The 51st State?
I spent Independence Day weekend along Lake Tahoe, enjoying one of the most beautiful places in the nation. During my drive in, I passed a road sign that welcomed me to the “State of Jefferson.” As I was in the state of California, I was naturally confused. So I did what any self-respecting Millennial would and took to Google.
It turns out that people in 21 counties in Northern California (as well as 7 counties in lower Oregon) want to secede from their respective states, a movement that first appeared in 1852. Clearly, the Jeffersonians have been unsuccessful thus far, but this concept intrigued me so I dug further. I found a long-shot cause with a rich history, complex motives, and an inspiring dream. While it is incredible and improbable that the state of Jefferson will achieve independence, the people of that place are justified in their protest, which makes Jefferson the most interesting political movement in California.
The proposed State of Jefferson would span the northern-most counties of California (from Del Norte to Mendocino, and Modoc to Tuolumne), and in Oregon from Curry County up to Douglas County and east to Lake County. This expanse would cover 73,656 sq. ml. (greater than 32 existing states), but would be home to little more than 2 million people — its largest city would be Redding, with a population of 91,119. In California, this sparse population has meant that all 21 counties are represented in the state legislature by only three Assemblymembers and three Senators (out of a total of 80 members and 40 members, respectively for each house of the legislature).
Economically, most Jeffersonians are rural, and geographically excluded from the major industries that power the Californian economy (tech goes no farther north than Marin County). This has stunted the northern economies, and created a divide between the “northern region” and the rest of the state. Culturally as well, Jeffersonians are quite different from their fellow Californians — they love their guns, their Bibles, and their weed (I’m looking at you, Mendocino). This cultural divide is manifest in the politics of the region, where all but two counties voted for Romney in 2012 (in Oregon, all Jeffersonian counties voted for Romney). It is a small conservative block in a big liberal stronghold. There in lie the seeds of discontent.
Geographically, economically, culturally, and politically, the Jefferson counties feel separate from the rest of the California. Jeffersonians speak in very libertarian phrases, arguing that the California government has taken much of their freedom without the people’s consent (taxation without representation?). This concern is the basis of the “three R’s of Jefferson:” representation (more of it), regulation (less of it), and restoration (economically speaking). Considering the actions of the California state legislature over the decades, these grievances have merit.
These ideas have proven remarkably appealing. The Supervisors of 5 counties, and the voters of one county (Tehama), approved secession. It has also received significant media attention, most notably on The Colbert Report. However, secession and formation of a new state is an arduous process that requires three actions: 1) approval to secede by the Board of Supervisors of each Jeffersonian county, 2) approval to secede by the California (and Oregon) legislature, and 3) approval to form a new state by the US Congress.
The movement is in the first phase, and already it is beset with difficulties. The Supervisors of 4 counties rejected secession, along with the voters of Del Norte and Alpine Counties. Furthermore, even if each of these 21 California counties were to approve secession, it is difficult to imagine the California legislature voting to sever the state from its greatest water reserves in the north.
Still, the Jeffersonians are determined, surprisingly well organized, and offer something rare in politics: a cause that captures the imagination. Jefferson evokes images of rugged individualism and the untamed West, and it promises a new birth of freedom for a people who have been stuck for years.
I will be unaffected by the outcome of the Jefferson movement, yet I am drawn to the cause. My interest is academic — I neither support nor oppose the movement — but I cannot help but sympathize with the Jeffersonians. Their indignation is righteous and their rhetoric evokes the libertarian principles that undergird this nation. These activists are not the only Californians who are dissatisfied with their government, and they likely will not be alone in their struggle. Regardless of whether secession succeeds, California’s leaders ought to understand that they have lost the confidence of our northern brothers, and that they must work to earn it back.