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California Liberalism and the (Ugly) Realities of #Calexit

A mighty shock to our electoral system, November 8, 2016 will likely live on in infamy. Yet even before the election, 2016 had long offered murmurings, shocks, and jolts that quietly and then indiscreetly pulled at the threads of the current Western Order. The writing, so they say, was on the wall. And while Brexit and the rise of President-elect Trump outline a radical backlash against political elites, the popularity of secessionist rhetoric, most notably by the “Calexit” movement, may offer the single most damaging indictment of existing liberal attitudes worldwide.

For the uninitiated, Calexit was a trending hashtag on Twitter in the immediate aftermath of Donald Trump’s presidential victory. The term Calexit, which is a reference to the Brexit — the United Kingdom’s shocking decision to retreat from the European Union — is the brainchild of the Yes California Independence Committee. Like its British counterpart, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), Yes California is founded on a secessionist platform that decries the inequity of the relationship between a given state and a larger system of governance. The party, which has long been at the fringe of mainstream politics, leveraged a slick social media campaign — amidst a hysterical atmosphere, sparked by Trump’s election — to catapult itself into the broader cultural consciousness. Ultimately, the viral popularity and seeming cultural cachet of Calexit, and by extension the pro-independence agitation of Yes California, may suggest the emergence of a new breed of populism.

In some respects, this novelty is nothing more than a rebranding of existing movements. The Calexit name, for example, is a literal adaptation of Brexit for an American audience; with each tweet and retweet the new hashtag seeks to capture and Americanize the populist fervor responsible for the UK’s pending divorce from the EU. Moreover, this coopted rhetoric lends an air of hopeful political legitimacy to that frustration, which cries: any odds they can beat, we can beat too. Finally, Yes California has also adopted an exceptionalist tone akin to that of the UKIP in the weeks before the referendum vote. For example, the party’s website claims that independence would grant California the liberty to best utilize its “unique population, culture, and economy” to “exert…a positive influence on the rest of the world” beyond what could be done as “just a U.S. state.”

But most of the similarities end there.

Consider how the UKIP flamed popular frustrations to cultivate an increasing cohort of backers. Infamously, the party greenlighted an anti-immigrant advertisement that depicted refugees filing into Slovenia with the ominous title: “BREAKING POINT.” The “thousand words” spoken by this image are unambiguous: it argues that the EU’s open borders policy, responsible for a massive influx of Middle Eastern and Eastern European migrants into the UK, has disastrously impacted the UK’s economy and culture. Immigration, the UKIP argues, pushed native individuals out of jobs, altered familial trajectories, and brought the once-foreign into the house next door. Ultimately, the UKIP fixates upon tropes related to the ugliness of globalization — here considered interconnectedness across social, political and economic divides — wherein the idyllic promise it once held failed anyone outside of metropolitan hubs like London. In its simplest form, support for Brexit was a reassertion of value and self-worth by those who increasingly viewed themselves as alien in the new UK society.

The Calexit case is, in many respects, the flip side of the same coin. While Trump’s election and Brexit both reflect the same fundamental frustrations over globalization, Calexit is not a conservative populist movement. It’s the converse: a new subspecies of liberalism. Calexit captures frustration with American politics from a newer vantage. In overly simplistic terms, Brexit (and the election of Donald Trump) chart an outsider’s frustration with the political establishment. Calexit, on the other hand, is grounded within that elite bubble. In other words, the people agitating for more definitive borders between California and the rest of the Union do so from within California society. Their view is seemingly tinged with myopia that overlooks how industries like information technology, agriculture, and construction — which account for 12 percent of California’s GDP — benefit from freer exchange of people and ideas. Ultimately, Calexit is a sort of self-sabotage, a repudiation from within.

The strategic vision offered by Calexit is even at odds with other populist liberal movements like the Bernie Sanders campaign. Previous grassroots liberal movements sought to make the political arena more inclusive, offering the layperson an expanded role at the table. This re-invigoration operated within the confines of the current political structure; its revolution was more moderate modification, rather than radical deconstruction, of existing structures. Calexit has directed similar anger towards a different end. In lieu of seeking to re-imagine the existing, it offers a means of total escape.

Ultimately, Yes California’s burgeoning popularity is a striking indictment of the progressive idealism central to California politics. Traditionally, the state has strived to cultivate a culture of liberal innovation, spearheaded by a left-leaning intellectual class that agitated for a wide range of social and economic policies. These policies — which address issues ranging from public smoking and vehicle emissions standards to healthcare for undocumented immigrants and, most recently, multilingual education — chart the state’s pioneering political clime. This political environment, in turn, speaks to a deeper cultural attachment to and reverence of innovation and open-mindedness. Beyond facilitating the rise of the state’s tech and biotech industries — both of which venerate novelty — this sociopolitical environment encouraged immigration and the creation of an increasingly multicultural California.

In choosing to forsake the existing sociopolitical framework responsible for California as we know it, the Calexit movement is rejecting the unifying power of those structures. By extension, the movement denies the ideals of openness and multiculturalism that fostered California’s existing political landscape. Or, at the very least, it restricts who is eligible to receive their benefits. This subterfuge from within lends Calexit a distinctive edge; if the globalization experiment is seen as failing those in supposed havens like California, whom exactly did it benefit? Even if Calexit is nothing more than an escapist fantasy — the final, impenetrable safe space for the coddled youths and snobbish elites, as Breitbart might lead one to believe — its cultural cache and viral popularity are damning. The movement’s reactionary refusal to try and bridge deep-seated divisions is a sort of self-defeating catharsis and a recasting of liberal-minded openness as a less universally accepting ideal.


About the Author

Sean Blake '17 is a Culture Section Staff Writer for the Brown Political Review.