By PETE GOLIS
Down in Riverside, a county supervisor named Jeff Stone wants to split off 13 counties into a new and more conservative state called South California. It’s a silly and divisive idea. And it isn’t going to happen, even if a few folks walk around with the illusion that it will.
But this moment shouldn’t pass without paying tribute to Jeff Stone. With this simple gesture, he has shared with all of us an object lesson in the serial nonsense we call political debate in California.
The proximate cause of Stone’s ire is a new state budget that denies $14 million in vehicle license fees to four new cities in Riverside County.
So, the self-proclaimed conservative supervisor wants the state to cut spending — just as soon as it delivers its largesse to his backyard.
This is how it goes with a new generation of politicians who call themselves conservative. They want to have it all.
They want to cut vehicle license fees and then complain when there isn’t enough money to go around.
They want to complain about the high cost of prisons and endorse three-strikes laws.
They want government out of their lives, except when government is providing subsidized water to the farm corporations and golf courses of “South California.”
They want to complain about illegal immigration, while embracing agribusiness interests that have relied on illegal immigration for decades.
A spokesman for Gov. Jerry Brown noted that the 13 counties — Orange, San Diego and 11 inland counties — receive more from state government than they pay in taxes (thanks to taxpayers in places such as Los Angeles and San Francisco).
Meanwhile, people such as Stone imagine themselves to be the victims of government and the last self-reliant Americans.
In real life, statehood would be devastating to the standard of living in “South California.”
But Americans are looking for someone to blame, and there will always be politicians, liberal and conservative, ready to play to those frustrations. (Liberals make their own claims on victimhood.)
A UC Riverside political scientist was talking about the folks who want to split off from California, but he could have been talking about the emotional state of our national politics.
“The politics of victimhood are very powerful,” Shaun Bowler told the New York Times.
Just now, Americans seem to think that life will be better if they merely separate themselves from people who don’t think and act just like they do.
In Humboldt County, the Board of Supervisors recently asked the state redistricting commission to make sure that Humboldt isn’t included in any legislative or congressional district that also includes Marin County.
“Marin County is very rich, very urban, and it has the largest Ferrari dealership in the world,” Humboldt County Planning Commissioner Denver Nelson told the hometown Eureka Times-Standard. “Humboldt County is very poor, rural, and I think it has the largest supply of fertilizer in the world.” (Even if he is exaggerating, you have to admire a politician who can combine Ferraris and fertilizer in the same sound bite.)
In Texas, some Republicans are talking up the presidential prospects of a governor, Rick Perry, who once said his state might want to secede from the union.
The secession impulse has always existed in American politics. There have been dozens of half-baked proposals to split California north and south, east and west.
Once upon a time, Americans fought a terrible civil war.
And stressful times contribute to our mutual resentments. We’re living with a jobless recovery and an economy in transition, the fear of terrorism, doubts about the moral compass of people in government and business, a technological revolution, the cultural wars, government deficits and more.
These divisions were playing out last week in Washington, where politicians from the red states and blue states continued to live in alternate realities so far as the national debt is concerned — even as the country careened toward what Federal Reserve chief Ben Bernanke called a “huge financial calamity.”
Our differences remain essential to the American story. But we’re fated to disappointment if we think we can overcome them simply by separating into kingdoms of like-minded people.
In the state of “South California,” people would still find reasons to disagree — just as the people in your hometown find reasons to disagree.
Humboldt, Marin or Riverside, political leaders are obliged to solve problems together — a collaboration that requires tolerance and compromise.
E pluribus unum. One out of many. The Founding Fathers understood the challenges associated with managing a nation of people from many backgrounds. Going forward, the nation’s (and the state’s) well-being may depend on overcoming the impulse to believe that our narrow concerns are more important than the ideals that brought us together in the first place.
Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.