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The Will to Secede: Why It's Not Just a Right-Wing Fantasy

Conversations about secession highlight a hidden, but not absent, existential aspect of the American nation-state: that union is no less a choice than disunion.
 
 
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From time to time, the breakup of the United States becomes appealing to many citizens—patriots of various stripes who “in the Course of human events” have come to believe that it is “necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them.”

We are in one of those periods now, and while the reasons are unique and the historical moment singular, looking backward at past episodes of secessionist zeal can help illuminate the present. Does the post-election outpouring of secessionist fervor exemplify a passing fancy? Or does it rather suggest a deeper, even revolutionary, change in the American political terrain?

The immediate trigger was Barack Obama’s victory, which heralded a new coalition of voters—women, people of color and young people—who voted for the Democratic candidate at such a rate that, given the prevailing demographic trends, the Democratic Party appears to possess a major advantage for the foreseeable future.

After the election, right-wing activists immediately called for Texas to secede from the union. This echoed a declaration by progressive Vermonters, first made in 2003, to explore ways to opt out of a country that they deemed too reactionary.

A November 9 petition asking the Obama administration to “peacefully grant the state of Texas to withdraw from the United States of America” has garnered nearly 120,000 signatures to become by far the most popular petition on WhiteHouse.gov. Additional secession petitions have come in from the other 49 states, with those from  LouisianaFlorida and Georgia amassing more than 30,000 signatories apiece.

One thing is certain: a bloc of Southern states that once were essential to any Democratic majority—from Wilson to Clinton, from the onset of World War I to the defeat of Al Gore in 2000—is no longer. Texas, Mississippi, North Carolina: The Democrats now can lose every one of these states in a presidential race and still win handily. Obama just did. The  “Southern strategy” is gone.

Both parties’ wooing of the Deep South proved enormously beneficial to many states, such as Alabama, that began to split away from the Democrats in the 1970s and today are wholly alienated from the Democratic Party. Alabamans receive $2 in federal spending for every $1 they pay in taxes; this dramatic imbalance is an artifact of a dysfunctional U.S. Electoral College that encouraged the leaders of both major parties to court Southern states.

With the South now politically unhinged from the process of deciding the presidential election, calls for secession are the first evidence of the new panic on the Right. Facing the specter of more liberal Supreme Court justices and a political logic that will slowly extinguish political incentives to deliver federal aid to the Southern states, extremists in the region have resurrected a 19th century strategy. Playing the only political card they have left, they are threatening to exit the nation.

The talk is loudest in Texas chiefly because of the state’s size, national clout and pride of place. Admittedly, the Texas secessionists are loony. The most vocal organization, the  Texas Nationalist Movement, states baldly: “The fact of the matter is, that there cannot be a union between those that esteem the principles of Karl Marx over the principles of Thomas Jefferson. Here in Texas, we esteem those principles of Thomas Jefferson—that all political power’s inherent in the people.” 

Obama’s cautious liberalism—and his continued embrace of Republican economist Ben Bernanke as Fed chairman and the government’s economic manager, rather than highly esteemed Democratic economists such as Paul Krugman or Jared Bernstein—makes the notion of the president as an agent of Marxism cartoonishly ridiculous. Yet when the secessionists move from broad ideology to specific grievances, their arguments for disunion fall squarely in the tradition of “state’s rights”—arguments that have long found favor in the federal courts and with a shifting segment of the public.

 
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