The early United States, like the early solar system, was a violent, unstable place. Claims on the land were vague, so states fractured freely. New York tussled with New Hampshire over a territory that would later become Vermont. Georgia calved Alabama and Mississippi. Kentucky spun off from proto-Virginia; Tennessee from proto-North Carolina.
The nation’s borders have long since cooled into place. It’s hard to imagine California splitting into six new states, or Western Maryland divorcing from Annapolis, or Colorado undergoing mitosis. Still, you see secession movements like these popping up everywhere these days, because they serve an underlying truth: Rural and urban America are drifting apart.
Take this latest effort, by a set of New York towns on the Pennsylvania border. Upset by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s hydraulic fracturing ban in December, these places have threatened to abscond for Pennsylvania, which allows fracking. Yesterday, local television station WBNG reported that the Upstate New York Towns Association is preparing research on behalf of 15 municipalities interested in secession.
This rural section of New York, close to Pennsylvania, has suffered acutely in recent decades. Manufacturing has withered and farming is getting tougher. People prayed for a casino to jump-start the local economy, but in December the state gaming board decided not to give them one. Many see these oil and gas wells as their last chance for economic revitalization.
“The Southern Tier is desolate,” one town supervisor told WBNG. “We have no jobs and no income. The richest resource we have is in the ground.”
The association says that tax circumstances might also be better in Pennsylvania.
Nick Barone lives in Deposit, N.Y., a town of 1,712 just five miles from the Pennsylvania border. He’s the president of the town’s chamber of commerce. Most people in Deposit are in favor of fracking, himself included, Barone said. “I just don’t understand why our governor doesn’t want to do it,” he added. “It doesn’t make sense.” News of the secession plan hasn’t yet reached him.
For towns to leave the state would be difficult, requiring buy-in from lawmakers in both New York and Pennsylvania. There’s no guarantee, after all, that Pennsylvania would even want these towns. Congress would probably have to weigh in as well.
Another recent proposal would create an upstate autonomous region called New Amsterdam, with its own governor, supreme court and secretary of state. New York would still exist on paper as one state, but it would function as two.
“It is equally unfair to both upstate and downstate residents to share a representative government,” advocates for the plan explain on their Web site.
And that gets to the crux of the matter. Since the early years of the Constitution, states have retained powers because they are different and should be allowed to govern differently, or so the argument goes. But the real divisions in America now aren’t between the states, but between their urban and rural citizens, groups who face vastly different economic circumstances. Though secession campaigns can seem frivolous — and it’s unlikely that any will succeed — these threats reflect real desperation in rural America.