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The stunning defeat of Hillary Clinton this month provides a painful reminder of the size and scale, diversity and divisions, of the United States. Democratic candidate Clinton won the popular vote by close to 2 million votes, but she lost the Electoral College by a significant margin because of losing three, large, typically blue states by razor-thin margins. The entire West Coast of the U.S.—Washington, Oregon and California—voted for Clinton by a margin of more than 60 percent, but because regional blocs are meaningless by themselves in the American political system, the Left Coast gains no direct path toward influencing the new administration.
The American method of choosing presidents seems especially painful this month with the imminent inauguration of Donald Trump, a right-wing populist who appealed openly to base fears and prejudices. Trump’s opponents are strongest in the most dynamic, educated and cosmopolitan parts of the U.S. Yet these bastions of progressive values face four years of powerlessness, at least in the executive branch of government. One immediate fear is that President Trump will appoint far-right justices to the Supreme Court, killing progressive ideals and aspirations for a generation in the judicial branch, which supposedly serves as a vital check on presidential power.
Losing elections breeds blame and frustration. The Democratic Party’s candidate could have been more charismatic. Clinton’s corporate neoliberal reputation, and her decision to choose a pro-corporate moderate as her vice president rather than reaching out to a person of color or an economic populist in the mold of Bernie Sanders, seems a major misstep in retrospect. One response is to talk of tactical changes and the need to mount a “50 state campaign,” to quote Howard Dean, the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Nervous chatter about who might emerge as a compelling candidate to defeat Trump in 2020 has already begun.
Yet, the marginalization of progressive movements in the U.S. reflects the deeply conservative, even anti-democratic structure of the U.S. political system. After the surprise of Clinton’s defeat, and despite the vows of progressive U.S. senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren to fight President-elect Donald Trump at every turn, these barriers to democratic reform now seem insurmountable.
Perhaps predictably, in the dark days after Trump’s stunning victory, the emergence in California and Oregon of infant movements for these states to secede from the U.S. seem destined to wither and die quickly. Should these movements be dismissed as the siren songs of the desperate, panaceas for the perplexed? In this article, I aim to start a long-term conversation among progressives about the merits of secession, about the need to turn frustration into future visions of principled nation-states in which progressive humanistic values predominate.
To begin, we must rethink, reconceive and redefine the secessionist impulse. Secessionism is a political option long demonized by progressives, and much misunderstood. Secession, simply put, refers to the pursuit of revolutionary change through the breakup of the United States into smaller pieces. The impulse to secede need not be viewed as reactionary. Indeed, talk of a new kind of secession—progressive secession, or p-secession for short—might be one way of honoring Sanders’ call for continued “political revolution.”
In one p-secession scenario, California could become its own sovereign nation-state. Parts of Vermont or Washington state might join Canada. Or the South could secede again (as some right-wingers fantasize) in a replay of the political revolt that ignited the Civil War. Texas, briefly an independent republic in the 1840s, might reprise its experience of nationhood. In theory, the new pieces, or political units made by possible by secessionist movements, would better represent the aspirations of their people and more clearly reflect the generally accepted principle of self-determination.
Other than the staggering defeat to Trump, and the promise of right-wing control of the Supreme Court for a generation, why should progressives think more seriously about secession as an ideal? And how might a national conversation about p-secession help democratic reformers of all stripes—of both the progressive and the corporatist wing of the Democratic Party—to gain more leverage and bring more pressure against the new right-wing Republican ascendancy?
First, let’s step back and look again at the structural barriers that are strangling the voices of American political revolutionaries. First, the winner-take-all system of federal elections means that progressives and left-wing radicals have virtually no influence on national politics. Minority parties invariably die. Even progressive influence on the Democratic Party presidential candidates seems scant. The progressive path in healthcare reform, best illustrated by the single-payer approach, was actually opposed by President Obama in his first term. The president also dismissed progressive objections to his practice of personally selecting assassination targets around the world. President Obama also ignored progressive appeals to create a federal jobs program, nationalize large banks deemed too big to fail, and sharply increase taxes on the wealthy (rather than merely seek to “restore” the Bush II tax cuts).
In Europe and some other parts of the world, the parliamentary system allows small political parties of all persuasions, including the far right, to gain some influence at the national level. Parliamentary democracy has flaws, notably the lack of any direct election of party leaders who become heads of state. The system also promotes fragmentation and can produce its own kind of political gridlock, when governments of national unity form out of a country’s two chief rivals. But for progressives in America, parliamentary elections, at both national and state levels, would offer a rich bounty. The left would possess bargaining chips, and possibly in the formation of coalition governments, a seat at the table. However, to introduce parliamentary governance in the U.S. would require constitutional changes that seem highly unlikely, if not inconceivable. It seems easier to imagine the peaceful secession of progressive pieces of the U.S. than to divine how a national constitutional convention would revamp our political structure in ways most progressives deem progressive.
Traditionally, progressives have resigned themselves to their marginalized status by embracing the idea, espoused by Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis in a 1932 dissent, that the states are “laboratories of democracy.” The existence of state governments, Brandeis argued, meant that “a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.” Hence, the conventional wisdom has long been that progressives should seek to capture statehouses or at least win influence in state capitols and innovate at the state level, and then watch as progressive innovations are adopted nationally.
Increasingly, however, states are not laboratories of progressive innovation, but laboratories of conservative reaction. Legislation expanding so-called religious freedom and gun rights have swept through many states, illustrating how the far right incubates reactionary ideas at the subnational level. With the important though limited exceptions of gay rights and marijuana usage, whenever progressive solutions take root in individual states—and they do—they often become trapped in these states. In short, good progressive ideas don’t get adopted at the federal level. Witness the frosty reception given the New York state ban on the environmentally destructive practice of fracking, imposed in 2015. Rather than signaling a national ban on fracking, the New York ban remains an isolated success for progressives.
The trend is clear. “The problem is, just when we need their innovative energies, the states are looking less and less likely to be fountainheads of new federal policy over the next generation,” Aaron K. Chatterji, a former economic adviser to President Obama, wrote in 2015.
Perhaps the best recent example of how states aren’t any longer laboratories for democracy for the nation comes from California, the richest state by economic activity and largest by population. In 2014, California enacted a 1 percent surcharge on incomes over $1 million; the surcharge comes on top of progressive tax rates that rise from 9.3 percent on incomes above $260,000 to 12.3 percent on incomes above $520,000. Critics warned of a massive exodus of wealthy people, raising fears of super-talents fleeing Hollywood and Silicon Valley. That hasn’t happened. The wealthy have stayed and the state’s fiscal health and public services have greatly benefited from additional revenues.
Under Brandeis’ logic, Californian’s tax innovation should have taught national lawmakers that higher taxes on the wealthy are the quickest way to improve the fiscal health of the U.S. And despite popular support among California voters, the state’s large and powerful Democratic congressional delegation hasn’t pushed as a priority any similar federal tax increase on the nation’s wealthy. Now, with the election of Trump, the Republican-dominated Congress is expected to cut taxes on the wealthy! In short, despite the support of our nation’s largest, richest state for higher taxes on the wealthy, raising taxes on the wealthy across the U.S. appears politically impossible. So much for California’s influence on the nation.
The situation says much about why p-secession is worth exploring. The election of Trump dramatically shows that the U.S. is not fundamentally a progressive country with periodic lapses of reaction. Rather, the Trump victory demonstrates anew the brittleness, shallowness and bankruptcy of the influential view, first expressed by the late historian Eric F. Goldman in a 1952 book, that American reformers have a“rendezvous with destiny.” From the vantage point of 2016 and a Trump electoral victory, American reformers instead seem to have a date with the dung-heap of history. Under this alternate reading of American history, the nation is basically a profoundly conservative polity with occasional lapses of progressivism and reform.
The second stubborn reality about secession is that, historically, the impulse to break up the Union is synonymous with reactionary forces. Secessionists in the American past have been the slaveholder, the racist, the bigot and the violent extremist. Since the run-up to the Civil War and President Lincoln’s insistence that the American Union must be held together at any cost, promotion of secession has been viewed as fundamentally right-wing. After all, defenders of the South’s withdrawal from the U.S. were slaveholders bent on protecting the odious institution of human bondage. The cost of preserving the union, for progressives, was the bloodiest war in human history (up to that point). The Civil War, decisively won by the North, resulted in a U.S. national government that was (from the 1880s to the 1950s) insidiously controlled by the political heirs of the former secessionists. Southern politicians defiantly opposed social reforms and “massively resisted” racial equality at a cost in justice for all Americans that is often lost on enthusiasts of President Lincoln.
The Civil War haunts Americans, and tempts enthusiasts of secession. Despite the passage of 150 years, the distinctive regional society and subculture of the American South and Southwest continues to challenge the emergence of a national political consensus around crime and punishment, natives and immigrants, the role of government and the power of the private sector. As the Economistmagazine observed in an April 4, 2015 survey of the U.S. titled, “The Present Past,” the former Confederate states persist in following an exceptional sociopolitical trajectory:
“Today, only five states have no minimum wage laws; all were Confederate 150 years ago. Of the ten states that lock up the highest proportion of their citizens, seven were Confederate. A further two that make the top ten—Oklahoma and Arizona—were created since 1865 and settled in the late 19th century by southerners escaping the depression that followed defeat. In only 12 states do most residents think abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. Five were in the Confederacy.”
“That a war that cost over 600,000 lives should leave scars is unsurprising,” the Economist conceded, and then added, “What is strange is that the line that divided the Union from the Confederacy should still be so visible, even though the South has long since been transformed by civil rights and air conditioning.”
Demonizing secession, it turns out, carries large costs for progressives. A leading thinker on the morality of secession, Allen Buchanan, a philosopher at Duke University, has written, “Because many, perhaps most, Northerners believed that the primary if not the exclusive war aim was to preserve the Union (and that, as Lincoln actually said, abolition of slavery was justified only as a means towards that end), it is not surprising that the commitment to improving the condition of blacks waned once the crisis of disunion was past. My sense is that most Americans to this day have not squarely faced the moral issues raised by Southern secession.”
The association of right-wing extremism and the secessionist ideal is documented. A survey by Reuters in September 2014 found that one in four Americans responded favorably to the question, “Do you support or oppose the idea of your state peacefully withdrawing from the United States of America and the federal government?” The majority of the yea-sayers identified themselves as Republicans. “Secession got more support from Republicans than Democrats,” Reuters reported, “more from right- than left-leaning independents, more from younger than older people, more from lower- than higher-income brackets, more from high school than college grads. But there was a surprising amount of support in every group and region, especially the Rocky Mountain states, the Southwest and the old Confederacy, but also in places like Illinois and Kansas. And of the people who said they identified with the Tea Party, supporters of secession were actually in the majority, with 53 percent.”
While the Reuters poll actually found that only 9 percent of those surveyed had “strong support” for some form of secession, the fascination with the S-word among right-wingers ranges far and wide. Douglas MacKinnon, a former speechwriter for presidents Reagan and Bush last fall published The Secessionist States of America, on the merits of forming a new nation from the old confederacy. MacKinnon argues that secession is permitted by the constitution and that Lincoln erred in going to war against the Southern secessionists.
Meanwhile, self-styled libertarians held a conference on secession in 2015, where organizers advanced an idea they called “libertarian secession.” One of the organizers, Llewellyn Rockwell Jr., a former staff member to retired Congress member Ron Paul said,
“For a century and a half, the idea of secession has been systematically demonized among the American public. The government schools spin fairy tales about the ‘indivisible Union’ and the wise statesmen who fought to preserve it. Decentralization is portrayed as unsophisticated and backward, while nationalism and centralization are made to seem progressive and inevitable. When a smaller political unit wishes to withdraw from a larger one, its motives must be disreputable and base, while the motivations of the central power seeking to keep that unit in an arrangement it does not want are portrayed as selfless and patriotic, if they are considered at all.”
Influential readings of the Civil War and postwar Reconstruction—that the fight to maintain the Union, however bloody, was just and that integrating the South back into the Union, however imperfectly, was the right thing to do—continue to shape current thinking on secession. However, now the roles are reversed. Once right-wingers fantasized about the South winning the Civil War and remaining independent; today, knowing progressives imagine the opposite, the North winning the war and refusing to take back the South.
Lefties now vividly see the possibility that Lincoln, however much a hero and a charismatic authority, may have erred in waging war on the South in the first place. Among the most appealing examples of counter-history is to imagine the political trajectory of a North and a West, unhinged from the reactionary South, and becoming over the late 19th and 20th centuries the kind of social democracies that have thrived in northern Europe. Instead Southern Democrats suffocated progressive policies until a brief opening in the 1960s. Once again, the South and Southwest, now under the dominion of the Republican and Tea parties, continue to constrain if not cancel reform energies.
Today, the situation looks bleak for progressives. Federal courts now impose their activist, backward agenda over the will of the people and even the votes of elected representatives. The Supreme Court, led by Republican-appointee John Roberts, and about to be reshaped by a Trump presidency, provides vivid illustrations of why progressives need to embrace the S-word, if not on moral grounds then for tactical gain. What could be less democratic than declaring the voting rights act illegal, though the act was overwhelmingly passed by Congress. The same judicial overthrow of democratic legislation occurred when the court tossed out campaign-finance restrictions that were widely approved of by lawmakers and citizens alike.
The usual response to flagrantly bad Supreme Court decisions is patience. Democrats are expected to wait their turn. Legislative action, ever since Franklin D. Roosevelt tried unsuccessfully to add new members to the Supreme Court in order evade Republican opposition to his Depression-fighting policies, has been viewed as a fool’s errand; the court itself has the authority to abolish such reforms even if legally enacted.
The lone route open to radical critics of the court is constitutional change. A limit on the age of judges could be proposed, for instance, and would require (as would any constitutional change) approval by two-thirds of the state legislatures. Reaching the threshold seems impossible—so impossible, actually, that by contrast secession of states and localities wishing to evade the Supreme Court’s right-wing domination would seem to offer a smoother path.
For progressives, advancing their own approaches to talking about progressive secession may bring two benefits. The first is tactical. The far-right increasingly presents withdrawal from the U.S. as a viable alternative form of opposition to American policies and practices they reject. Favorites to massively resist are gay rights, immigrant rights, higher taxes on the wealthy, and environmental measures in response to climate change. Can progressives give right-wingers a dose of their own medicine? Can we encourage right-wing secessionists to make good on their dare with the knowledge that, in departing, these radical conservatives would leave the U.S. with its liberal and reform-oriented states in possession of greater power?
So the first tactical outcome could be for progressives to loudly cheer when right-wingers and libertarians openly express their yearning to secede. Why not encourage these right-wing secessionists to act on their dare. “Please leave,” we might shout from the rooftops. “We’re better off without you.”
The benefits aren’t merely that a rump U.S. consisting of the wealthiest and most educated states would enact social democratic policies at home and progressive policies abroad. There would also likely be economic benefits.
The federal tax code currently redistributes money from rich liberal states to poorer conservative states. The pattern has gone on for decades, according to the most reliable study by the Tax Foundation, which analyzed results from 1980 to 2005. Most states in the Northeast, around the Great Lakes and on the West Coast paid more federal taxes than they got back. Most Sunbelt states received more federal taxes than they paid in. The swings are rather large. Californians and New Yorkers paid from $1,300 to $2,200 more than they got back. Louisianans and Alabamans got back in spending $3,800 and $4,200 per resident.
The numbers tell a story. Progressives not only suffer politically from right-wing states, they subsidize government services for them. One benefit of progressive states’ threat to withdraw from the union might be to move right-wing politicians toward the center.
How might progressive secessionists get attention? Ballot measures may provide the smoothest path. Elsewhere in the world, secession is more firmly on the political agenda. Scottish voters last year rejected, in a binding plebiscite, the choice of separating from Britain. Binding ballots, however, simply mask the host of complexities that separating a region or state from a large political body would involve. More sensible are non-binding votes, such as the ballot held by the Catalan region of Spain. More than 2 million people expressed their preferences on two questions; whether they wanted Catalonia to be a state and whether they wanted that state to be independent. Four out of five voters said yes to both.
The Catalan vote sent a symbolic message to a central Spanish government that for decades has ignored specific needs of the discontented region, which includes the city of Barcelona. Might states such as California or Oregon, which hold ballot measures regularly, offer voters a non-binding expression of their preferences? What political leverage might accrue after a majority of voters in California—home to Silicon Valley and Hollywood—expressed various levels of interest in separating from the rest of the U.S.?
Sub-states are already viewing secession talk as a way to express discontent with the rightward turn in American politics. Activists in the progressive rump of Arizona, around Tucson, have periodically raised the possibility of finding an exit from their red state. Last October, the mayor of South Miami cast the deciding vote in a measure that calls for splitting Florida into two states. South Florida would contain the endangered coastal parts of this polarized state in the hopes that, having discarded right-wing opponents of climate change, the new state of South Florida could begin taking steps to prevent Miami and other coastal cities from suffering endless rounds of flooding.
For states and counties bordering Canada, there could be symbolic discussions on a merger. Difficult conceptual issues can be explored, such as whether secession is constitutional (legal philosophers disagree) and whether the concept of self-determination, a basic principle of international law, can be applied to sections of American states or sub-states where sentiment in favor of separation runs high but is not unanimous. As Don H. Doyle, a scholar on the subject of secession at the University of South Carolina, wrote in 2010 in his introduction to Secession as an International Phenomenon: “Even if we accept the principle of a people’s right to secede based on just cause or choice, there are practical implications that accompany secession arising from the untidy diversity of human society, which rarely produces homogenous peoples, let alone like-minded populations within clearly defined territories.”
As I insisted at the outset, my aim isn’t to win converts to the secessionist cause, but rather to open progressive minds to the possibility of putting secession on the table of political options. To be sure, there would be a multitude of problems arising from any new political arrangements. Would residents of departing states or regions continue to use the American dollar; receive their Social Security benefits; come under the protective umbrella of the U.S. military? Would dropouts owe money to the national government for past investments?
Trying to settle these questions in advance is far less important than maintaining an open and curious mind to the predicament faced by American progressives; that under no evidence-based scenario do Americans escape a near-future of political polarization, stagnation and dysfunction. By clearing away rubbish and debris that surrounds thinking about secession, progressives can at least begin to seriously discuss reinventing political structures in ways that evade the structural impediments to promoting social justice at home and peaceful coexistence internationally. In short, under the grim circumstances of a Trump-led right-wing takeover of the U.S. government, why not imagine new political arrangements and structures, with talk of progressive secession as one of the drivers for doing so? At the very least, one concrete benefit would be to rescue the S-word from the conservatives and reactionaries who exploit and abuse the secessionist specter to limit and even silence progressive activists.
One final point: Freed from the sour legacy of the Civil War, the idea of secession might regain the gravity, significance and appeal that the concept had for the leaders of the first American revolution in the 1770s. Revolutionary changes in political institutions may be the only antidote for the implosion of American democracy. For talk of secession is, at its core, revolutionary talk. As Thomas Paine observed in 1792 in The Rights of Man, the American Revolution was “a revolution in the principles and practice of government” and not “merely a separation from England.” For progressives, Paine’s point is worth renewing: that the only secession worth presenting as desirable—and worth pursuing as inevitable—is a revolutionary secession, a progressive political breakup of these United States.