California this week declared its independence from the federal government’s feeble efforts to fight Covid-19 — and perhaps from a bit more. The consequences for the fight against the pandemic are almost certainly positive. The implications for the brewing civil war between Trumpism and America’s budding 21st-century majority, embodied by California’s multiracial liberal electorate, are less clear.
Speaking on MSNBC, Governor Gavin Newsom said that he would use the bulk purchasing power of California “as a nation-state” to acquire the hospital supplies that the federal government has failed to provide. If all goes according to plan, Newsom said, California might even “export some of those supplies to states in need.”
Newsom is accomplishing a few things here, with what can only be a deliberate lack of subtlety. First and foremost, he is trying to relieve the shortage of personal protective equipment — a crisis the White House has proved incapable of remedying. Details are a little fuzzy, but Newsom, according to news reports, has organized multiple suppliers to deliver roughly 200 million masks monthly.
Second, Newsom is kicking sand in the face of President Donald Trump after Newsom’s previous flattery — the coin of the White House realm — failed to produce results. If Trump can’t manage to deliver supplies, there’s no point in Newsom continuing the charade.
Third, and this may be the most enduring effect, Newsom is sending a powerful message to both political parties. So far, the Republican Party’s war on democratic values, institutions and laws has been a largely one-sided affair, with the GOP assaulting and the Democratic Party defending. The lethal ruling this week by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Republican bloc, which required Wisconsin residents to vote in person during a pandemic that shut down polling stations, is a preview of the fall campaign. The GOP intends to restrict vote-by-mail and other legitimate enfranchisement to suppress turnout amid fear, uncertainty and disease.
At some point this civil war by other means, with the goal of enshrining GOP minority rule, will provoke a Democratic counteroffensive. Newsom, leader of the nation’s largest state, is perhaps accelerating that response, shaking Democrats out of denial and putting Republicans on notice. California, an economic behemoth whose taxpayers account for 15% of individual contributions to the U.S. Treasury, is now toning up at muscle beach.
What that means, of course, is left to the imagination. But not much is required to envision what might evolve.
Newsom, a former lieutenant governor who won the top job in 2018, has used the “nation-state” phrase before. It’s a very odd thing to say. California, like its 49 smaller siblings, qualifies only as the second half. But it’s obviously no slip of the tongue. Democratic state Senator Scott Wiener, a leader in California’s cumbersome efforts to produce more housing, said soon after Newsom took office in 2019 that reorienting the state’s relationship to Washington is a necessity, not a choice.
“The federal government is no longer a reliable partner in delivering health care, in supporting immigrants, supporting LGBT people, in protecting the environment, so we need to forge our own path,” Wiener said. “We can do everything in our power to protect our state, but we need a reliable federal partner. And right now we don’t have that.”
The statement appears prescient in light of the Trump administration’s failure to protect against a pandemic. Newsom was the first governor to issue a stay-at-home order, on March 19. Though his state is chock-full of cosmopolitan centers, and rural threats loom as well, California is weathering the virus in far better shape than New York, which has many fewer people and many more deaths.
Federalism has always had rough spots, but conflict is rising and resolutions are not. California is a sanctuary state while the Trump administration is fond of immigration dragnets. Marijuana is grown, marketed and used in abundance in the state while the White House conjures more restrictions. The Trump administration endorses extreme gun rights; California has other ideas. Most of all, Trump’s failure to act, or even take responsibility for acting, in the face of pandemic has required California, like other states, to look out for itself.
One conflict, however, encompasses all others, and could galvanize Californians into new ways of thinking about their state and its relationship to Washington. The GOP war on democracy is inspired by a drive for racial and cultural supremacy that jeopardizes the democratic aspirations and human rights of California’s multiracial citizenry.
From Fort Sumter to Little Rock to Montgomery, the blueprint for states opposing federal control has a recurring theme. But there is no reason that states can’t adopt a racist playbook for other ends. If California and other 21st-century polities withhold revenue, or otherwise distance themselves from Washington’s control, legal and political battles will escalate. Republicans will have a legitimate constitutional argument — but it will be a morally tainted and politically illegitimate one so long as they continue to subvert majority rule.
The experience of states battling Covid-19 while the White House devotes its energy to winning the news cycle may be instructive. What is the difference, conceptually, between a state deploying its power to protect its population’s health and a state using it to protect its population’s democratic rights?
John C. Calhoun, who used the theory of states’ rights to defend the institution of slavery, is not generally a philosophical lodestar for liberal Democrats such as Newsom. But if Republicans (or foreign friends) succeed in sabotaging democracy in November, Calhoun’s theory of nullification, which posited that states have the power to defy federal law, could be ripe for a comeback on the left coast. With the heirs of the Confederacy now reigning in Washington, turnabout might be very fair play.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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