Every nation bears a flag. The mob that stormed the Capitol on January 6 was a gathering of micronations all carrying their own flags, united to “stop the steal.” A burly man in a combat uniform waved a Confederate battle flag. A nearby rioter carried the Revolutionary War-era Gadsen flag bearing the words “Don’t Tread on Me.” A Kek flag for QAnon flew next to a Deus Vult (“God Wills It”) flag with a Crusaders cross, a symbol commonly used by right-wing groups.
To the people of far-northern California, one flag—colored green and yellow and emblazoned with two Xs—would have stood out among the rest.
That billowing flag is the emblem of the State of Jefferson, a separatist movement popular among rural communities in the Golden State’s “Great Red North.” Jeffersonites aim to break free from California’s liberal government and form the 51st state, or to merge with Idaho.
For decades, the State of Jefferson has existed as a sort of regional mythology embraced by local residents in 21 northern mostly inland California counties, from Siskiyou to Tuolumne. The name derives from America’s third president, who once supported a proposal to create an independent nation in the western United States. In a region where church communities bind civil society and many residents still heat their homes with wood, it’s a way locals distinguish themselves from the state’s urban cores of Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Silicon Valley—and a marker of rural pride. This is where California’s U.S. history began, with the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in 1848.
But over the past ten years, local organizers have brought the mythology to life, a product of the rural-urban divide that’s warped national politics. It’s now a movement anchored by a core group of dedicated campaigners, surrounded by a loose affiliation of adherents. Somefollowers are also members of militias, and they have become increasingly virulent.
The State of Jefferson’s presence at the storming of the Capitol was its debut on the national stage. But other clashes preceded this one over the previous six months, with militia groups engaging California officials in frightening confrontations. Just a day before the Capitol siege, protestors broke into a Shasta County board of supervisors meeting to protest the state’s Covid-19 restrictions. One local resident announced to the board that “the days of your tyranny are drawing to a close, and the legitimacy of this government is waning.”
He added: “When the ballot box is gone, there is only the cartridge box. You have made bullets expensive. But luckily for you, ropes are reusable.”
For America’s extreme right, it seems, nothing is more patriotic than seceding. Since the 2020 election, several counties in Colorado launched a similar campaign to break off and join Wyoming. Five counties in Southern Oregon will vote on proposed ballot measures later this year to merge with Idaho, an entity that some Jefferson advocates hope to join as well.
These campaigns will fail because the politics are too messy and the legal pathway is not viable. Separation would require support from the state legislature and a vote from Congress, which hasn’t occurred since West Virginia split off in 1863.
But these movements should be taken seriously for other reasons. Secessionism has trended towards violence in rhetoric and actions. The pandemic uprisings in Shasta County, the armed protests at the Michigan Capitol building over the summer, and the storming of the U.S. Capitol are just a few examples. Even as the State of Jefferson poses little threat to the territorial integrity of California, it’s becoming a threat to law and order.
Nationally, the State of Jefferson reflects the growing political alienation of rural places in the U.S., which has increased as such areas suffered growing cultural and economic dislocation. Once a Democratic stronghold, the California Northstate is today the most conservative part of the state.
The state of Jefferson began as a sort of gag. In 1941, a collection of northern California and southern Oregon residents, angry about the sorry state of their roads, staged a patriotic, somewhat tongue-in-cheek rebellion. They blocked off U.S. Route 99 and passed out pamphlets to motorists informing them that they were entering the State of Jefferson. The two Xs on their flag stood for “double crossed by the state capitols of Sacramento and Salem.” The pamphlets proposed a sarcastic state motto: “Our roads are not passable; they’re hardly jackassable.” Two weeks later, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and the Jefferson separatists disbanded. The lore of Jefferson survived, though, as a semi-humorous regional identity commemorated by local residents with flags and bumper stickers.
Contrary to the current movement’s anti-tax and anti-regulation dogmas, the original Jeffersonians demanded more government intervention in rural communities. Thanks to New Deal financial relief for small farmers, along with public investments in Northern California highways and dams, the counties that make up today’s proposed State of Jefferson all voted solidly Democratic through the 1970s. In Richard Nixon’s famous red-baiting victory over Helen Gahagan Douglas in California’s 1950 Senate election, the north counties were among the only ones that went blue. When Jerry Brown first ran for governor in 1974, he relied on the support of many of these counties to win.
That began to change when the state’s former governor, Ronald Reagan, ran for president. Reagan capitalized on a backlash to civil rights advances and flipped many blue rural counties red. That included the Northstate. Rising rates of regional inequality—exacerbated, ironically, by Reagan’s policies as president–helped firm up this shift. Rural California lack of wealth compared to the state’s metro areas led to deep suspicion of distant government authority in both Washington and Sacramento. In 2020, all but four of the counties in the Northstate voted for Trump.
The leader of today’s Jefferson secessionists, Mark Baird, illustrates this political shift. A third-generation Jeffersonian and a contract pilot, Baird used to be a Democrat, and most of his family still is.
Now in his late 60s,Baird still thinks John F. Kennedy, whom he supported when he was young, was one of the greatest presidents in U.S. history. Kennedy, Baird says, espoused “classical liberal” values such as freedom of speech and free enterprise, and included support for rural areas in his New Frontier agenda.
Now, Baird thinks, California liberals have gotten drunk on one-party control. (California’s Republican party has dwindled into a semi-cult.) “If you’re in a favorite group, they’ll help you and give you money,” Baird said. “But if you’re not in the favorite group, then they will do things to harm your business and harm your livelihood.”(This would be a good moment to point out that if a State of Jefferson were created, it would be 73 percent white.)
Cultural politics about matters like gun control and immigration loom large in the State of Jefferson state of mind. But the anger is driven by economic decline. For decades, timber was one of the Northstate’s main commercial activities. Starting in the late 1980s, though, new environmental regulations that protected local wildlife began to put loggers and mills out of business. A 1991 ruling by U.S. District Court Judge William Dwyer on the spotted owl, common in old-growth Northwest forests and protected under the Endangered Species Act, was especially devastating. The decision effectively barred all logging within the owl’s range. According to Washington State University scholar Jennifer Sherman, the ruling shut down nearly 80 percent of timber sales for most businesses west of the Cascade Mountain range. Conservation policies under the Clinton Administration’s Northwest Forest Plan further damaged the timber business. Unemployment rates skyrocketed, and many lost jobs never came back.
Locals are still furious about Dwyer’s ruling, which they say put a higher priority on protecting birds than on the life of rural communities. Never mind that the timber industry was already on the verge of collapse before the spotted owl decision was handed down.
The State of Jefferson transformed itself from a sardonic joke into an actual movement in the early 2010s after the California legislature passed a series of gun ownership restrictions. In response to the new laws, Baird teamed up with Terry Rapoza, a local organizer, to agitate for secession. Rapoza proved a strong partner. He had built a powerful network of contacts across the northern counties from founding and organizing the Redding Tea Party, and he;d organized events that drew thousands of attendees.
In their partnership, Baird played philosopher king while Rapoza and his wife Sally (nicknamed “Rally Sally”) handled communications, tapping their Rolodex.
Rapoza is not your standard communications director. When I called him up, he declined to be interviewed. Then he spent fifteen minutes denying that today’s Jefferson activists bear any relationship to the 1940s movement even though Rapoza and Baird have adopted roughly the same proposal to secede and use the same symbol and colors on their flag. He voiced distrust of the mainstream media. Rapoza prefers far-right outlets; he’s a frequent guest on Alex Jones’ show. Social media has also been critical to his organizing. As with other far-right groups, the internet has transformed the State of Jefferson from a tiny crank fringe into a political movement.
It’s not a big enough political movement, though, to persuade any state politicians to take the State of Jefferson remotely seriously. Jefferson foot soldiers conducted letter-writing campaigns, called state representatives, and sent thousands of emails. Baird himself made calls to lawmakers every day for an entire year. They got nowhere.
“None of the legislators, even the ones in our district, called us back to find out what we wanted, or why we wanted it,” Baird said. “That just showed us that we didn’t have any representation, which was exactly the point of what we were saying.”
Finally, out of frustration, the movement went hyper-local in 2013 and 2014, persuading Boards of Supervisors in Siskiyou, Modoc, Glenn, Yuba, and the symbolically significant Sutter counties to pass resolutions pledging allegiance to the State of Jefferson. In Tehama County, voters passed a ballot initiative to support breaking away.
That got a few regional state representatives to warm to the idea, or at least pretend to. After a State of Jefferson rally drew two hundred people outside the California state capitol in 2015, then Assembly-member (now State Senator) Brian Dahle said in an interview that he was open to secession. “If the details are worked out and looked like it was something that, financially, could work….then maybe I can get behind it,” said Dahle.
“[The successful ballot initiatives] were really the coming-out party for the movement,” said Todd Jones, the president of the Economic Development Corporation of Shasta County. “It was clear that something significant was going on there.”
When President Trump took office in 2017, then-governor Jerry Brown turned California into the capital of The Resistance. That, in turn, prompted the State of Jefferson to fashion itself the resistance within the resistance. After the state passed a gas tax, activists organized protests in northern counties, where people drive longer distances to go to work or access basic services. After Brown made California a “sanctuary state,” limiting law enforcement’s cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the secessionists issued an inflammatory newsletter claiming the policy was intended to penalize the Northstate financially, because several privately run jails in the Northstate were renting out space to ICE for detentions.
Meanwhile, the movement’s tactics expanded beyond rallies and ballot propositions. Baird and Rapoza initiated a series of legal challenges alleging political underrepresentation. Under an 1862 law, California caps the number of state representatives at 120. Today, with 40 million people living in the state, a California assembly district has almost half a million constituents, and state senators represent more people than do members of Congress. Under the banner Citizens for Fair Representation, Baird and Rapoza argued that this apportionment was unconstitutional.
They struck out in the courts, but Baird insists the larger goal was to draw attention to the cause and antagonize state officials. In public statements, Baird has proposed that the state allocate one senator for every 6,000 voters, and one assemblyman for every 2,500—a plan that would yield a state legislature housing 22,000 representatives. Baird has also claimed that California Gov. Gavin Newsom is guilty of sedition for harboring undocumented immigrants, and that, according to his reading of the Constitution the State of Jefferson is therefore empowered to take its statehood appeal directly to Congress. This latter legal path highlights the nativism that underlies the movement.
The secessionists have also embraced more worrisome strategies. In Shasta County, Jefferson members have joined forces with local militia groups, including a branch of the Three Percenters, to organize anti-lockdown demonstrations against the county government for enforcing the state’s pandemic restrictions. In August, Carlos Zapata, a member of the Redding Patriots militia group and ally of the Jefferson movement, gave a speech at the Shasta County Board of Supervisors meeting threatening the members if they didn’t walk back the pandemic restrictions.
“This is a warning for what’s coming,” said Zapata. “It’s not going to be peaceful much longer. Citizens are going to turn into revolutionary citizens real soon.” In a later interview with the Los Angeles Times, he said: “We need to make politicians scared again.”
When I asked Baird, a military veteran who used to be a deputy sheriff for Siskiyou County, about the prospect of extralegal violence, he gave a cryptic answer. “Those who wish for violence are ignorant and have no idea what they’re asking for,” he said. “I’ve been to six wars on behalf of the United States government and I know what it looks like.” But he also cited the Alamo and American Revolution as historical examples of when violence is necessary to preserve liberty.
“Everyone needs to decide for themselves when you will sacrifice your life when a line has been crossed,” Baird said. It’s worth remembering that the State of Jefferson’s namesake once stated (a bit recklessly, since the American Revolution had concluded four years earlier), “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. It is its natural manure.”
The threat of extremism has been a hot topic in Washington since the storming of the Capitol. Many officials in the intelligence community are calling for a new domestic terrorism law. Others see this as a slippery slope, arguing that it could erode civil liberties.
But while statehood is untenable, the State of Jefferson activists aren’t wrong that they’re underrepresented in state politics. California can’t accommodate 22,000 legislators, but it may well need more. So might other states, or even Congress.
A more novel approach to rural concerns would be “rural proofing” legislation, an idea proposed by University of California-Davis Law professor Lisa Pruitt, who’s closely followed the State of Jefferson’s political activity. Used in countries like Australia with a similar rural-urban divide, rural proofing requires that proposed laws be examined for potential harm they may cause in rural communities, on the model of the environmental impact statement.
Rural proofing might threaten necessary climate change measures like fuels taxes. But it might also help action on this front. For example, it might be used to curb fossil fuel projects often placed in rural areas, where they create a variety of health problems for surrounding communities.
More broadly, Democrats need to become once again champions of rural economic development. The Democrats were once the party of rural electrification, rural roads, and family farm assistance. President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan, with its proposed investments in high-speed broadband access for rural areas, and in rural and bridges, might help reposition his party in this direction. Antitrust policy could help level the playing field in ways that help rural areas build self-sustaining local businesses, rather than rely for employment on corporate chain stores.
We should also be realistic about the limits of persuading extremist groups like militias. The best hope is to curb their influence with others. Even that is a tall order: The cultural hostility underlying the rural-urban divide runs deep. Closing this gap won’t happen overnight. But you have to start somewhere.