government or closer, smaller government? More power to the bureaucrats or more power to me? Bigger might be better in making soap, but not in making government. In fact, the reverse seems true: the bigger the government, the more it intrudes into our lives and the less individual control each of us has over our time, our money, and our body.
And what’s wrong with secession? Why do the two major parties—Democratic and Republican—support the right of self-determination for, say, Bosnians but not for Texans or Alaskans? Why did the United States go to war to preserve self-governance for Kuwaitis (1991) but to deny it to Southerners (1861)? Seems to me, Americans have as much right to govern themselves as do Bosnians or Kuwaitis. And that right to self-governance includes secession or subdivision.