California dreaming: Why 'Calexit' secession from U.S. probably won't happen

Some Californians are having fun thinking about the possibility of secession from the United States after Donald Trump's presidential victory, but many would rather change the country than leave it, Kim Brunhuber writes.

Secession is a 'fun thing to contemplate' but many would rather change the country than leave it

Kaila Fernandez holds up a sign at a recent anti-Trump rally in Los Angeles. She thinks leaving the U.S. might be a good idea for California. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

Recently in a park in San Francisco, a bunch of distraught Democrats hugged it out.

Donald Trump's presidential win had them so worried, so down, their solution was to form a ball of tangled arms and legs and hug.

Is it possible that somewhere in the United States, Trump supporters are doing the same thing? Yes. But it's unlikely.

A political hug-a-thon is quintessential California. It's a symbol of what makes the state so different from the other 49, and why many Californians like Kaila Fernandez simply can't come to terms with the idea of President Trump. A house divided against itself cannot stand. So, she says, time to move out.

At first, José Saragossa dismissed the idea of Calexit, but then he says the movement 'opened his eyes' to the voice Californians have to determine their own destiny. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

"It wouldn't be a bad idea for California to just split from the United States," Fernandez says. "I think it would be good if we were to separate."

In hashtag-speak, it's known as "Calexit."

Last week, organizers from the "Yes California" campaign officially filed an application to put the secession referendum on the 2018 ballot.

It's not the first time states have tried to secede since the Civil War.

Odds aren't 'very high'

After President Barack Obama was re-elected in 2012, fed-up Republicans tried to pass secession measures in all 50 states. All failed. 

Even some behind the "Yes California" campaign admit it's a long shot.

"If you ask me what odds are, I wouldn't say they're very high," says Juan Pablo Alban, a corporate lawyer who joined the "Yes California" campaign as vice-president of Latino outreach. 

But, he adds, "before the election I would say Trump's chances of getting elected were pretty low, too."

USC public diplomacy Prof. Pamela Starr says if Donald Trump follows through on his threat to withhold money from cities that shelter illegal immigrants, people might start to take the idea of Calexit more seriously. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

When 17-year-old music student José Zaragoza first read about Calexit online, he thought it was a joke. 

But then he really thought about it. He's Latino and he's gay in a country that will soon be governed by conservatives. 

Sure, he participated in demonstrations like a recent sit-in on the steps of the Los Angeles City Hall. But what, really, did that accomplish in the end, he asks? 

Suddenly the idea of a Calexit didn't seem so crazy. 

Everybody's talking

"I think this opened up our eyes for a lot of us, that we have a voice and that we're going to be able to use it," Zaragoza says.

So how realistic is Calexit?

When asked, Pamela Starr, a professor of public diplomacy at USC, laughed long and hard.

"Everyone's talking about Calexit," she says.

California State Senator Ben Allen says Calexit is a 'fun thing to contemplate' but ultimately 'America needs us, we need America, we need the United States and we're gonna stick it out.' (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

But is it possible?

"We like to think it is in California," she says. "But no I don't think so."

And she laughed again.

But she admits it would no longer be a laughing matter if a Trump administration pushes California too far.

 According to the Public Policy Institute of California, the state is home to about a quarter of the country's illegal immigrants.

Many officials and law enforcement groups said they wouldn't help federal authorities pursue undocumented immigrants more aggressively.

Unlikely possibility

In response, Trump has threatened to take away funding for cities that shelter illegal immigrants, like Los Angeles and San Francisco.

"If he were to hold true to that, then I think people would talk about Calexit more seriously," Starr says.

And then there's this: secession would require an amendment to the U.S. constitution, which would have to be approved by two-thirds of Congress, and at least 38 of the 50 state legislatures. 

But Alban says as unlikely as it may seem, some states might have an incentive to say Yes.

"A lot of states might vote us out thinking: 'We don't want to be responsible for your state anyway and your big pension liabilities.' "

And some, he says, might see it as a pathway to reform their own states.

Despite vocal opposition to the president-elect, most Californians feel they want to help change the country, not leave it. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

But legislators like California state Senator Ben Allen believe it's not much more than an entertaining thought exercise.

"Look, I understand, it's a fun thing to contemplate and certainly may be fun to join the Canadians," Allen says.

"But ultimately, we're Americans in California. We have too much at stake to leave the country. America needs us, we need America, we need the United States, and we're gonna stick it out."

Allen says the state has hired a team of lawyers to protect the policies and programs that Californians care about. And he points out that the same constitution that created the electoral college also gave the states plenty of autonomy.

"The state of California, as the fifth-largest economy in the world on its own, has a lot of power, has a lot of ability to do its own thing," Allen says.

And doing your own thing has its limits‚ even in California, says Los Angeles resident Charisma Lopez.

'Better to stay together'

The state has always strained at the country's seams. But tearing free — even if it were possible — Lopez says, is morally wrong. She wants to change the country, not leave it.

"It's like California is fixed but everyone else, we're just leaving them to fend for themselves," Lopez says. "That's why it's better to stay together because then we can fix it as one."

It's time for liberal Californians to grow up, she says. Solving California's problems by leaving makes as much sense as solving them by hugging strangers in the park.

About the Author

Kim Brunhuber

Los Angeles correspondent

Kim Brunhuber is a CBC News Senior Reporter based in Los Angeles. He has travelled the world from Sierra Leone to Afghanistan as a videojournalist, shooting and editing pieces for TV, radio and online. Originally from Montreal, he speaks French and Spanish, and is also a published novelist.


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