Is California nearing its 'Boston tea party moment'?

In our conversations over the past decade, the two of us have tiptoed around the fear that a civil war in the United States was a real possibility, driven by the country’s racial divide, the chasm between the haves and have nots and the embittering polarization between the political parties.

Indeed, months before a Trump nomination was even imaginable, when one of us was chair of the U.S. National Intelligence Council (NIC) and was talking to an academic colleague about the NIC’s quadrennial look into the future, Global Trends, he asked: “If you’re looking out 20 years, shouldn’t you take the red-blue divide seriously? Shouldn’t you imagine that the country might come apart physically?”

His comment became our benchmark for the country’s future. Now, the COVID-19 crisis makes us think that rather than a Civil War, our “Boston tea party moment” for California and kindred states is nearer to a revolution than we ever imagined.

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There has been no shortage of post mortems about the federal government’s failure, so suffice to say that in terms of lives needlessly lost, COVID-19 will be the worst government failure in American history. There is still no semi-coherent federal response, only temper tantrums masquerading as press conferences, gatherings that leave Dr. Anthony FauciAnthony FauciOvernight Health Care: Trump to take executive action after coronavirus talks collapse | Vaccine official says he'd resign if pressured politically Fauci's DC neighbors put up 'thank you' signs in their yards Cuomo says New York schools can reopen in-person this fall MORE looking like the only adult present, despite his awkward kowtowing — and poor, miscast Dr. Deborah BirxDeborah BirxBirx warns of uptick in coronavirus cases in 9 cities CNN's Burnett presses Navarro on hydroxychloroquine in combative interview: 'You're an economist, not a scientist' Trump won't say if he disagrees with Birx that virus is widespread MORE like the proverbial cat on a hot tin roof. 

California and the other states hardest hit have gotten everything from the federal government but help. Trump even huffed — wrongly — that only he could lift the lock-downs, despite the fact that it was the governors who had mandated them in the first place. It brings to mind conversations with officials in New York City in the early months after 9/11 when they said over and over: “We’re the main terrorist target, and the feds are no help.”

New York was late in responding to COVID-19 — after all, who would have expected the federal government to continue to fail — but pretty impressive in action. Gov. Andrew CuomoAndrew CuomoOvernight Health Care: Trump to take executive action after coronavirus talks collapse | Vaccine official says he'd resign if pressured politically Cuomo says New York schools can reopen in-person this fall Cuomo calls on wealthy to return to New York City: 'You got to come back!' MORE became the go-to guy for honest talk.

Neither New York nor California will wait for the feds the next time a crisis impends. 

The present crisis is horrific, but the reasons why the American union will not hold run much deeper. By virtually every measure, the country is growing apart. Between 2008 and 2018, the counties that voted for Hilary Clinton got richer and more educated; those that went for Trump stagnated, actually losing ground in average income. So long as the “white tribe” was a majority and the American dream was plausible, the tribe stayed loosely united; no more, as greater inequality, plus an elite that is more and more hereditary, put the lie to the dream. Between 1960 and 1980 economic activity was dispersing across the country. Since 1980 it has been concentrating, with half the U.S. economy in 25 superstar cities, mostly on the coasts.       

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The polarization also extends to where people live, in what kind of neighborhoods, and even colors decisions about money. In one experiment, three-quarters of the subjects actually refused a higher monetary payment to themselves if the other party would also gain. By 2040, 70 percent of Americans will live in California and the 14 next largest states. Not all of them will be “blue,” but most will. And in any case, that will mean that 70 percent of the people are represented by 30 senators, while the other 30 percent are represented by 70. That is not a recipe for an enduring union.

The terms of the divorce will be messy, for states like Florida and Texas are turning purple, and there are red enclaves — like California’s central valley — in deep blue states, along with blue ones — like Austin — in still-red states like Texas. The European Union’s current travails are all too apparent, but it still might serve as a model of a loose federation, perhaps with a common currency and defense. 

In any event, the complexity of the divorce is reason to think about it sooner rather than later, and soberly — not under the gun, perhaps literally. Gov. Gavin NewsomGavin NewsomLos Angeles police officers attended party at bar against state order: report California's reported decline in infection rate may not be accurate, official says California: Dual threats of wildfire and COVID-19 underscore need for prevention MORE referred to California as a “nation-state.” And so it is — or will be one day not too distant — for the tea party moment is nearing. 

Gregory F. Treverton chaired the U.S. National Intelligence Council from 2014 to January 2017.  He is now professor of the Practice of International Relations and Spatial Sciences at the University of Southern California and chairman of the Global TechnoPolitics Forum. He is the author of numerous books including “Dividing Divided States” (2014), “National Intelligence and Science: Beyond the Great Divide in Analysis and Policy” (2015) and “Intelligence for an Age of Terror” (2011).   

Karen Treverton is former Special Assistant to the President of RAND, and manager of the RAND Terrorism Database.