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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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“We’ve got a federal government that treats states like Texas as a cash cow, that has no regard for the sovereignty of the states and really treats us merely like an administrative subdivision of the whims of the federal government,” Daniel Miller, who appears to have risen from nowhere to speak on behalf of the Texas Nationalist Movement,  told Fox News.

There’s a sense in which Texas, historically, is a kind of inland empire with a distinct identity and political trajectory. The dissenting Texans are well aware, of course, that Texas was, for nearly 10 years, an independent republic before joining the U.S. in 1846. Yet Miller and his collection of far-Right loonies do not really call for the immediate withdrawal from the union, or even for secession at all. Rather, he asks for the Texas legislature to engage in a variant of political theater. “Ideally what we would like to see is the legislature put it to a non-binding referendum,” he told Fox’s Sean Hannity, “so the people of Texas could express their will on this issue.”

Politics as theater is familiar, and the Texas elite is taking the secessionists in stride. The state is home to 26 million people, after all, so even 120,000 signatures in favor of anything can be dismissed as statistical “noise.”

“This is not a real secessionist movement,” Mark Jones, a professor of political science at Rice University in Houston, told Voice of America. “You don’t have any serious political actor getting behind the movement to secede.”

Indeed, the Texas Republican elite, from Gov. Rick Perry on down, has shunned the movement. But in an America dominated by what the historian Daniel Boorstin once called “pseudo-events”—an America where the “fake news” of Jon Stewart can be truer and more believable than the real news of Scott Pelley—a “fake secessionist movement” can take on the trappings of reality, and perhaps already has.

Global possibilities

Look abroad in order to see just how plausible secession is. In the United States, talk of political disunion is associated with insanity. Not so in many other parts of the world. Scots, who like Texans can imagine a bygone past of political independence, may well choose to split from Britain in a vote planned for 2014. In Catalonia, Spain’s wealthiest region and home to Barcelona, Catalans openly debate whether it should engineer a similar split. Galicians have similar aspirations for their northwestern region of Spain.

The existence of the European Union, which provides an umbrella of political services to small nations, enhances the attractiveness of regional splits. In 2010, the EU Parliament called on its member states to recognize the sovereignty of tiny Kosovo, formerly the southern region of Serbia—and 22 EU nations have done so. The movement for political independence has many mothers, and one of them, paradoxically, is globalization, because “shared sovereignty”—especially in the domains of defense, trade and monetary policy—brings concrete benefits.

For the past 20 years the peoples of the world have experienced an unprecedented wave of breakups, driving the creation of smaller political units that possess something like full sovereignty. The collapse of the Soviet Union led to the creation of 15 nations, and when the Soviets released their grip on 
Eastern Europe, secessionists cheered. Yugoslavia alone gave
 birth to six different countries. 
Few of these new states have re-amalgamated. East Germany’s choice
 of absorption into its larger Western brother proved the exception, rather than the rule.

Successive U.S. governments have welcomed secession abroad, finding easy justifications in the philosophy of Thomas Jefferson, who embraced self-determination with a fervor usually limited to religious belief. Jefferson’s famous dictum, “every generation needs a new  revolution,” provides a comfortable berth for secessionists in need of a justification.

 
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