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You are here: Home » Articles » Calexit in Reverse

Calexit in Reverse

Josh Stephens on
Nov 10, 2016

A New Yorker, one whose favorite pastime was building skyscrapers before he turned to statecraft, has bewilderingly captured the hearts of the American suburbs, exurbs, and small towns. Yes, this election hinged on race. But it also hinged on geography. While traffic of all sorts — foot, pedal, taxi, subway — rumbles along below the window of his penthouse, the nation’s wide-open spaces and moribund towns cheer for the change they have wrought. 

And what of California? What of mid-rise urbanism, mid-range density, the blue ocean, and the 900 miles of blue coastline against which it crashes? What of the 60% of us who envisioned a different four years? 

A California secession movement arose within hours of Trump’s victory. It even has a cute, hashtaggable name: Calexit. As much as this prospect may appeal, we all know it’s an emotional salve and not a solution. If I knew how to navigate the Constitution well enough to permit secession, there are probably a few other changes I’d make first. A certain Electoral College system comes to mind. 

A far more powerful and far more realistic option occurs to me. We should not leave the United States. We should do what we have always done: invite the United States to come to us. 

Donald Trump’s election reveals that a long-developing trend has now become an axiom: the “sorting” of Americans is essentially complete. America’s open interstate borders have enabled like-minded citizens to group together in places of their choosing. Broadly speaking, liberals have moved to cities and coastal states while conservatives have remained in the Heartland — effectively gobbling up electoral votes (and House districts) in the process. Structurally, “sorting” gave us the discrepancy between Trump’s electoral victory and Clinton’s popular victory. Culturally, it leads to the gross misunderstandings between so-called Red and Blue America.

One strategy for a Democratic resurgence is for Blue voters to move to swing states. It’s a clever idea for the adventurous. Anyone who wants to wave the flag of progressivism in Columbus, Durham, or Des Moines has my respect. But I don’t think anyone should have to uproot themselves for the sake of a political strategy in a free country. And it doesn’t solve the clear and present discomfort, disenfranchisement, and, possibly, danger that many Blue voters now feel. 

If Donald Trump threatens to pull the nation back into the past, I suggest that California remains — as ever — its future. 

The vast majority of my 40 million neighbors are diverse, embracing, industrious, and progressive. (Some of them are undocumented – so what?) As is often cited, California has assets most countries — possibly all countries — can only dream of, foremost being its $2.5 trillion economy. While the presidential campaign lamented the demise of old-school factory jobs in the Midwest, California has developed companies that make 20th century steel concerns look like lemonade stands. Iowa can only dream of our crop output. 

From Apple, Google, and Tesla on down, California’s future seems pretty secure. (Though, terrifyingly, Trump’s victory could undercut the tech industry, which is the economic triumph of our time.) I happen to think that Hyperloop is silly, but if it takes off, I’ll be the first one to cheer. We have media, science, medicine, finance, and, yes, good old-fashioned manufacturing. What’s the country’s No. 1 manufacturing county? Oh yeah, it’s Los Angeles

Nobody took America. It’s been right here all along. And there is no superlative that can fully describe California’s opportunities to whomever wants to enjoy this version of the American dream.

We have the wealth and the economic might. We have the human resources. We have the commercial infrastructure. We have the food and the landscape. We have the ports and the airports. We have global clout. We have some of the finest universities in the world. We have a political class that is not perfect but knows how to make incremental strides. We have the best kind of diversity. 

We have all of this and more. Except for two complications. 

First, California cannot currently house all the people it has. Residents and businesses alike are paying exorbitant rents, especially in coastal cities. Rents eat into our economic power, limit companies’ hiring options, decimate local multiplier effects, and essentially pit neighbor against neighbor in the search for shelter. 

Second, California has traffic. 

Fortunately, while the rest of the nation was electing Donald Trump, Californians took strides — some small, some large — to address at least one of these problems. In local elections, Los Angeles County passed Measure M, which, at $120 billion, is probably the largest transportation funding package in the history of the free world. The Bay Area voted for sorely needed funds for BART. Sacramento’s transpiration measure failed, and so did San Diego’s. It’s worth noting, though, that all of these measures required two-thirds majorities. They will be reconfigured and they will find their voters (as Los Angeles did after the 2012 defeat of Measure R).

As for housing, that’s where California’s planners come in. The cause of smart infill development — replete with all the urban amenities and efficiencies that should accompany it — is possibly the only thing that lies between California and its full potential. On that front, yesterday’s votes were mixed. Santa Monica rejected the restrictive Measure LV, and affordable housing measures passed throughout the Bay Area. And yet many cities adopted or strengthened urban growth boundaries — without necessarily embracing the infill development to go along with it. Whatever voters say in a given election, planners need to keep fighting for the cause of density. And they need to promote their work. If nothing else, that is the lesson they can learn from Donald Trump.

And what of the environmental impact of more Californians and the development to contain them? Well, urban living is inherently more efficient than its alternatives. And we have regulations. Senate Bill 375 in particular directs us to build in such a way that we reduce the state’s per capita carbon footprint. CEQA does some good and might yet do more if it’s ever reformed. That still leaves the problem of water. Even then, dense infill development consumes less water per capita than old suburban development does. 

Two days ago, these efforts were just common sense policies for a vibrant, progressive state. Today, for everyone out there who seeks the embrace and promise of California, they are morally imperative. 

I suspect that the new regime in Washington is not going to make things easy on us. Trump willfully mischaracterized cities (including his own) in the campaign, demonizing them to rural and Rust Belt crowds. And, as CP&DR Publisher Bill Fulton notes, Trump will surely betray cities as often as he can with the powers of his office. That’s OK. We just have to work harder, accept the occasional sacrifice, and love each other a little bit more.

So, let’s not break away from America. Let’s make sure California remains the best of America. 

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