Time for another revolution? Calexit in context

Exploited by taxes, incensed by foreign policy blunders, and ruled by officials thousands of miles away, a group of individuals came together to demand independence.

I speak, of course, of the “Calexit” initiative.

Many Californians—nearly one in three, according to a recent Reuters poll—are in favor of withdrawing from the United States and forming their own country. When advocates of Calexit describe their cause, they tend to emphasize parallels between modern-day Californians’ situation and that of the colonists prior to the American Revolution. 

“The same issues that drove the American Revolution, frankly—taxation without representation—are also on the table,” explained Jed Wheeler, a member of the California National Party. The comparison lends moral legitimacy to his argument, tapping into the cultural mythos surrounding the founding fathers and their presumed righteousness.

But is the comparison valid? In The Radicalism of the American Revolution, Gordon Wood places the American Revolution in the context of the ideologies of the time and the cultural forces that shaped the daily lives of the colonists. His analysis illuminates several key themes that, when put in conversation with Calexit, suggest a surprising resemblance between the two movements.

Peruse any comment section regarding Calexit and you will find hundreds of users mocking the Californian “snowflakes,” who enjoy a high quality of life and yet want a revolution. There is a tendency to believe that revolution is only justified in times of extreme social unrest, whether it be crushing poverty or overtly oppressive leadership. Although the Calexit campaign has outlined nine grievances against the United States, leaving the country because, for instance, the Electoral College favors small states would strike many as an overreaction.

And yet, could not the American Revolution be dismissed along similar lines? American colonists were not kept in destitution; they did not know the lash of the whip.  On the contrary, says Wood, they enjoyed comparatively privileged lives: “The social conditions that generically are supposed to lie behind all revolutions—poverty and economic deprivation—were not present in colonial America…In fact, the colonists knew they were freer, more equal, more prosperous, and less burdened with cumbersome feudal and monarchical restraints than any other part of mankind in the eighteenth century.”

A key point here is that the colonists knew that they were well off, yet they rebelled anyway. This same quality is present among many in the pro-Calexit crowd. They love the life California—as a state—has enabled them to enjoy, but they believe life could be significantly better if California gained its independence. This belief in a better future, one unprecedented in scope, can be maligned as a lack of gratitude, a selfish disavowal of one’s good fortune. Yet the founding fathers proved that a generation of optimistic, forward-thinking leaders can indeed create a society that departs from any which came before, unleashing new ways of thinking, doing, and producing that the weight of tradition kept suppressed.

The founding fathers’ optimism corresponds in intriguing ways with the Silicon Valley ethos of disruption, of starting anew. Wood quotes Thomas Paine, writing that America may be “as happy as she pleases” given “a blank sheet to write upon”. This was the idea that building a society from the ground up would enable the colonists to create a future with limitless potential. Though Paine is discussing governance, his idea resonates today in the slogans of start-up culture. In the world of startups, innovation is king. One gains fame and fortune by disrupting industries, by radically rethinking a product. Though not a start-up, one might think of Apple, which eschewed the trappings of traditional telephones and designed a phone from scratch. The biggest names in Silicon Valley—Sheryl Sandberg, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk—speak constantly of freeing oneself of past traditions so that one is not limited by what came before. If the founding fathers were optimistic about starting from a blank slate, today’s titans of industry made the model a goldmine.

By reimagining what a society could be, the American Revolution altered virtually every aspect of American life. Although historical analogues are not necessarily predictive, based on the extraordinary change that Calexit would represent, it seems probable that Calexit would do the same. After the Revolution, a high percentage of émigrés left the country to go back to the country with which they more strongly identified. The same would likely happen after Calexit, as those who recognize themselves as American before they are Californian would move to a different state.

On the issue of individual freedoms, the Revolution cemented Americans’ commitment to liberty, paving the way for the abolition of slavery and the slow advancement of civil rights. Within the Calexit movement, rhetoric centers on social justice ideals and the distance between California’s progressive values and those of the rest of the country. Defining a country in opposition to white supremacy, LGBT discrimination, and patriarchal norms would create fertile grounds for similar revolutions in embracing traditionally marginalized groups. The idea of the “blank slate” would also be useful in this ethical endeavor, as Californians would have the opportunity to either give out reparations or otherwise address legacies of injustices that, as a new country, it could then move past.

While these anticipated changes are speculative, the parallels between modern-day Californians and colonists prior to the American Revolution are real. Before Americans dismiss the possibility of Calexit as a fever dream, they would do well to remember their own history.