We know that we live in weird times. Especially for us foreigners, however, it is almost unfathomable to see images of American demonstrators waving placards in support of “Texit” or a new California republic. When half the developing world is struggling to get to the U.S., still perceiving it as a paradise on earth, how can the word “secession” have made it even as far as the margins of political debate?
Yet a recent University of Virginia poll found that 52% of Donald Trump voters now “somewhat” favor Republican-controlled states “seceding from the union to form their own separate country,” while 41% of Joe Biden voters adopt the same stance about blue states.
Last year, the conservative George Mason University law professor Frank Buckley published a book arguing that the U.S. is “ripe for secession … There’s much to be said for an American breakup.” Meanwhile, left-winger Richard Kreitner, a contributor to the Nation, authored “Break It Up,” which asserts that Americans must finish the work of post-Civil War Reconstruction or “give up on the Union entirely.”
There is a growing literature of neo-secessionism on the political right, from such bodies as Glenn Beck’s Blaze Media and the Claremont Institute. “We have in America today what are, essentially, two competing, radically different mutually exclusive conceptions of the Good, of justice, and of the proper role of the state in its interactions with its citizens,” writes Claremont’s David Reaboi.
“If we disagree on these big things — which will necessarily manifest in every political issue, large or small,” he adds, “what strong force could possibly reunite us? Or, to ask a question that’s perhaps more pertinent — maybe not today or tomorrow, but soon: what force could keep us from coming apart?”
This seems an important and also chilling statement. Reaboi is an extreme conservative voice, but in the eyes of many outsiders, it is that of the entire Republican Party. Its definition of truth seems something entirely different from that of Democrats, perhaps irreconcilably so.
Some Canadian friends, serious people who are not in the least sensationalist-minded, told me this week that they are getting sincerely nervous about possibilities that beckon if Donald Trump or a Trump clone becomes president in 2024. They ask: could violence erupt, and secession become a serious issue? What might that mean for Canada, where Quebec is already halfway out of the nation, and Alberta is playing with such an idea ?
Before considering the past and the future, let us acknowledge that we are talking possibilities, not probabilities, none of them immediate. But in the past half century we have seen so many astounding things happen, most of them scarcely predicted, that it seems foolish to rule out anything.
Because our own memories are relatively short, we forget how much the borders of many nations have surged and ebbed, sometimes shifted by external aggression, more often by the desires of segments of their own people. Take Pakistan. When India was partitioned before the departure of the British in 1947, a single state was forged from the Muslim northwest and eastern Bengal, the two portions geographically separated by more than 1,000 miles.
As a BBC TV reporter a quarter century later, I was a witness to the colossal political upheavals in East Pakistan — the explosion of a separatist movement that provoked brutal repression by West Pakistan, then the war in which India joined with the separatists to expel the western army, and finally the creation of the new state of Bangladesh, today with a population of 165 million people.
Closer to home for me, being British, is the Irish independence struggle that has played a bloody role in our history, and is not yet entirely ended. For four centuries, our monarchs and later politicians regarded “the British Isles” as an inseparable whole, and suppressed Irish freedom movements with ferocity. In the early 20th century, the U.K. Conservative Party supported Ulster Protestants in threatening to resist, by force of arms, the Liberal government’s proposals to grant Irish home rule.
Why did they adopt this reckless, unconstitutional view? Because those Tory grandees believed that if Ireland broke away, it would signal the beginning of the collapse of the Empire. They so far secured their purpose, that to this day the rump of Protestant-dominated Northern Ireland remains attached to Britain, and a focus of political strife, with a shaky peace imperiled by Brexit.
There are many other examples of modern states uniting and breaking asunder. Think of the Soviet Union, which splintered three decades ago, and which Russian President Vladimir Putin aspires to reassemble. Czechoslovakia was created in October 1918, amid the ruins of the Hapsburg Empire, then in 1993 split into Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Norway was united with Denmark for four centuries, until in 1814 it was instead joined with Sweden. That marriage ended in a peaceful 1905 divorce.
Many states whose boundaries were set by European colonial powers have since revisited them, or are today attempting to do so. Singapore was ruled by the British as part of Malaya for well over a century, and became part of independent Malaysia in 1963. Two years later, following ethnic strife between Malays and Singapore’s dominant Chinese, the island was expelled from Malaysia, and has prospered mightily as an independent republic ever since.
The above should represent enough history to remind us how fluid national borders can be, even before we start talking about Spain’s Catalan separatist movement, France’s seesaw relationship with Alsace-Lorraine, or the doubtful prospects of Nigeria remaining a unitary nation, save by force of arms. Even now, Ethiopia is riven by bloodshed between the rival forces of the Tigray, Amhara and Afar regions.
Why should the U.S. be different? That may seem an absurd question, especially compared with the post-colonial breakups mentioned above. But consider: For the past 250 years, America has relentlessly expanded, as ever more people sought the privilege of participation in one of the most successful economic, political and social experiments in the history of the planet. Think Texas and the West; the transition of so many territories into states (celebrated exuberantly and unforgettably, in the case of Oklahoma in 1907, by Rodgers & Hammerstein); the accessions of Alaska and Hawaii. (In 1946, some Sicilians even petitioned President Harry Truman to allow their island to join the U.S.)
Why couldn’t this expansion be partially reversed? The U.S. has always been riven by political fissures, profound divergences of view about how different regions’ citizens wish to live. For more than two centuries, the things that bind Americans together have proved greater than those dividing them. But if that changes, it’s possible that some portions of the country may decide to go their own way, most obviously California, with the fifth-largest economy in the world.
To have any prospect of rebuilding a peaceful center in American politics, a critical first step — again, in the eyes of outsiders — must be the disarmament of the citizenry, which is not going to happen. Moreover, however the issue is dressed up, at the heart of America’s divide is the issue of race, or white tribalism, a polarization getting unimaginably worse than I could have believed possible when I lived in an increasingly liberal mid-1960s America.
New kinds of segregation movements are emerging, some of them created by the left. California, New York, Minnesota, Vermont and Connecticut restricted commerce with North Carolina after it passed legislation requiring people to use public bathrooms based on their birth gender. California also barred state-sponsored travel by its employees to states deemed to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender residents.
Such a swell of anger is running that it’s impossible to predict where it might end. Hundreds of millions of us around the world have no votes to cast, but by gosh we have a dog in the fight, because the U.S. is the only superpower we have got, to serve as standard-bearer for the Free World, against ever-more assertive authoritarian powers, China and Russia foremost among them.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Putin would, of course, welcome a secession. The Russians, through their online offensives, promote every form of disruption in the Western world, including tensions in the union.
Prominent among the reasons I opposed Britain’s exit from the European Union was the likelihood that the issue would hijack our politics for a generation, for scant advantage. So it is proving. The same objection applies to the possible — even probable — departure of Scotland from the U.K.: Our government would get nothing done for years, save argue with Edinburgh over the division of assets and resources.
The same would apply, in spades, in the event of a secession of a U.S. state. The vastness of the free trade area that is America has been a critical force in forging its dynamic, building its economic might.
Yet arguments of this kind carry little weight with secessionists. Texan Nationalist Movement organizer Joe Shehan says: “I see Texit more as a way of kind of creating … a bulwark or a bastion or a haven that can stop the slide into chaos, because that’s where I see it’s going … I have three daughters, but I have 64 sons because I’m a coach … I care about them and I care about their families.”
State nationalists are still inspired by the 1836-44 Texas Republic experiment that began with the stand of William B. Travis, Jim Bowie, Davy Crockett and some 200 others at the Alamo. Yet historians chiefly remember independent Texas as having reintroduced slavery, abolished by Mexico, and perpetrated brutal violence toward Mexicans and indigenous people.
If the enthusiasts for Texit ever get their way, the U.S. will wave goodbye to 29 million people and the ninth-largest economy in the world, along with almost 40% of U.S. oil production and a quarter of its natural gas.
Yet there are moments in history when passions trump — no tasteless pun intended — not merely national interest but also self-interest, logic, reason. One of my favorite historians, the Canadian Margaret MacMillan, believes that sustained periods of peace and prosperity promote a self-indulgence that can do untold harm to societies. It may be that we are today facing such a threat. People begin to suppose that they can have all the political stuff they want cost-free, in the fashion that Britain’s Brexiters deluded themselves when they voted five years ago to leave the EU. Alas, it ain’t so.
Plainly, no secession in the U.S. is imminent. But such a development has become conceivable, as it certainly was not as recently as the turn of the millennium. Its cost, were it to come about, would be vastly higher not merely for the U.S. but for the entire Western world than any mere breakup of the U.K., or even of the European Union.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Max Hastings is a Bloomberg columnist. He was previously a correspondent for the BBC and newspapers, editor in chief of the Daily Telegraph, and editor of the London Evening Standard. He is the author of 28 books, the most recent of which are “Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy” and “Chastise: The Dambusters Story 1943.”
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