Takeaway | Spring 2018 Issue

Battle lines drawn: Now what?

In the clash over California and national values, the stakes are high and the research compelling.

By Jim Newton

AS THE RESEARCH FEATURED IN THIS ISSUE OF BLUEPRINT MAKES CLEAR, California is at a crucible moment in its relationship with the federal government: Donald Trump wants to lock up marijuana smokers, deport illegal immigrants, build a wall, deny climate change and strip many Americans of health care. In each instance, California opposes him. Who will win?

As a last resort, the courts — perhaps the U.S. Supreme Court — might be called upon to decide, under terms of the 10th Amendment. (In 1957, defiance hit a snag when President Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock, Arkansas, to enforce the Supreme Court’s decision
to integrate public schools.) This could make California’s sanctuary laws vulnerable in the courts, and meanwhile federal drug agents could enforce national marijuana laws even as California legalizes weed.

But would ultimate victory for Washington be real or merely pyrrhic? It’s hard to see how the federal government could sustain a clash with the nation’s most populous state or impose its will on the sixth-largest economy on Earth. Indeed, the American economy stripped of California’s contribution is not too impressive. California is not only growing and thriving; it is bringing the rest of the country along with it. California needs the United States, but the nation needs California, too.

Try to imagine what a war on California would look like. Would immigration authorities shadow police to make sure they were spotting people who “look illegal”? Drug Enforcement Administration agents could raid pot shops, but could they make Los Angeles police officers, who are sworn to uphold state law, do the same? Does Washington really have the stomach to take away health care from those with pre-existing conditions or from the 25-year-old children of policyholders? Trump may harrumph about climate change, but there’s no sign that California will reduce its commitment to doing what it can to abate it. Why would California do so? Courts might decide that the federal government has the greater power, but political and practical realities place real-world limits on that power.

The researchers in this issue have analyzed history and the law, and they have come up with a wealth of thoughtful insight into this meaningful debate. Yes, federalism, as Mark Peterson and others note, is “messy.” It’s also potentially a way to test new ideas in government — how to provide health care, how to protect borders and immigrants, how much leeway to allow for personal freedom. Gov. Jerry Brown, Attorney General Xavier Becerra, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón and a host of others are prepared to defy Washington and Trump. They are not without their strengths: They are, for instance, smarter and more resolute than Trump, and they will not be taken lightly.

This issue of Blueprint does not resolve the knotty questions of federalism or declare a winner in the Resistance against Trump. It does, however, suggest that California has a significant opportunity to chart its own way forward.

Jim Newton

Jim Newton

Jim Newton is a veteran author and journalist who spent 25 years as a reporter, editor, bureau chief, editorial page editor and columnist at the Los Angeles Times. He is the author of three critically acclaimed books of biography and history, and he teaches at UCLA.

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