In Praise of a Disunited States of America

The Nation Could Use More Declarations of Independence, and California Should Take the Lead

There’s nothing more American than disunity, the creative force that demands we break away, declare independence, and build something new, writes columnist Joe Mathews. Cropped version of “The Avenue in the Rain” by Childe Hassam. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The further I drove into Oroville, the more disappointment I felt.

I had my passport with me, but no one asked me to show it. American flags still hung from stores along Montgomery Street. Homes near the Feather River were flying our state’s banner. City Hall had not been replaced by a new national capitol. And as hard as I looked, I could find no new standing army, or presidential palace, or the Oroville Food and Drug Administration.

It was as if the city council of Oroville, 70 miles north of Sacramento in Butte County, had never made national news in 2021 by declaring itself a “constitutional republic.” And no one in this town home to close to 20,000 residents much wanted to talk about this bold move, even those who once championed the idea.

That’s too bad. Because there is no more productive spirit, and no greater creative force, than the commitment to break away, to declare independence and build something new.

That’s the spirit, that’s the force, we should celebrate on Independence Day—especially in California, which is known for going its own way. But it’s been a long time since Independence Day was about independence.

These days, we try to put on displays of national unity—a fundamental mistake at the heart of our national malaise.

Americans, amidst our divisions, foolishly long for unity, even though unity, and the national compromises it requires, have produced so many awful things in our country. We the people—or more correctly, the wealthy male and European slice of we—came together to adopt a constitution that enshrined slavery and shunned democracy. In the name of unity, we ended Reconstruction and launched Jim Crow. In our moments of greatest national unity, we ceded terrible power to presidents, and pursued endless wars.

A state famous for producing internal secession movements—there have been more than 200 attempted break-ups since 1850—lately has seen nothing but half-hearted efforts.

The United States only truly advances through division and disunion. We needed a civil war to end slavery. Every expansion of rights required social movements that divided us. The nation’s signature technological achievements were the products of people who went off on their own, in defiance of business convention and existing laws, from Kitty Hawk to Cupertino. Environmental progress, including climate change laws, has come when cities and states, including California, have broken ranks.

So, on this Independence Day, the problem is not our absence of unity, but the weakness of our efforts at disunion.

California, and especially its discontents, have displayed a decided lack of nerve. This country needs a revolution, but we aren’t supplying one. A state famous for producing internal secession movements—there have been more than 200 attempted break-ups since 1850—lately has seen nothing but half-hearted efforts.

In this, Oroville is hardly the only disappointment.

Who, for example, switched all the coffee in San Bernardino County to decaf this year?

Last fall, the people of that county, the largest by area in the United States, voted to direct officials to study greater autonomy “up to and including secession from the State of California.”

That verdict portended a wholesale rethinking of the meaning of county government in California and the U.S. Some of us hoped that San Bernardino, one of the few parts of California seeing population gains, would dream bigger than just statehood, and go all the way, for nationhood. (I would have applied for citizenship.)

But eight months after the vote, there have been few public signs of progress, other than a few more pointed requests for funding San Bernardino priorities in the state budget. There is no public indication of serious work on statehood, and the study that voters demanded has not been published.

In the rural precincts of the North State, the longstanding push for a state of Jefferson, which drew heavy publicity and broad local government support in the early years of this century, seems at low ebb. It’s been eclipsed by the effort by rural counties in Oregon, some of which border California and would have been part of Jefferson, to split off from the Beaver State and become part of an expanded “Greater Idaho.”

Northern California does have some disunity, but it’s not of the constructive kind. In Shasta County, right-wing political figures have taken over, and their desire to destroy institutions and threaten people eclipses any interest in building more democratic government.

Just this May, El Dorado County, which includes Lake Tahoe, saw the launch of a new secession effort, called the Republic of El Dorado, inspired in part by the fact that the county isn’t home to a single elected representative in the state or federal government. But again, the effort doesn’t have a clear agenda. It’s also built on the dubious claim, running contrary to law and the constitution, that the county can leave and make itself a state without any agreement or sign-off from Congress or the state legislature.

There are other local acts of defiance that could evolve into a bigger split and more change, but haven’t yet. Our state is full of sanctuary cities that have developed new ways to protect and serve unauthorized immigrants and their families. Some school boards, notably in Temecula, have limited access to books or taken conservative stands in the culture wars, thus challenging the state. The city of Huntington Beach and the state are suing each other over housing laws, though it seems unlikely that the outcome will boost housing production, much less change the nature of local government in California.

Meanwhile, other, more established ideas for independence in California remain dormant. Bay Area investor Tim Draper, who once circulated ballot measures to split California into multiple states, is devoted to cryptocurrency instead. The city of Los Angeles is in a political crisis and might benefit from the relaunch required by a breakup, but the movement for San Fernando Valley secession, which triggered a citywide vote a generation ago, is all but dead.

That’s too bad. As the historian and journalist Richard Kreitner observed in his 2020 book Break It Up, “secession is the only kind of revolution we Americans have ever known and the only kind we’re ever likely to see,”

So, on this Independence Day, the best way for Californians to celebrate their country is by plotting to break away and build something new.

We’re disunited, and that’s what makes us great.


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