th the election of Donald Trump and the backlash to some of his early moves in office, Americans are rediscovering nationalism. But confusion reigns over what American nationalism really is. Does it have to be federalist, for instance? Does it have to be liberal? In one of the great ironies of the political season, these kinds of questions are thrown into sharp relief by the strangest nationalist movement now underway — in California.
Drawing inspiration from breakaway groups in Europe, organizations like the “Yes California” movement and the California National Party want to peaceably, legally transform the West Coast of the United States into a “pragmatic progressive” paradise. From one angle, California nationalism, and this particular expression of it, makes perfect sense. Despite marked divides between its northern and southern halves, the Golden State has always nourished its own identity. That stamp was apparent even when Californians played a leading role in fueling all-American patriotism, from the early days of the space program to the closing days of the Ronald Reagan administration.
But now California’s cultural and political leanings have begun to shift away from most of the rest of the country. At a time when only five states in the union boast both Democratic governors and majorities in the state legislature, California is the last place in America where the political left rules unimpeded over a society and an economy large enough to prosper as a nation. Critics warn that the state’s progressive management has grown paradoxically sclerotic, overseeing a slow-motion public pensions crisis, neglecting infrastructure, and building a budgetary house of cards hostage to fluctuating income tax levels from the resident superrich.
But mores matter even more than money, and most Californians have been more than willing put up with the state’s problems so long as their way of life is protected and perfected. Resistance from a stubborn conservative remnant in the far north and central valley has never been able to halt the libidinous, drug-friendly, welfare-statist juggernaut that is the state’s dominant culture. From climate law to immigration law (or the lack thereof), California’s elected Democrats see themselves rightly as the strongest center of opposition to American conservatives and to Trump alike, and the one with the deepest popular legitimacy.