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.