Will the U.S. Ever See a Strong Secession Movement?

Ten days ago, the Washington Post published an op-ed of mine on whether the United States will ever see a strong secession movement like that in Scotland. I took the “yes” position and also took the opportunity to boost the Free State Project, while also making clear that it does not support secession. While it’s easy to think that current political equilibrium is stable, there are several considerations that make me think the U.S. will eventually (50 years from now, more or less) see a strong secession movement, most of which I mentioned in the piece but some of which I did not, for reasons of space:

  • “Secession” is something of a dirty word in the U.S., but as the memory of the Civil War and the issues that motivated it continue to fade, that opprobrium will too. Already polls show about a quarter of Americans support their own state’s secession.
  • Americans are among the most nationalistic people on earth, and a lot of that has to do with the view that the U.S. is the “indispensable nation,” the global hegemon and a force for good everywhere. That nationalism will fade as U.S. military hegemony does. Eventually U.S. foreign policy will be forced to retrench, either because policymakers foresightedly see that the country cannot afford any longer to account for 40% of the world’s military spending, or because they do not – and economic decline due to the heavy burdens of empire eventually forces a much more rapid retreat. We can look to Great Britain for an example of how national identity changes in the aftermath of global empire.
  • The U.S. is a very large country and growing larger, yet it is also becoming more centralized. The latter trend is unsustainable given the former, as well as global trends toward decentralization. The tensions between growing demand for local autonomy and shrinking supply will eventually force a showdown.
  • Ideological polarization in the U.S. has increased over time and may continue to do so. In the 21st century, deep, irremediable, ideological differences between groups of people are just as likely to provide “cultural foundations” for micronational identities as do language, customs, etc. Scotland’s nationalism is as much based on left-of-center ideology as on its pre-1707 history.
  • The U.S. government won’t attack and kill Americans for pursuing secession peacefully. It will adopt the British solution. In fact, Congress has already recognized Puerto Rico’s right to independence. How could an overseas colony enjoy greater rights than a sovereign state, especially one with the right to secede written into its constitution, like New Hampshire?
  • I don’t say that secession will actually happen in the next 50 years, just that a strong secessionist challenge will emerge. In the end, devolution of power may stave off disintegration. Still, it would be foolish to assert the U.S. will remain whole in its present boundaries until the collapse of the sun.
  • Cultural, economic, and ideological changes have sped up over the course of human history. The world has changed more in the last 50 years than it did in the 50 years before that, and even more than in the 50 years before that, and so on. Yet political institutions don’t adapt with similar speed – at least not smoothly. The gap between people’s expectations of their politics and what their politics can deliver will only widen, until some rupture occurs and a new political equilibrium is reached.

6 thoughts on “Will the U.S. Ever See a Strong Secession Movement?

  1. all your points are valid except for the question they attempt to answer: the country arguably has seen numerous secessionist movements during its history- perhaps there should be an again added at the end.

  2. I’ve recently started to think how a region of the U.S. could secede successfully, for the benefit of deviating from the status quo ante. Do you think the U.S. could have an autonomous region akin to Hong Kong, and work well? I’m most interested how foreign policy for the region could be made. Does an autonomous region make tribute to the empire, etc?

    By the way, I clicked on the picture of your ‘Secessionism’ book, and it seems to be a dead link.

    1. Puerto Rico already has some autonomy that states lack, including exemption from federal income tax (although I believe their exemption from corporate income tax expired a few years ago). Anyway, I think it is certainly possible. Anything is negotiable in politics, as a glance at Canada’s federation will tell you. Quebec is a province like any other but has negotiated special powers on immigration and language, among other things. Usually, foreign policy is the last thing that could be decentralized, as it is the core of state sovereignty. However, Belgium allows its regions to conclude international treaties on matters of exclusively regional competence.

      Thanks for the heads-up on the book link! I will fix it soon.

  3. One has only to look at the map of Europe over the ages to see what must eventually happen. The USA is not forever.

    I think secession will happen when people simply get tired of listening to DC, and stop paying attention to it. It will not necessarily be overt or “de jure”, but instead “de facto”. When the time comes that people say they don’t need DC and don’t get any good from it and want out, that will be about it. No need for armies or negotiations, really. DC will have no means to fight it other than the method London used, and that will stop working when the economy crashes.

    How are you doing lately, Jason? 🙂

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