Skip to main content

Is California a nation-state?

Henry Brady, dean of the Goldman School of Public Policy | April 17, 2020


Aerial view of Los Angeles

Governor Gavin Newsom has recently been criticized for calling California a “nation-state” in his briefings and appearances. Is California a nation-state? Recently, I was asked by the New York Times to comment on Newsom’s use of the term, and I wrote the following memorandum to the Times which resulted in an article on the subject.

It is useful to introduce the word “country” first and to then consider the words “state” and “nation”:

  • Is California a country? No. Countries have sovereignty over their borders, control over the military and their external affairs, the power to make the fundamental laws of the land, and ultimate control over the use of force within their borders. The state of California has some of these powers (e.g., taxation and police power) but they are limited or delegated by the federal government and by the Constitution. (Thus, in the 10th Amendment the US Constitution delegates powers to the states, but it is still the US Constitution which reigns supreme by making this delegation: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”)
  • Is California a state? Yes. California is one of the 50 states of the United States. However, this term is often used in two ways. Sometimes it is used to refer to the government of a country that is a (sovereign) state such as France. Louis the XIV famously said: “L’etat c’est moi” – “the state—it is I”. But the term “state” is also used to refer to subunits of a country. California is a state in this second sense.
  • Is California a nation? It’s complicated. A nation is a community of people with a common language, territory, history, ethnicity or culture. Often the language, history and culture are not shared with many (or even any) other countries. A nation is an “imagined community” that depends upon the people who supposedly comprise the nation, believing that it is distinctive and real. The French people, for example, can be called a “nation” because they think of themselves as having a distinctive language (which they exported to their colonies), history, and culture although this is sometimes contested by outlying regions such as Brittany. But many countries do not have just one nation. Canada, for example is famously the product of two nations—French and British—with different languages and religions. In the Soviet Union, each Union Republic represented a different nation (e.g., Russian, Ukrainian, Estonian, Armenian, Kazahk) distinguished by language and often religion. Switzerland is formed of at least three nations with different languages.
  • Is California a nation-state? It’s very complicated. It is certainly a state and its people may comprise a nation. But the term nation-state often has overtones that go beyond what the simple addition of these two terms would seem to mean. “Nation-state” often means a nation that comprises an independent state. In truth there are few examples of true “nation-states.” Australia and France may be examples because they each have people with (mostly) a common language and religion and identity that can be considered “nations,” but many countries are not nation-states. Canada is not (there are two major nationalities), Switzerland is not (there are three major nationalities—French, German, and Italian), India is not (it has many nationalities and religions), and the Soviet Union certainly was not with fifteen distinct Union Republics that were nations.

Writing in 1887 (in The American Commonwealth, 2nd Edition, Revised), Viscount James Bryce wrote that California is:

… a state on which I dwell the more willingly because it is in many respects the most striking in the whole Union, and has more than any other the character of a great country, capable of standing alone in the world. It has immense wealth in its fertile soil as well as in its minerals and forests. Nature is nowhere more imposing nor her beauties more varied.

California, more than any other part of the Union, is a country by itself, and San Francisco a capital. Cut off from the more populous parts of the Mississippi valley by an almost continuous desert of twelve hundred miles, across which the two daily trains move like ships across the ocean, separated from Oregon on the north by a wilderness of sparsely settled mountain and forest it has grown up in its own way and acquired a sort of consciousness of separate existence. San Francisco dwarfs the other cities, and is a commercial and intellectual centre, and source of influence for the surrounding regions, more powerful over them than is any Eastern city over its neighbourhood. It is a New York which has got no Boston on one side of it, and no shrewd and orderly rural population on the other, to keep it in order. Hence both State and city are less steadied by national opinion than any other State or city within the wide compass of the Union.

California was and is a phenomenon. Today, it is the largest US state with 40 million people, with a majority minority population, and with distinctive geography, needs, and, to some extent, culture. The geography is part of what impressed Bryce. California is bordered on the east by the high Sierra mountains, on the southeast by deserts, in the north by high mountains and forest, and, of course, on the west by ocean. Moreover, California has just about everything: the rich central valley that produces fruit and vegetables for much of the rest of the United States, oil and gas, lumber, mines, and great cities (three of the top ten – Los Angeles, San Jose, and San Diego). It has distinctive concerns about the environment and resources. It has been a leader in the control of air pollution and the reduction of CO2 emissions. It has Silicon Valley and the greatest set of universities in the nation. And Los Angeles is a distinctive place in the American imagination with its beaches, mountains, and freeways and with Hollywood which contends with New York for cultural leadership.

Even though the Census Bureau in 2015 tells us that almost 44% of California households speak a language other than English and about 19% report speaking English less than very well, California cannot be said to have a distinctive language as do the Quebecois in Canada (French) and as did the populations in the 15 Union Republics of the Soviet Union. It does not have a distinctive religion as did many of the Union Republics in the Soviet Union (ranging from Orthodox Christian [Russia, Ukraine, Belarus] to Islam [all the Central Asian Republics] to Catholic [Lithuania] or Protestant [Estonia]). Indeed, of the American states, perhaps only Utah can claim a distinctive religious identity in Mormonism.

California can claim ethnic diversity with 37% Hispanic Non-White, 15% Asian, 14% some other race, 6% African American, and 1.2% Native Americans and Alaskan Native. But there is no one common ethnicity – instead California is characterized by its diversity. Yet this may be considered a common cultural feature. A 2018 survey found that “Californians generally support diversity of beliefs and the idea that respecting cultural difference is important.” (See

Bottom Line: Is California a nation? Perhaps in terms of its size, territorial boundaries, its roots in Spanish and Mexican culture with additional layers of Asian and Pacific Islander cultures, its ethnic diversity, and its long-standing concerns for the environment. Certainly, Californians have a sense of themselves as living in a special place.

So is California a Nation-State?

There is nothing wrong with using this term in a colloquial fashion, especially if you are also willing to say that Texas is a nation-state and perhaps even New York or Pennsylvania. Certainly, of all the American states it is best-equipped to be a country by itself with its large territory delimited by ocean, mountains, and desert, and it has a disproportionate impact on the rest of the world as the fifth largest economy—smaller than the US as a whole, China, Japan, and Germany but larger than India, France, the United Kingdom, Italy, Brazil, Canada, and Russia. California exists vividly in the American imagination and in the minds of Californians.

Certainly, no other state has a better claim on the term.