The Logic of Secession

The Logic of Secession: Three Tines to a Trident

By Kirkpatrick Sale, November 15, 2007

 “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.  Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.”
Margaret Mead, who died on this day in 1978, coining the secessionists’ creed.

Because, let’s face it, many people initially regard secession as quite an outlandish idea—they  tried it once before and it didn’t work, goes the refrain—and it’s not always easy to convince people of its validity as a political strategy, I want to lay out the powerful  three-pronged logic of secession that can be used to dispel those doubts and dismissals.

The first tine of the  logic of secession emerged for me from a conference that I put on with Thomas Naylor in Middlebury, Vermont, in the fall of 2004, just after the presidential election, designed to figure out what kind of action could a person take who was seriously interested in working for a fundamental alteration of the national government we suffer under.  Let me tell you how it went.

We began the discussion with the time-old idea of  electoral politics, the traditional panacea of voting for a better Democrat or Republican, in Congress, in the Presidency, wherever, but it took no time for us to reject that as futile: the two main parties, after all, had proved time and again how beholden they were to the corporate masters who pay for their campaigns, and vote. (And they just had just held an election between a goof  and a conman that showed how ineptly that system works.) And we also took little time in rejecting the reformist lobby-Congress trap that so many environmental and  liberal-cause groups spend so much money and effort on, since that was, just trying to influence those same boughten elected officials.

Next we considered the third-party alternative, thinking of Perot’s and Nader’s influence on national politics, and concluded that they did so poorly, despite considerable money and media attention, because the two major parties had essentially rigged the system so that outsiders couldn’t win.  Besides, launching a party and fighting an election on a national scale if it stands any chance at all involves getting money and support from the same kinds of people and organizations that contribute to the other parties, and in the process becoming beholden to them.

So if reformism in all its guises is rejected, what other means of action for serious change?  There’s always revolt and revolution, of course, but it didn’t take much deliberation to decide that there was no way, even if there were trained militia bands and some weaponry smuggled in by separatist sympathizers in Canada, that a serious revolution could be mounted in this country today.  And no reason to doubt that Washington would use its most potent weaponry to crush it if it arose.

And so that leaves secession—instead of reforming or attacking the corrupt and corporatist system, leave it.  At first glance, it seemed like a crazy idea to many, and maybe as dangerous as a revolution—after all, the last time anybody in this country seceded, they were ruthlessly attacked and their society eventually destroyed. But the more we considered it the more it seemed like a reasonable option, particularly if it was done peaceably and openly, with full democratic support of the people.

It is, to begin with, in the grand American tradition—the war of the colonies against the British empire was not a war of revolution, for no one wanted to take over London, but of secession, for leaving the empire; and there was even a peaceable tradition of it afterward, for Maine seceded from Massachusetts peaceably, Tennessee from North Carolina,  and Kentucky and West Virginia from Virginia.

It also could justifiably be seen as legal and constitutional, since three of the colonies wrote provisions allowing them to secede before joining the Union, there is nothing in the Constitution forbidding it, and the fact that Congress considered passing a law against it in 1861 but failed to do so indicates it was not then considered unlawful. (There is the uncomfortable fact that, in Texas v. White, in 1869, the Supreme Court did declare that the union was indivisible—but that was a decision, rendered in the heat of the time just after the war, that totally ignored history and precedent, and could be overturned by any halfway skillful argument, if the justices were  allowed to vote honestly.)

It could be done practically and democratically, either by a vote among all citizens of voting age with, say, a two-thirds majority, or by a two-thirds (or other large) vote of the legislature of a state.  Upon such a vote and a declaration of independence delivered to Washington, a seceding state could immediately appeal to the world, apply to the United Nations, and seek diplomatic support particularly from the fifteen republics that seceded from the Soviet Union and the seven nations that seceded from Yugoslavia, plus Norway (which seceded from Sweden), Belgium (from the Netherlands), Singapore (from Malaysia), Slovenia and the Czech Republic, plus all the colonies that declared independence from European empires.

And its especial attraction would be that not only does it allow a state (or region) to remove itself from the taxes, regulations, entangling alliances, bloated bureaucracy, militarized culture, and corrupting forms of governance of the national government, it allows a state to regain some measure of democracy, some hands-on control over the decisions that effect its life.

We ended our conference with a strong feeling that secession was a very powerful tool for promoting self-determination, democracy, and independence, but also a powerful idea that could spread widely throughout this continent, as it has spread widely throughout the world since 1945.

And that is the second prong to the logic of secession:  the separatist/secessionist movement is the most important and widespread political force in the world today and has been for the last half-century, during which time the United Nations, to take one measure, has grown from 51 nations in 1945 to 193 nations in 2007. The break-up of the Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia are recent manifestations of this fundamental trend, and there are separatist movements in more than two dozen countries at this time, including such well-known ones as the Basque country, Catalonia, Scotland, Lapland, Belgium, Sardinia, Sicily, Sudan, Eritrea, Congo, Kashmir, Sri Lanka, Chechnya, Kurdistan, Quebec, British Columbia, and among several of  the Indian nations of North America. (Indeed, economist Milica Bookman wrote a decade ago that no more than 25 nations were free of secessionist or territorial disputes!)

It is also growing in the United States.  The Middlebury Institute was created in the wake of the 2004 conference—the first think tank in North America devoted to the study of  separatism, secession, and self-determination—and according to its survey there are already at least 31 separatist organizations in this country. The most active seem to be in Alaska, Cascadia, California, Texas, Hawai’i, Vermont, Puerto Rico, South Carolina, and the South as a whole, but there are nascent nuclei of organizations in Kentucky, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, and probably others that we don’t yet know about.  We have just completed—the thought of such an event would have been extraordinary only a decade ago—the Second Secessionist Convention—a  convention, not a conference because it was attended by about 20 delegates from 15 ongoing secessionist groups in 25 states, as well as attracting something like 40 observers, something on the order of a dozen members of the press, and generating more than 50 TV and radio interviews.

Some other measures of this growing movement:

1. A poll taken by the University of Vermont in February of this year  found that 13 per cent of the state’s residents came right out and said “it would be a good idea for Vermont to secede from the United States and become once again an independent republic as it was from 1777 to 1791.” Thirteen per cent—that may not seem a lot at first, but it translates to 64,400 people of voting age in the population at large—and it is up from 8 per cent in the previous year.

And another question from the UVM poll indicates that there is more fertile ground for it.  When asked, “Has the United States government lost its moral authority?” a surprising 74.3 per cent said yes, an indication that attachment to the government is clearly eroding.  It was the loss of moral authority that played a large part in the downfall of the apartheid government in South Africa, the communist regimes in Eastern Europe, and  the Soviet Union itself.  When the center cannot hold—allegiance, loyalty, moral authority—things fall apart.

2. The Washington Post in early April carried an op-ed article by two distinguished Vermonters, entitled “The Once and Future Republic of Vermont,” arguing that Vermont should again be an independent republic as it was in the 18th century before joining the union. According to an editor there, it was the second-most read piece in the entire Sunday paper (12,000 hits on-line) and garnered more than 200 emails, considered a high rate of response.  It was syndicated cross-country and exploded with 21,000 entries on the internet.

3. A Daily Kos poll on April 2 asked, “Should states be allowed to secede from the union peaceably?” and 65 per cent answered affirmatively—which is interesting especially because it is conventional liberals, of the kind that this blog mostly attracts, who usually believe in working within the system—they like government, and want to control it—and are not often fans of secession.  A previous poll in 2005 showed only 53 per cent in favor of secession.

4.  A poll of Americans by the Opinion Research Corporation and broadcast by CNN in October 2006 found that an amazing 71 per cent of Americans said that “the system of government is broke and can’t be fixed.”  No reformists there: can’t be fixed. And an additional 11 per cent agreed it is broke but thought it might be fixed.  That’s almost three-fourths of the American public that does not believe this country is working and cannot get working by any means available.  What is that but a latent horde of secessionists?

So there is a movement, and it is growing, but I would not argue that it will be easy to win our fellow citizens to secession despite the overwhelming logic in its favor.  It will be a difficult transition for many, it will take a period of scholarship and investigation, a period of laying out our dreams in concrete form, a period of testing popular waters, a period of simply selling the soundness of the goal and the sense of its achievement.

But it well may be—I am convinced it will be—that the three impending disasters of peak oil, climate change, and a collapsing dollar will work in our favor and provide the third tine of the logic of secession. Peak oil and $10-15-a-gallon gasoline prices will bring to an end the era when goods from overseas or even from distant parts of the country can be shipped economically.  It will mean that the national economy will be essentially irrelevant, and people will have to live within a smaller compass, share with neighbors, and create economies that are heavily dependent on state or possibly regional self-sufficiency—just the conditions which favor independent states.

Add to that the effects of climate change, and the whole fossil-fuel binge will have to come to a halt, coastlines will become flooded and the national government will be helpless to do anything about it, agriculture will have to adjust to very different local temperatures and conditions, and severe weather will create crises that (as Katrina made clear once again) can be attended to only at a local and state level—again, just the conditions which favor independent states.

The third predictable crisis is the collapse of the American dollar, squeezed by a national debt of almost $9 trillion that shows no sign of declining—in fact rising enormously since 1995 and precipitously since 2002—and by a trade deficit of $545 billion that a weaker dollar is not going to do much to change.  Whether the trigger will be China’s switch to euro investments, or Iran and Saudi Arabia’s opting for a petro-euro instead of a petro-dollar, or a general worldwide distrust of the American cockeyed economy, is hard to say—but it could be one or all, and our economic bubble will collapse in a heap.  And then the only useful currencies will be those based on real worth, calculated at a basically local level, and precious metals, which are primarily useful at local levels as well.

So there it is—and I am not the only one thinking this way, I hasten to say (just google peak oil, for example)—a  fairly wide circle of analysts who are predicting that, one way or another, and in the near future of say 15, 20 years, some kind of serious social collapse is likely and a weakened national government will in many respects become basically irrelevant.  Given that, doesn’t it make sense to be prepared for it by working now for secession and planning viable states that can stand on their own—proudly, safely, and securely on their own?  That is, again, the overriding logic of secession.

And lastly, let me repeat a thought that always works for me in convincing others of the logic of secession:  the only way to leave this country, this increasingly odious, inept, militarized, and repressive country, and still to live in the home and community you love… is secession.