Issue 561 to

Photo by Sergio Ruiz.

The California Resistance

Urbanist Article

What Happened: California opposed the federal government on immigration, climate change and human rights, among other issues.

What It Means: As the country’s electorate continues to polarize, we are entering a phase of American history in which the limits of federalism will be tested. California, as one of the “bluest” states in the union, pushed those limits the furthest in 2017.

Should we increase immigration or close our borders? Should we limit gun ownership or embrace it as essential to American freedom? Should we make abortion accessible or illegal? Should we embrace international trade or tear up trade deals? Should we have universal health care or keep big government out of the health industry?

The people of the United States do not seem to agree on much these days. Democrats and Republicans don’t just vote differently, we get our news from different sources and, increasingly, believe entirely different things about the world. Through a process of cultural sorting, Americans are now overwhelmingly likely to live in communities where people are “like them,” a pattern that shows up in the prevalence of “landslide” voting districts.[1]

And so it came to pass that in the same year that Republicans gained control of the presidency, the House and the Senate, Democrats in California gained control of the governorship, the House and the Assembly — and did so by a two-thirds margin that made it possible to pass party-line legislation when needed.

California has moved against the national direction on many issues over the past year. In January, citizens, lawyers and elected officials alike jammed security gates at international airports to protest Trump’s proposed travel ban. In October, our state passed a law preemptively opposing a Muslim registry by barring state bodies from releasing personal information for the creation of any sort of religious database.

After suing the federal government twice first over its plan to rescind Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), then over threats made by the U.S. attorney general to revoke federal law enforcement grants from sanctuary states — California legislators passed SB 54, a bill that protects undocumented immigrants by preventing federal officers from questioning and holding people based on immigration violations. Also under consideration is a requirement that California public pension funds — the nation’s largest — divest from any companies that help build Trump’s proposed border wall.

Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill extending California’s cap-and-trade program to 2030, and with former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, he launched America’s Pledge, an agreement among mayors throughout the country to voluntarily comply with the terms of the Paris Accord on climate change, despite the federal government’s announcement of its intention to withdraw from it. California has maintained higher fuel economy standards for cars, despite a presidential executive order to begin rolling back Obama- era rules to increase efficiency standards. And this fall California passed a gas tax to fund transportation infrastructure and public transit.

Time and again, California has positioned itself in defiance of the federal government. Immigrants? Welcome. Climate change? Real. Marijuana? Legal.

Are we irreconcilably opposed to our nation? Not really. In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Governor Brown expressed the ambivalence that many Californians feel:

I don’t think we’re at the point of “resistance.” I hesitate to use this word that I identify with the French Underground and Albert Camus. “Resistance” conjures up World War II — underground, danger, death. That was some serious shit. This other thing is serious too. But it’s not the same. We should have our issues. Our ideas. Build our alliances. Oppose! And affirm! ... But everyone is pulling apart with all these different issues. I hesitate to even name them. We can’t divide. We need to unify. Not just to win. But to govern.

California is not going to secede, despite the temptation to do so. Most Californians do not want to abandon the rest of the country, which, without our influence and voting bloc, would lurch to the right on every subject from abortion to gun violence to immigration to tax policy to health care. We don’t want to leave the United States; we want to lead the United States.

Whether it’s viable for California to exercise its own policy leadership depends on the issue. The state can set its own renewable energy portfolio standard, thereby helping to scale up new energy generation and storage technologies that can be deployed elsewhere. With fuel economy standards on cars, California has had a huge positive influence on the rest of the country, effectively setting the standard for everyone else.

But on other issues, there is simply no way for California to move in a different direction from the rest of the country. While this state is fully embracing of immigrants as core to American identity, and our economy is based on bringing people here from all over the world, we are not able to create our own more open immigration policy. And while groups like SPUR push California and its cities to self-tax in order to make modernizing investments in infrastructure, education and quality of life, this will be harder and harder to do if the U.S. government intends to increase the extraction of wealth out of the state through federal tax policies that subsidize conservative states.[2]

The California model, while far from perfect, has a lot to o er the rest of the country. We embrace our differences and celebrate diversity. The state’s economic strategy is oriented to the future instead of the past. We’ve accepted the dire emergency of climate change and have begun, however tentatively, to address the threat.

America is not a lost cause. The rallying cry of the California Resistance is a rejection of that narrative — and a call to proactively face the challenges of the future.

1 “The Big Sort,” The Economist, June 19, 2008.

2 Federal Spending in California, Legislative Analyst’s Office,


Gabriel Metcalf is president and CEO of SPUR.