California is the most populous of the fifty United States. It’s also arguably the most diverse— plans to split it into two (or more) states have been proposed (and rejected) over 220 times since California became a state in 1850*. The natural wonders of California include coastal views as beautiful as any in the world, mountain ranges, vast deserts, pristine lakes, and a plethora of national parks. California has the lowest point in North America (in Death Valley), 128 kilometers from the highest point in the continental United States (Mount Whitney). And there are numerous man-made attractions, permanent and otherwise.
It’s no exaggeration to say that California offers enough photographic and travel opportunities for several lifetimes— much of which could be wasted sitting in clotted urban traffic and shortened by smog, for which California is also famous. Since I’ve lived my entire life in Southern California, a large proportion of this Web site is devoted to places in my home state. In addition to these travel essays, I took many of the pictures on the Scenery and Fine Art pages in California.
*Silicon Valley Republican venture capitalist Tim Draper is the self-appointed leader of the current (one-man?) movement to split California. In 2014 he proposed a ballot initiative to split the state into “the Six Californias.” Despite his pledge to spend as much of his not-inconsiderable personal fortune as necessary for it to succeed, he failed to collect enough signatures to qualify it for the November 2014 ballot. In August 2017, he announced another proposed initiative to split California into (only) three states.
Draper asserts that California’s size and diversity make it “ungovernable” and a “failed state.” But the details of both proposals suggest Draper is actually trying to solve a different problem that, to his mind at least, is far more significant and serious: California, the most populous state, is intractably Democratic. Democrats control every statewide office, and have a super-majority in both houses of the Legislature. Both its Senators and the majority of its large House delegation (which define its presidential electors) are Democrats; and the state consistently votes for Democratic presidential candidates.
Draper’s proposals solve this problem by exploiting an existing geographical division. The majority of the state’s population are Democratic voters concentrated in urban counties along the coast. Those counties include Los Angeles (and its suburban sprawl) and San Francisco (with the adjacent “Bay Area”), though the two southernmost coastal counties of Orange and San Diego are Republican exceptions. But the largely rural and agricultural inland counties are heavily Republican. Or to use Republican terminology, they “share the Heartland Values of the Real America.”
Draper’s proposals thus gerrymander the new states’ borders specifically to isolate or dilute the most troublesome liberal voters in Los Angeles and San Francisco. In his current proposal, the new state of “Southern California” combines Republican coastal Orange and San Diego Counties with all the inland counties as far north as Monterey Bay. It would be solidly and reliably Republican from the outset. The new state of “Northern California” has a southern boundary line bisecting Monterey Bay and extending east to the Nevada border. It includes Draper’s Silicon Valley; and he presumably believes it dilutes San Francisco’s liberal votes sufficiently to ensure a Republican majority. The remaining rump of “California” is a coastal strip extending from Los Angeles through the middle of Monterey Bay. Draper apparently considers one unavoidably Democratic state an acceptable price for two new Republican states, although the coastal counties between Los Angeles and San Francisco might dilute Los Angeles enough to allow at least the possibility of a Republican takeover.
There is no other non-partisan logic to Draper’s borders. He would would put Los Angeles County in a different state from Orange and Riverside Counties, where many Los Angeles commuters live. He would similarly divorce Monterey from the San Francisco “Bay Area.” Draper apparently dreams of remaking Silicon Valley into a venture-capitalist paradise, where he can accumulate limitless wealth unencumbered by taxes and regulation. Perhaps he envisions himself as the “controlling shareholder” of the Northern California Legislature, or its CEO/Governor. He’s certainly entitled to pursue that dream. But history suggests he’ll have a very hard time convincing many other people to join him.
Even if Draper spends enough money saturating California’s airwaves to qualify and pass the initiative, both the California Legislature and Congress then have to approve the split. (The two new “solidly Red” states may be enticing to a Republican Congress, if not to the Democratic state legislature.) And contrary to Draper’s view, most California voters regard their state’s size and diversity as strengths and key elements of its success. All those factors (and numerous others) make Draper’s latest proposal very unlikely to get anywhere. But then, “President Donald Trump” seemed at least as unlikely— until 8 November 2016.
The first 21st-century proposal, offered by Republican Riverside County Supervisor Jeff Stone in 2011, would have carved out thirteen counties into a new state of “South California,” essentially the same as Draper’s “Southern California.” It thus seems the only people with any interest in splitting up “ungovernable” California are radical Republicans desperate to extricate a large liberal thorn from their party’s side.
Those Republicans don’t seem to have considered that their problem may eventually solve itself without splitting the state. A party that enjoys a longstanding solid majority inevitably becomes complacent, if not totally corrupt. When voters recognize they’re being taken for granted, they take action. Two ballot initiatives in 2010 potentially lubricated that swinging pendulum. They removed the Legislature’s power to draw (and gerrymander) legislative and congressional districts, and created the California Citizens Redistricting Commission, which has equal numbers of Democratic, Republican, and independent members. Unlike in so many other states, neither party can rely on gerrymandering to secure a permanent majority in California.
One 20th-century secession proposal did show some early promise. In the 1930s, residents of counties in the Far North of California, along with several Oregon counties, were upset that the legislatures in Sacramento and Salem consistently ignored their requests for road improvements. They issued a somewhat tongue-in-cheek “Proclamation of Independence” as the new State of Jefferson at the end of November 1941. Unfortunately, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December pre-empted any news coverage of their proclamation. The war and its patriotic calls for unity suspended any further efforts toward establishing the new state; and new roads built after the war made the reason for secession moot.
Vestiges of the proposed State of Jefferson remain. The State of Jefferson Scenic Byway runs 175 kilometers from Yreka (the proposed state capital) to O’Brien, Oregon. And the Jefferson Public Radio network, established in 1989, serves most of the state’s proposed territory. More recently, initiatives to secede from California and form a State of Jefferson appeared on the June 2014 Primary ballots in Del Norte, Tehama, and Siskiyou Counties. It passed in Tehama County. And the northernmost of Tim Draper’s proposed “Six Californias” would have been the State of Jefferson.
From a practical travel perspective, California already is two states. That’s due to geography rather than politics. Los Angeles is 560 kilometers from San Francisco. That’s an hour by air— which in reality means at least four hours if you include getting to and from the airport, and allowing sufficient time to play your obligatory shoeless walk-on role in the TSA’s Security Theatre production. Alternatively, it’s a six-hour drive, if you’re actually able to travel continuously on boring Interstates at top speed and don’t need to stop.
It’s theoretically possible to travel between the two cities on Amtrak trains. Rail fans who have lots of time might find this appealing, but I doubt anyone else would consider it a practical option. The closest thing to a direct train is the notoriously tardy Coast Starlight, which crawls once a day in each direction between Union Station in Downtown Los Angeles and Emeryville, on the way to and from Seattle. A bus ride across San Francisco Bay completes the twelve-hour trip. Amtrak also offers several risible alternatives involving various combinations of trains and buses, which take between nine and a half and twelve hours.
A $68 billion, 14-year project to build a high-speed train link between Southern California and the Bay Area had its initial groundbreaking in January 2015. When complete, the train is supposed to make the trip between Los Angeles and San Francisco in three hours. But this project has been so mired in politics, bureaucracy, funding problems, and NIMBYism that I would bet against the possibility of anyone actually riding that train in the lifetime of most people reading this.
So where is the dividing line between the “two Californias”? There isn’t one! San Francisco is clearly in Northern California, Los Angeles and San Diego are clearly in Southern California. But that distinction gets very blurry in the central part of the state. Travel authors draw the boundary arbitrarily and inconsistently, based on what they consider most convenient for organizing or dividing up their books. So I’ve arbitrarily bisected the state along a rather fuzzy imaginary line that runs from the north end of the Monterey Peninsula on the coast to the northern boundary of Death Valley on the Nevada border.