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Rural California wants a divorce from rich California

Plenty of states' rural regions are looking to split from richer metro areas, but maybe there is a better solution than adding new stars to our flag.

We’re starting to hear more about secession. Not the perennial post-election calls of losing parties to secede from a nation controlled by the opposition, but a growing movement for secession from states, with the parts of states (sometimes geographically very large parts of states) wanting to separate from the population-dense urban areas that essentially control state decision-making. Feeling ignored, put-upon, and mistreated, state secessionists want to take their fate into their own hands.

At present, there’s little prospect of adding stars to the American flag, but these movements do indicate a widespread sense of dissatisfaction among (mostly rural) populations who feel that they are governed by people in distant urban centers who know little, and care less, about their way of life. Their complaints, in many ways, sound like the complaints of Americans circa 1775.

Intrastate secession isn't exactly new in the United States: West Virginia was once part of Virginia, for example, and Tennessee was once part of North Carolina, though that evolution was less fraught. But in recent years we've seen a number of states facing calls to split, from inhabitants of regions who feel effectively unrepresented.

In New York State, for example, there have been repeated calls to split upstate New York from the New York City region. One such proposal involves letting the NYC area keep the name "New York," while the new upstate state would be named "New Amsterdam." The reason? "We're completely overwhelmed ... by the policies of New York City," according to New York State Senator Joseph Robach. The idea has been circulating for over 25 years, but now seems to be gaining some degree of additional support.

Perhaps better-publicized is Silicon Valley entrepreneur Tim Draper’s plan to split California into six states, one of which would be, essentially, Silicon Valley’s own preserve. Though Draper’s plan did not make the 2016 ballot, it served as a useful outlet for complaints about unrepresented parts of the state.

Some such effort might also please the residents of inland and northern California, who feel that California state government — with its heavy interests in the Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay areas — views them with indifference or even hostility. Writing in the Los Angeles Daily News, demographer Joel Kotkin compared these neglected, poverty-stricken regions of California to apartheid-era South Africa’s “bantustans,” observing that inland California has high unemployment, poor healthcare, and a general sense of being despised and neglected by the coastal high-rollers running the state.

Somewhat less ambitious than Draper’s is a plan to split the wealthy, coastal regions of California from the remainder, leaving the state of “New California” to be made up of most of the state’s rural areas. As CBS News reports, “unlike other separation movements in the past, the state of New California wants to do things by the book, citing Article 4, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution and working with the state legislature to get it done, similar to the way West Virginia was formed. ... The group is organized with committees and a council of county representatives, but say it will take 10 to 18 months before they are ready to fully engage with the state legislature.” The goal is to let the rural areas govern themselves in ways more suited to their needs, while the wealthy coastal regions do the same. (The New California movement already has chapters in 44 counties, according to its website.)

A similar dynamic obtains in Washington State, where some legislators are reviving a proposal, dating back to 1915, to separate Eastern Washington into its own state, provisionally named “Liberty,” and in Oregon, where activists in the eastern part of the state want to secede from coastal Oregon, either to set up their own state, or to join the existing state of Idaho, with which they feel they have more in common. (There’s also a plan to join Eastern Washington and Eastern Oregon into a new state called "Cascadia.")

There’s even talk about splitting downstate Illinois away from Chicagoland. Once again, the downstate hinterland contains a lot of people (but, despite their much greater geographic extent, fewer than the Chicago metro area) who feel unrepresented, and believe that Chicago’s dominance of the state causes downstate tax dollars to flow toward politicians’ vote-buying efforts in Chicago, while Chicago voters impose regulations that downstate citizens don’t want.

Splitting a state is hard. West Virginia managed because the existing Virginia legislature was in rebellion against the United States, making it easy for President Lincoln and the Congress to recognize the new rump legislature put together in Wheeling as the “official” legislature of Virginia, and accepting its approval (which the Constitution requires) for forming a new state out of part of the old Virginia. Such circumstances aren’t likely today, let us hope, though if states like Illinois or California went bankrupt, they might agree to a split in exchange for a federal bailout.

But short of that, is there anything Congress can do? I think so. As I argue in a recent paper, most of the state-secessionist complaints have to do with urban areas applying the heavy hand of government regulation to rural people with different needs: Overstrict environmental laws, labor laws, firearms laws and the like.

Federal law governs all of these areas, but generally allows states to regulate more strictly if they so desire. I suggest that federal law be changed to pre-empt state laws in the same area, making federal regulation not just a floor, but a ceiling by preventing states from adopting stricter rules. (In some cases, this could even be done by administrative regulation).

Some might argue that such a move infringes on states’ rights, but the federal government has traditionally stepped in to protect local minorities from being oppressed by local majorities. That’s what the Civil Rights Act did, for example. Using federal power to promote greater freedom seems in keeping with our traditions and values.

Perhaps Congress will get on this. Or perhaps the state of “New California” will one day be a reality.

Glenn Harlan Reynolds, a University of Tennessee law professor and the author of The New School: How the Information Age Will Save American Education from Itself, is a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors. Follow him on Twitter: @instapundit.

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