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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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In his emphasis on the role of identity and culture in shaping political arrangements that aim to promote environmental sustainability, Callenbach prefigures the Pacific Northwestern movement to form the “bio-diverse” nation-state of Cascadia, as well as the proto-secessionist movement in Vermont. That state, which consistently delivers the only radical voices in Congress, still yearns for political expressions rendered impossible even under the most liberal interpretations of states’ rights.

In the  Burlington Declaration of 2006, supporters of the Second Vermont Republic insisted on the right to peaceful secession and the centrality of “direct democracy” in political decision-making. Echoing Jefferson and citing the principle of self-determination, the signatories avowed that “it is the right of the people in democratic fashion to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government in such form as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”

And the Third Statewide Convention on Vermont Self-Determination, which was held on Sept. 14, 2012, in the Vermont State House in Montpelier, featured the presentation of the  Montpelier Manifesto, which was co-authored by (among others) neo-Luddite thinker Kirkpatrick Sale and novelist Carolyn Chute, author of  The Beans of Egypt, Maine.

The manifesto frames itself with this opening:

We, citizens of this American land, haunted by the nihilism of separation, meaninglessness, and powerlessness, subsumed by political elites who use corporate, state, and military power to manipulate our lives, pawns of a global system of dominance and deceit in which transnational megacompanies and big government control us through money, markets, and media, sapping our political will, civil liberties, collective memory, traditional cultures, sustainability, and independence, and as victims of affluenza, technomania, cybermania, globalism, and imperialism …

It concludes with this call to action:

Citizens, lend your name to this manifesto and join in the honorable task of rejecting the immoral, corrupt, decaying, dying, failing American Empire and seeking its rapid and peaceful dissolution before it takes us all down with it.

Insurgents on the Right and the Left are more than dimly aware that their particular secessionist stirrings share the same root, if very different fruits. For the polar extremes of the political spectrum, the overwhelming unlikelihood of anyone seceding from anywhere, right or left, North or South, does not render the conversation about secession silly or irrelevant.

Through such speculation, Americans of all persuasions remind themselves that they associate through their own volition, and that their political arrangements, however durable, are not immutable. In short, conversations about secession, however fantastic and fanciful, raise important doubts about fatalistic presumptions and highlight a hidden, but not absent, existential aspect of the American nation-state: that union is no less a choice than disunion.

This insight, however mocked by realists, carries important implications for the distinctive brand of American federalism. By allowing such diversity in laws and government practices between individual states—and even within states, based on differences between cities and counties—the American federal system can be enriched by discourse about secessionist dreams.

The “genius” of asymmetric federalism means, in practice, on the ground, that there is no single American experience, but that Americans, individually and in politically constituted bodies, can revise and invent new political arrangements that respond to changing desires and needs. In theory, there are always higher powers—the Supreme Court, the President, the Congress— that can trump sub-national politics. And then there are domains, such as war and diplomacy, where pressure is great, if not overwhelming, for Americans to “speak” with a single voice. Yet these domains are the exceptions, not the rule. The forces of secession are never wholly dormant in the U.S. political culture because the traditions of asymmetric federalism—one state doing something completely different in a public domain than another—are so rock-solid that Americans take for granted high levels of diversity in their laws, public policies and their forms of government administrations.

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