Why you should care
Forget Calexit, Cascadia might actually happen.
Should you count yourself among the legions of Americans who say President-elect Donald Trump is #notmypresident, you have options. Behind door No. 1, the frosty winters of Canada. Behind door No. 2? The sunny, very left coast of a would-be political entity called Cascadia.
This is no harebrained Calexit or Califexit. Proposals for the so-called Republic of Cascadia don’t call for a new country, but rather a semi-autonomous region inside North America, much like Spain’s Catalonia or Britain’s Scotland. This new land of some 15 million people would comprise British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, a smidge of Northern California as well as other bits of the Northwest, and unlike past secessionist movements, Cascadia could have a real chance of getting off the ground. “Any change would be good. I am not surprised that people are finally starting to innovate government,” says Tim Draper, a prominent Silicon Valley venture capitalist who has done his own part to rethink California’s borders.
Cascadia includes separate states, provinces and even countries, but proponents say it’s connected by an acute sense of regionhood, as well as issues that national policymakers neglect: the environment, tech and Asia-Pacific’s growing reach. The movement for this imaginary republic existed well before November 8, says Alexander Baretich, the 20-year-old founder of FreeCascadia.org. Yet Trump’s ascendance to the White House was “the final straw,” he adds.
Now, the movement has a new and powerful impetus, says Brandon Letsinger, founder of the Seattle-based Cascadia Now. Since the election, inquiries and donations have been pouring in as the team “struggles to keep the inbox clean,” says Letsinger. A political arm is now in the works, with buzz around Cascadia trending on Reddit. The hype is not just online, either. Organizers across the Western seaboard are translating this postelection emotional momentum into concrete action by planning protests, holding community forums, raising money, pushing petitions and drafting new ballot proposals. “The wakening to Cascadia is happening now, person by person. It’s like a virus in the system,” says Baretich. Mind you, he’s careful not to say that dirty word “secession,” arguing that the self-governing principles behind Cascadia are more tempered than a knee-jerk reaction like Calexit’s breakaway movement.
Of course, 50 years hence, we may think of Cascadia (if we do at all) as a pipe dream from a small band of separatists. And yet the plan might just be enticing enough to work. The proposed region certainly seems capable of standing on its own, with a vast swath of land that’s home to some of the world’s biggest tech titans, like Microsoft, Amazon and Boeing. Its cash flow would slot Cascadia as the 19th wealthiest nation, with a GDP almost as big as Turkey, at about $675 billion. Plus, Cascadia is already well on its way to creating its own bona-fide culture across 45 cities — a flag bearing the Douglas fir, a newly minted currency called the Dougie, a fledgling Cascadia Cup between the major soccer teams and an organic Cascadia beer ironically called Secession. Time wasn’t joking around when they pointed to Cascadia as one of the “Top 10 Aspiring Nations” along with Tibet, Scotland and the Basque Country.
Environmentally conscious and LGBT-friendly, Cascadia would likely be one of the most liberal places in the world; no word yet on whether or not the cash crop would be marijuana. Jokes aside, the land of Cascadia rests on the premise that Pacific Northwesterners have more in common with one another than with people in other parts of the U.S. and Canada, says Letsinger: Cascadia could give everyone “better representation” in the end. Perhaps, says Baretich, America has become too divided to be governed by one set of laws and ideals.
Back in 1813, even Thomas Jefferson imagined the region as a standalone “Republic of the Pacific” when he had no reason to think the U.S. would ever get past the Spanish and French territories to the West. Few visions stand the test of time, but the notion of a distinct Pacific Northwest hasn’t gone away. “The grounded spirit of Cascadia is not about isolation or separation,” says Dan Clarkson, one of the founders of the Cascadia bioregional movement. “The spirit of Cascadia is grounded in inclusion and interweavings.”
The roadblocks to Cascadia are, of course, numerous. For one, legal scholars point out that calling it quits during tough times is not only unpatriotic, but also flat out unconstitutional. “The Civil War settled the secession issue,” says Laurence Tribe, a constitutional law professor at Harvard Law School. In fact, the unification of the states is “inscribed in blood on the hallowed ground at places like Gettysburg.” Likewise, when UC Berkeley School of Law professor David Carrillo heard the idea, he scoffed: “Good luck with that.” Moreover, Cascadia also lacks high-ranking politicians who are gung-ho about autonomy and business leaders willing to bankroll the lofty endeavor that spans international borders. Separatist movements elsewhere have incited violence — take India and Pakistan or Taiwan and China as cautionary tales. Saddest of all, if the West Coast retreated inward, the differences inside America would grow even starker than before.
Cascadians-to-be aren’t oblivious to these problems, says David McCloskey, the sociologist who first dubbed the region Cascadia nearly four decades ago to describe the rolling cascades of the Columbia River. He emphasizes the long-term effort required to bring the republic into fruition. As for the rest, McCloskey didn’t have many solutions: “It’s complicated.”
Then again, not everyone expected Trump’s White House to pan out either. Even if the broad blueprint of Cascadia is still just an idea, the dream gives some Northwesterners homegrown hope in a time of deep political unrest and solace in a rosy escapist fantasy.