Column: Are Republicans serious about a secession movement?
Rush Limbaugh, conservative bigot and Medal of Freedom recipient, dropped a little bomb on his listeners the other day.
Bemoaning the fact that Republicans have not only lost the presidency but the culture wars as well, he said, “I actually think that we’re trending toward secession. I see more and more people asking what in the world do we have in common with the people who live in, say, New York? ... There cannot be a peaceful coexistence of two completely different theories of life, theories of government, theories of how we manage our affairs. We can’t be in this dire a conflict without something giving somewhere along the way.”
If you haven’t been paying attention, you might think that secession is an extreme and seditious idea that began and ended with the Civil War. It’s not. Talk of secession and threats of secession have been a feature of American life almost since the republic was formed, and they have continued to this day. But, as we see from their notable lack of success, breaking up is hard to do.
In the last few years alone, Californians angry about the Trump administration’s racist, xenophobic, isolationist, anti-environmental policies have suggested that our fair state would be better off as its own nation. After all, we’d have the world’s fifth largest economy, the brightest minds (except for Devin Nunes) and the best natural resources.
And we even have a hashtag: #Calexit
Texas Republicans, who just lost their bid to have the Supreme Court overturn the legitimate results of our recent presidential election, talk constantly about secession. They call it #Texit.
In 2009, at a tea party rally where his supporters chanted, “Secede! Secede!” then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry suggested his state might consider leaving the union. “If Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what might come out of that?” Later, he said he was joking.
But just this week, a Texas state representative announced he’d file a bill that would allow a referendum on secession. This would be a symbolic vote only. After the Civil War, in a case out of — where else? — Texas, the Supreme Court ruled that no state can unilaterally secede.
Seems sort of, I don’t know, treasonous to advocate breaking away from the union.
But most people don’t get too worked up about it. After all, the phenomenon is part of the American DNA, said journalist and historian Richard Kreitner, who explores the issue in his new book “Break It Up: Secession, Division and the Secret History of America’s Imperfect Union.”
Think about it: “George Washington was a traitor to his country,” said Kreitner. “The American Revolution was a secessionist movement. We all have a tortured relationship to secession because the country was founded on the act of secession and this is why it’s always an available option.”
Secession, he said, “is an expression of nationalism, in a certain way. If you have strong opinions about what the country’s purpose is supposed to be, you are the most stalwart of patriots, but the moment it’s not going your way, you turn against it. That’s what we are seeing with people like Rush Limbaugh, who were patriots until they weren’t.”
The very name of our country, the United States of America, invites the possibility of its opposite.
“It’s an awkward name for a country,” said Kreitner. “Unlike France or Spain or Mexico, it’s a claim. The name is an invitation to imagine the very breakup of this thing that is supposed to be permanent and solid.”
And so many over the years have imagined exactly that.
“Whenever divisions become especially stark,” Kreitner writes in “Break It Up,” “somebody could be counted on to suggest that the United States shouldn’t exist at all, at least not in the form Americans had come to take for granted.”
Currently, there are calls for Hawaiian independence, Puerto Rican independence and Alaskan independence.
In 1968, at the height of the civil rights movement, a separatist group called the Republic of New Afrika demanded an independent Black state in the South, as a form of reparations for slavery. In 1861, Kreitner writes, the “notoriously corrupt, pro-slavery” mayor of New York City, Fernando Wood, proposed seceding from the Union in order to protect the economic benefits the city reaped from trade with the South.
And then there are always efforts to break California into pieces. The state of Jefferson remains a pipe dream for the conservative separatists of northeastern California. In 2013, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Tim Draper proposed dividing California into six separate states. When he failed to gain enough signatures to get the question on the ballot, he came back in 2018 with a proposal to break the state into three parts. That proposition qualified for the ballot as Proposition 9, only to be removed by the California Supreme Court before voters could weigh in.
The fact that we generally know so little about historical efforts to break up the Union, said Kreitner, is probably due to the human tendency to bury unpleasant parts of our history. “The Civil War was so traumatizing that everyone made a decision, more or less consciously, to repress it, to suppress not only the fundamental issues that led to the Civil War, like white supremacy, but even the possibility of the country coming apart,” said Kreitner.
Recently, though, he thinks that has changed and that secession is not such a far-fetched idea. Maybe not now, but in five or 10 years.
After all, the electoral college has selected a president twice in the last 20 years who has not won the popular vote, and it is likely to do so again one day.
The composition of the Senate perpetuates a lopsided dynamic that gives Wyoming (population 580,000) as much power as California (40 million).
The House of Representatives has been gerrymandered by Republicans to the point of absurdity.
“You could see a blue state like California, or a red state like Texas seek independence,” said Kreitner. “It’s kind of up for grabs who it would be.”
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