It doesn't take much effort to start a political controversy anymore -- often, all that's needed is a Facebook group and just one mainstream media outlet willing to do a profile on it. This week's controversy-du-jour is "New California", a proposal to split off most of the inland part of the state from the urban coastal areas.
As with any controversy or attempt to start a "movement", it's worthwhile to apply a simple four-part test:
- Where is their written set of principles?
- Who's funding the action?
- Does it serve anyone's ulterior motives?
- Does anybody involved have a real reputation at stake?
These four tests are a fairly decent way to separate the legitimate movements from the fake ones -- and to separate the legitimate ones that have a real future from the ones that are destined to splinter and fizzle out.
Test #1: "New California" gets a grade of D-. "New California" does have a written set of principles -- their "Declaration of Independence", but it's so sloppy that it contains an "it's/its" error in the first sentence and contains a prominent reference to Breitbart in its opening section. This isn't a serious proposal built around a cogent philosophy of governing; it's just an effort to poke a hornet's nest of grievance politics.
Test #2: "New California" gets a grade of F. Though they claim on their website to be "a Registered 501c4 Corporation", no such organization is found in the IRS database. Without real transparency, there's no reason to believe that this is a legitimate project.
Test #3: "New California" gets a grade of F. It's well-established that Russians have backed previous similar efforts on behalf of a California breakup plan. Similar projects for secession elsewhere -- including Brexit -- have also been influenced by Russian operations, since the Putin government finds it advantageous to break up Western alliances wherever possible. It's a classic use of the principle of "confusion to our enemies": The more infighting and disorganization that they can spark in Western countries, the weaker our resolve to stand for the things that matter.
Test #4: "New California" gets a grade of F. Most of the links on the "county committees" page for the group identify "Paul Preston" as the vice-chair of the organization and the point of contact. Paul Preston's other presence on the Internet is as a conspiracy theorist with a podcast called "Agenda 21 Radio" (a reference to the United Nations development plan called "Agenda 21"). This isn't an organization composed of or led by credible people.
There's widespread agreement that California's state government has challenges, both fiscal and operational, and there may be an entirely credible argument for changing how the state is governed. But this one isn't it: "New California" fails three of the four tests for a legitimate movement. It does not deserve to be taken seriously.
Whether the "New California" thing is just a quixotic project by a handful of conspiracy theorists, a publicity stunt, or an attempt by (or supported by) foreign adversaries to upset the American political system, we can't assume it will be the last such project. And, regrettably, we need to assume the worst -- even if we prefer to hope for the best. We cannot permit the urgent drive for attention (in the form of website clicks and social-media buzz) to displace the need to put every movement through a filter to separate the true from the fake.
Even if this project is nothing but a misguided fever dream, it serves interests contrary to those of the people of California and the people of the United States. We shouldn't give it credence, and we should be on the alert for similar projects elsewhere.