Gavin Newsom

Newsom's (Nation) State of California: Territorial Ambiguity and Ambition in the Covid-19 Crisis

Published: 21 April 2020

Judith Sijstermans, University of Birmingham, highlights the disjointed approach taken by the United States in the COVID-19 crisis, exploring how the pandemic has enabled Governor of California, Gavin Newsom, to promote the state's autonomous role in domestic and foreign politics. 

The United States’ approach to the coronavirus has been disjointed in many dimensions, but none as apparent and destabilizing as the effects of the crisis on the US’s federal arrangements. Last Monday, Donald Trump held a press conference with (legally unfounded) claims about his own powers over the states, which he was then forced to roll back.

Governor Gavin Newsom is the figurehead of California’s resistance against the federal government’s coronavirus policies, so much so that Twitter was calling for #PresidentNewsom. However, he has spurred an even more ambitious idea: a Californian nation-state. I move beyond critiques of Trump’s ‘corona-federalism’ to explore Newsom’s push for state power during the Coronavirus crisis.

Newsom has used three key strategic tools to promote both himself and the state of California: the use of the term ‘nation-state,’ charismatic leadership, and the politics of competence. The Coronavirus crisis has enabled these manoeuvres, but they are part of a wider pattern promoting the state’s autonomous role in domestic and foreign politics.

Conceptualising the Californian Nation-State

The governor has argued that commentators were ‘a little literal’ about his use of the term nation-state. However, I argue that, for Newsom, maintaining ambiguity about the term is politically advantageous.

He initially used it to encourage a collective Californian ‘national’ identity while announcing the shelter in place order:

“A state as large as ours, a nation-state, is many parts. But at the end of the day, we're one body. There's a mutuality, and there's a recognition of our interdependence that requires of this moment that we direct a state-wide order for people to stay at home.”

Of course, Newsom’s call for ‘mutuality’ obscures how the virus exacerbates the state’s inequalities: in terms of economic challenges and how those challenges map onto race, for example. California is also home to the US’s largest homeless population, precipitated by a housing crisis in Los Angeles and the Bay Area. Calling California a ‘nation’ allows Newsom to encourage, even invent, a sense of unity.

The term nation-state, understood from an American lens, distinguishes California from the federal level. It can be seen as referring to the size and influence of California. Globally, however, the term ‘nation-state’ is traditionally used by sovereign states, or movements seeking independence like in Scotland or Catalonia. Although Newsom is clearly not calling for such a sovereignty movement, there was a surge of interest in Californian independence briefly after Trump’s election. But this movement has largely been discredited by links to both Russia and Iran.

However, promoting a Californian nation-state allows Newsom to subtly advocate greater autonomy within the US federal system. He told MSNBC:

“Let’s use the power, the purchasing power of the state of California, as a nation-state…in the next few weeks, we’re going to see supplies, at that level, into the state of California and potentially the opportunity to export some of those supplies to states in need.”

Newsom plays on the common refrain that California, given the size of its economy (5th largest in the world), can compete with sovereign states. California’s administrations of both political parties have exploited the state’s global influence for years. For example, former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (Republican) engaged in international negotiations surrounding climate change. Schwarzenegger was also reported as saying: “We have the economic strength, we have the population and the technological force of a nation-state.”

Under Newsom, California regularly resists the federal government legally. Its state legislators reject the idea of Californian independence and instead called California ‘the keeper of the nation’s future.’ The federal government’s lack of coordination on the Covid-19 crisis is a useful moment for Newsom to go further than resistance. Newsom’s approach is not simply to negate the Trump administration but to develop a proactive, if symbolic, understanding of California’s power in the US federal system.

The Politics of Competence

Competence, although less grand than declarations of nation-statehood, is a priority for sub-state nationalist movements. Proving the competence of the sub-state administration to govern is a key argument underpinning claims for more authority. It has also been shown in Scotland to be a key factor in the Scottish National Party’s continued success.

Newsom has taken the Coronavirus as an opportunity to not only argue for more autonomy for California, but also to prove the state’s competency to rule itself more fully. By focusing on the technical aspects of the response such as masks and protective wear, Newsom has emphasized the Californian administration’s ability to provide basic goods. His actions may have ‘shown up’ the Trump administration, but he has attempted to avoid the image of politicization. Newsom argued: “This is not political, this is not in any way, shape or form usurping or undermining.”

However, it is likely that, once the dust on the coronavirus has settled, Newsom will be seeking to promote his Coronavirus policy successes. California’s response has already been compared favourably to New York’s, where outcomes have been much more deadly. California’s ability to push its own solutions to other states, and thus practice power in the federal system through policy influence, is built into the American system. The idea of policy learning is drawn from a tradition of the American states as ‘policy laboratories’ (for example on smoking, health policy, and climate change).

Charismatic Leadership in Crisis

Newsom’s political ambitions are not only for his state, however. The push for personal power and territorial power have never been independent of one another. For example, both the Catalan and Scottish independence processes were furthered significantly by two controversial and high-profile figures: Artur Mas and Alex Salmond, respectively. Like Mas and Salmond, Newsom has had his own share of scandal.

Newsom presents himself as embodying some characteristics of his imagined Californian nation. He is in many ways a contrast to Donald Trump. San Francisco born, he portrays himself as a proud technocrat with strong links to Silicon Valley companies (who he has relied on to solve technical issues during the Coronavirus crisis). Like Silicon Valley leaders, he seeks to have a younger, more casual image. He has also, thus far, managed to sit on the fence in internal Democratic debates, early on supporting California Senator Kamala Harris in the primaries, but not making any further endorsements. His technocratic, entrepreneurial style allows him to take this ambiguous position within his own party.

Newsom’s push for power during the Coronavirus, while clearly ideologically opposed to the Trump administration, has not been explicitly partisan. He has not used his own platform to draw a spotlight to the Democratic Party. In fact, Newsom announced the mask purchase on the left-leaning Rachel Maddow Show before informing California lawmakers, including those in his own party.

Newsom has a history of pushing institutional and party boundaries. As Mayor of San Francisco, he unilaterally implemented same-sex marriage, a move that put him into conflict with state and federal courts as well as the Democratic Party. However, we should not underestimate Newsom’s ambitions. The now Governor reportedly called himself ‘the future ex-mayor of San Francisco’ while still mayor, a reminder to himself to keep looking ahead to new offices and new political projects.

The state of California, given its position in the global economy, has long been a vocal player in the American federal system. During the Coronavirus crisis, American federalism has allowed for differentiated approaches and engendered both cooperation and clashes between the federal government and states.

Enabled by the challenge of Covid-19, Newsom’s assertive approach has moved beyond resisting the Trump administration. He has promoted a united and powerful Californian nation-state. In his use of the ‘nation-state’ concept, Newsom has been both strategically ambiguous and strategically ambitious.

Dr. Judith Sijstermans is a postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham on the ESRC-funded ‘Survival of the Mass Party’ project. She is a graduate of UC Berkeley and has a PhD from the University of Edinburgh, focused on sub-state nationalist and regionalist movements.


Photo by Gage Skidmore on Flickr 

Scottish Tories still suffering tremors from Brexit earthquake

What has Covid-19 meant for devolution in Wales?

Unionism, Conservative thinking and Brexit

Response: The Internal Market White Paper