On the Edge of Greatness: California’s Democracy Unleashed (Part 3 of 3)

this follows Part 2: California and the Axis of Authoritarianism

Part 3: California’s Democracy Unleashed

By the very nature of its name—“resistance” is defined as “the refusal to accept or comply with something; the attempt to prevent something by action or argument”—the Resistance Movement symbolized the defensive alarm felt by a wide swath of people and groups after Donald Trump’s ascendance to the top spot in American politics. As the Women’s March the day after the current President’s Inauguration demonstrated, people mobilized early and quickly to prevent rollbacks in rights across the board.

Women’s March in Walnut Creek, CA – by Calmuziclover, CC BY 2.0

Because of its operational independence, California is, at the moment, the only geo-political entity that can lead the Resistance to the point where it is no longer just a determined movement against the unjust, cruel, and dangerous actions of authoritarians. Instead, Californians have the potential to rally the world around something positive. Californians can do exactly what this very active “Axis of Authoritarianism” is working so hard to prevent: the emergence of a working, 21st Century, state-of-the-art version of a democratic nation-state. 

In many ways, California has already embarked on this course. Since 2016, California has issued a number of lawsuits against discriminatory Federal immigration policy initiatives. The state has passed legislation on its own to create Sanctuary status for its threatened undocumented population. The former Governor Jerry Brown conducted California “foreign diplomacy” regarding climate change on a global level and even considered having California launch its own climate monitoring satellite if Federal agencies ceased to continue to conduct their own satellite monitoring.

From CA Air Resources Board – CC BY 2.0

However, as the world’s fifth largest economy and a cultural superpower, California has the potential to do far more. Just as with the climate monitoring satellite, Californians can declare that they feel the same with democracy and good governance. If the Federal level is unwilling to provide that, then Californians will act to achieve those goals themselves. Californians can take seriously what democracy means in real life, in the contested situation of today, and commit to implementing a grand vision of what California can be in its fullest democratic and most representational sense. 

In other words, Californians can demand that the Californian state government—as the only representative body that Californians truly have—will take on the role being the primary insurer and ultimate guarantor of its citizens’ political, civil, and human rights. By adopting a high profile and ardently pro-democratic stance, California’s independent investment could very well ignite similar efforts around the world and recharge the world’s battered belief in democracy and diversity.

The process of building a modern democratic nation-state in California doesn’t need to be, and indeed must not be, violent or confrontational. As the demagogic social media campaigns of the last few years have demonstrated, the authoritarian populists want not only division, but violence as well. Their posts and other materials sought to foster alarm in all targeted groups, claiming the other side was preparing for violence. Groups like the National Rifle Association have sought to normalize “Second Amendment” solutions and “stand your ground” vigilantism. 

Nor does the building of a modern, democratic nation-state necessitate secession In the traditional sense. As the growing-increasingly-tense internal divisions in the U.S. and in other top Western states demonstrate, the whole notion of the traditional nation as the definitive unit of today’s geopolitical groupings is no longer necessarily the case. These divisions within states, and between formerly friendly states, seem to be in play in a manner not seen in the West in decades, if not centuries. 

If creating a modern California democracy and nation-state need not be a matter of secession and can’t be a descent into violence, what can it be? In true Californian fashion it can be, initially at least, an “independence as a state of mind”. Once this mindset is fully embraced, the possibilities are endless.

Giant Trees in Mount Madonna, CA – by Sara Marlowe, CC BY 2.0

The approach can be a deep commitment to problem solving and professional governance. It can be a best-practices and evidence-based approach to serving the people. Most of all, if it is to work at home and have maximum impact abroad, it must be a deeply authentic attempt and a strong commitment to the welfare of California’s citizens.

The unofficial motto of San Francisco, the political home base of Majority Speaker Nancy Pelosi, is “the City that knows how”, and the same can be said of California itself. The Golden State is a top five global economy with a diverse and enterprising population of 40 million. It has long held center ground in global affairs, as evidenced by industries emanating out of Hollywood in Southern California and Silicon Valley in Northern California. The state is now also a leader in alternative energy and green industries.

And, finally, among what might be considered the “great powers” of the world today, the Golden State of California is the only one to possess the type of freedom of political action, a population resistant to bitter populism, and the deep resources necessary to fully mobilize a Resistance against domestic and global authoritarianism in order to create a new Renaissance of real democracy and enlightened governance.

Inside the Rotunda of California’s Capitol Building

Californians must now ask themselves how they can best utilize this independence to mobilize its enormous capabilities and potential to promote and protect Californian values—for that is essentially what the notion of “Resistance” really means from a Californian perspective. They can certainly continue to send to Washington the money, ideas, and top notch politicians to further their goal, but a Washington-based strategy has its limits. This approach is very unlikely to succeed in pushing through California-style democratic reforms on the national level or to remedy the relegation of Californians to second class citizenship in their own country. It is also very unlikely to inspire the world.

The Golden State is not only progressive America’s last hope, it may also be the last hope of democracy and diversity around the world. California’s current relative independence from compromised and predatory political systems is a precious commodity in the fight to resist authoritarianism and toxic divisive populism. It may be at this time the most important aspect of the fight.

—T. Vollmer