The Urge to Secede: A Rebellion in Progress
At least 16 secession organizations are currently organizing throughout the United States and almost a dozen states have active movements. Even more state legislatures are debating laws that could “nullify” federal actions in areas from gun control and health care reform to marijuana possession and overseas troop deployments.
In Alaska, the secessionist Independence Party has been influencing politics for years (Sarah Palin’s husband was a member and she publicly endorsed the party while governor), even though the State Supreme Court held in 2006 that secession is illegal. Hawaii’s sovereignty movement has won some victories, and Georgia’s State Senate passed a resolution in 2009 endorsing the right of states to nullify federal laws. If Congress restricts gun rights, that resolution added, the federal government will cease to exist. Well, at least in their minds.
In April 2009, Texas Governor Rick Perry threatened secession at a Tea Party protest. Afterward, a Rasmussen poll of Texans found that almost one third think the state has the right to secede – although, at this point, only 18 percent would back the move. Long before the Tea Party movement, a 2006 “national” secessionist convention in Vermont attracted indigenous groups, greens and Christian conservatives, libertarians and socialists, as well as the Second Maine Militia, Christian Exodus, the League of the South, and representatives of groups in Alaska, New Hampshire, Hawaii and Texas.
The idea of building a left-right coalition against the forces of centralized power and wealth can be seductive. In Vermont this was briefly attempted before in the late 1970s, with the two ends of the political spectrum finding common ground through the embrace of decentralism. Both factions preferred small scale energy production to mega-plants, widespread ownership of land and business, and removal of “government barriers.”
Things got sticky, however, when the discussion shifted to welfare, environmental regulation, affirmative action, and abortion – none of them trivial topics. The rub is that the same arguments for decentralization and sovereignty that sound progressive in some cases can be used in support of isolationism, unfettered capitalism and discrimination.
In 2003, former Duke University professor Thomas Naylor founded the Second Vermont Republic, a secession movement that has since launched a newspaper, attracted national media attention, and begun to promote candidates and publish transitional plans. The aim is nevertheless to dissolve the United States and, in particular, return Vermont “to its status as an independent republic.”
Lincoln persuaded the public that secession was unconstitutional and immoral, Naylor has noted. “It’s one of the few things that the left and right agree on. We say it’s constitutional – and ultimately it is a question of political will: the will of the people of Vermont versus the will of the government to stop us.”
Most historical and legal authorities say there is no credible historical evidence to support the right to secede, in Vermont or any other state. But the hot issue at this point isn’t whether there is legal authority. It’s why millions of people across the country think this is a reasonable and attractive idea. A 2008 Zogby poll commissioned by the Middlebury Institute, a think tank studying “separatism, secession, and self-determination," indicated that that 22 percent of Americans feel “any state or region has the right to peaceably secede from the United States and become an independent republic.” More than 18 percent told pollsters that they “would support a secessionist effort in my state.” That’s about one in every five people.
The agenda of the Second Vermont Republic leans strongly progressive, including political independence, human scale, sustainability, economic solidarity, power sharing, equal access, tension reduction, and mutuality. Running through it is a strong decentralist thrust. Secession advocate Kirkpatrick Sale describes decentralism as a “third way,” evident in bioregional movements, cooperative and worker-owned businesses, land trusts, farmers markets, and a variety of grassroots initiatives.
A related, predominantly conservative movement is pushing nullification. If the federal government fails to check itself, goes the argument, it’s up to the states to call a halt. This rebellion rests on the theory that the states created the national government. Therefore, they have the right to judge the constitutionality of federal laws and potentially refuse to enforce them. Nullification was used when American Colonists nullified laws imposed by the British. Since then many states have used nullification to limit federal actions, from the Fugitive Slave Act to unpopular tariffs.
Recently, several states have either passed or proposed legislation or constitutional amendments designed to nullify federal laws in the areas of firearms, medical marijuana, and healthcare. Many who support this approach cite the Tenth Amendment to the US Constitution: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
Attempts to discredit nullification activists by branding them as extremists, wingnuts and “tenthers” haven’t dissuaded them thus far. In fact, several state legislatures have introduced 10th Amendment resolutions that serve “Notice and Demand to the federal government, as our agent, to cease and desist, effective immediately, mandates that are beyond the scope of these constitutionally delegated powers.”
They can point to some limited successes. After the REAL ID act was signed by President Bush in 2005, more than two dozen states passed laws or resolutions denouncing it or refusing to comply. In response, the feds postponed its enactment. In Wisconsin, groups like the Grandsons of Liberty have lobbied lawmakers to nullify health care reform by amending the constitution so that the state can opt out. According to the John Birch Society-backed magazine New American, activists in 28 states are involved in similar campaigns.
Concern about guns rights has also fueled the movement. The Firearms Freedom Act (FFA), which challenges the federal government’s authority to regulate firearms, has been passed in Montana and Tennessee, and is under consideration in at least 11 other states. The bill says that firearms made and retained in-state are beyond the authority of Congress under its constitutional power to regulate commerce. The federal position is that such laws are unconstitutional. The Department of Justice has filed a brief in federal court against the FFA.
Another strategy, especially if the federal government tries to block nullification efforts by threatening to withhold funds, is a proposed State Sovereignty and Federal Tax Funds Act, which has been introduced so far in three states. The objective is to place state governments between federal tax collectors and individuals. The goal? Stop the flow of money to the feds before they can use it to intimidate the states. But before things get that far, nullifiers calculate that just the threat of such legislation could be enough to make the feds back down on any threats to cut off funding. We shall see.
It might be convenient to write off the entire thrust of anti-federal government rebellion as a GOP tactic. But it’s not so simple. There are also nullification campaigns to decriminalize marijuana and bring National Guard units home from wars overseas. “Bring the Guard Home” legislation, for example, would require a state’s Governor, and/or the legislature, to evaluate the legality of orders for Guard deployments and give them the chance to allow or deny the deployment.
Progressive educator Ron Miller attempted to define the difference between progressive and conservative activists who favor decentralism and secession in a 2009 article in Vermont Commons, the state secession movement’s house organ. In Vermont, he wrote, supporters of secession are motivated by opposition to war, exploitation, and government violence. These “liberal decentralists” support equality, human and civil rights, nonviolence and multiculturalism. “Conservatism decentralists,” in contrast, are usually free market libertarians who are hostile to cultural change. The former welcome some aspects of the Obama presidency, the latter view it as a deadly threat to liberty and identity.
Left-leaning decentralists face a dilemma, he admitted. Expansion of the federal government had led to social progress in the past, “but always at the cost of siphoning off local, state and regional sovereignty.” There is also the risk that bad leaders will do appalling damage, or that progressive reforms spark such an extreme reaction that civil dialogue is impossible. The federal government hasn’t resolved most conflicts, he wrote. It has merely papered over deeply held but divergent values.
His solution is to have Vermont or a confederation of progressive states break away and “become a model of enlightened governance.” What about conservative, “red” regions? Since past progressive reforms have failed to transform southern culture or conservative populists he suggests leaving them to “live by the values they prefer.”
But isn’t that a way of saying it is acceptable for almost half the US, or half the world, to live under repressive regimes and various forms of fundamentalism? Dilemma indeed.
And could secession actually happen? Not according to at least one US Supreme Court Justice, the conservative Antonin Scalia. In 2006, he responded to a letter from screenwriter Daniel Turkewitz, who was developing a script about a secessionist movement in Maine. He wrote to all of the justices but only Scalia replied. And the message was that a legal showdown in the Supreme Court could never happen. "If there was any constitutional issue resolved by the Civil War,” he said, “it is that there is no right to secede.”
Be that as it may, the Court’s refusal to revisit the issue isn’t likely to quell the anger roiling across the country, or stop various secession, independence and nullification movements from rallying their bases with the hope that they can keep an “evil,” or just morally and economically bankrupt, federal government from seizing more power. Maybe even roll it back. Part of what unites these diverse upsurges is clearly anger; another part is distrust and disbelief. They simply don’t believe in most political institutions anymore, especially “big” government. “Fool me once….”
On the other hand, the left and right are culturally polarized, disagreeing passionately (sometimes even violently) over moral issues, racism, abortion, immigration, climate change, and controlling the distribution of wealth as well as power. In fact, they often perceive very different “realities.” One side believes Obama is a hardcore socialist, maybe even a Muslim Manchurian Candidate. The other thinks he is at best a political sell out, and in some ways just doubling down on the mistakes of the previous administration. One side thinks “global warming” is a hoax and the government should institute literacy tests for voting. The other thinks ecological (or economic) catastrophe is just around the corner, guns should be strictly controlled, and states should seize public resources as “trustees” of the commons.
There is at least some common ground, perhaps beginning with the idea that in the face of oppression (however you define it) withdrawal of consent makes a difference. Disengagement, whether gradual or sudden, is preferable to sticking with the team, staying the course, remaining faithful to a system in which you no longer believe. Even resistance is justified when necessary. Anti-war protestors often use civil disobedience tactics and generally embrace the philosophies of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Tea Party activists have taken selected pages from the same play book, but seem to reject the basic message of tolerance and peace.
Maybe the so-called “extremes,” a disparate collection of “outsider” subcultures and “alternative” movements, can shift what the media like to call the narrative – aka mass perceptions – and work together long enough to sell the idea that it’s time to deconstruct the empire. Game over. Bring down the curtain.
Who Knows? Maybe now is the time, now that the empire is almost out of control and headed for disaster. Imagine the meetings.
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Greg Guma is an author, editor, and former CEO of Pacifica Radio. His books include The People's Republic: Vermont and the Sanders Revolution, Uneasy Empire: Repression, Globalization, and What We Can Do, and Passport to Freedom: A Guide for World Citizens. Listen for his play, Inquisitions (and Other Un-American Activities) on radio stations this spring to commemorate May Day. Greg writes about media and politics on his blog, Maverick Media (http://muckraker-gg.blogspot.com).