The 2012 presidential election certainly confirmed that America remains a deeply divided nation: Republican Red States versus Democratic Blue States; the conservatives and radicals of the right versus the progressive and liberals of the left; the (cosmopolitan) coastal states versus the interior (fly-over) states. In addition, there are, of course, a large number of unaffiliated independents who lean one way or the other, depending on the issue and/or the candidate, who are sprinkled throughout the United States.
This divide was reflected in the 2012 popular vote: Obama’s 51 percent versus Romney’s 47 percent; and in the electoral college state breakdown: Obama carried 26 states versus Romney’s 24.
This divide has become increasingly apparent at the Obama White House, which has provided a unique digital forum for all Americans to petition their government: It is called We The People, and it is a place where anyone can start or sign a petition addressing an issue that concerns him or her. According to the site, when 25,000 people have signed a petition, the White House staff will respond. It appears that the White House has responded to some 84 petitions to date.
There is a fascinating array of petitions. But what prompts this column is the notable increase, since the election, in those signing petitions calling for their state to secede from the Union. Secession once divided this nation, and it can only be viewed as the ultimate means for Republicans to obstruct government: by ending it. But resorting to such a radical measure is totally unrealistic, not to mention highly unpatriotic and strikingly illegal. Let’s look at these issues more closely.
The White House Secession Petitions
Following the 2012 elections, the national news media (e.g., The New York Times) reported that the White House’s We The People site had exploded with secession petitioners, so I have been watching the petitions ever since. The site and its search tool leave much to be desired; for me it produced different results on different days. When I checked the site this week, I found secession petitions from twenty-two (22) states containing the signatures of 416,985 petitioners. (Earlier, I had found a few more states but could not get the site to locate more on my last effort, so these are my current findings.)
The petitioner count changes daily, but here are the 22 states I found (listed alphabetically) along with the number of petitioners: Alabama-(30,566), California-(2,345), Connecticut-(3,944), Florida-(35,278), Georgia-(32,425), Hawaii-(4,297), Idaho-(6,479), Iowa-(5,302), Louisiana-(37,404), Maine-(4,366), Maryland-(4,202), Massachusetts -(4,297), New Mexico-(5,405), North Carolina-(30,784), Ohio-(4,811), South Carolina-(25,052), Tennessee -(31,457), Texas-(119,451), Vermont-(2,679), Virginia (combined)-(14,396), Washington-(4,625) and Wisconsin-(7,420)
Ranking these petitions by the number of signatures places them in the following order: Texas (119,451), Louisiana (37,404), Florida (35,278), Georgia (32,425), Tennessee (31,457),North Carolina (30,784), Alabama (30,566), South Carolina (25,052), Virginia (combined petitions-(14,396), Wisconsin (7,420), Idaho (6,479), New Mexico(5,405), Iowa (5,302), Ohio (4,811), Washington (4,625), Maine (4,366), Hawaii (4,297), Massachusetts (4,297), Maryland (4,202), Connecticut (3,944), Vermont( 2,679), and California(2,345).
Only eight states southern states (all former members of the Confederacy) have qualified for a White House response: Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Alabama and South Carolina—but, so far, no response has been forthcoming, and based on other petitions, sometimes it takes awhile.
What These Petitioners Seek
The secession petitions speak for themselves. The preamble wording is virtually identical for each—and by looking at the eight petitions that have qualified for a response, I know more than I really need to. Take Texas’ petition, the one with the most signatures, for example. It states: “We [the undersigned, who use only a first name and initial of the last name, and who may or may not be from Texas] Petition The Obama Administration To: Peacefully grant the State of Texas to withdraw from the United States of America and create its own NEW government.” With only minor variations, all of the other secession petitions employ this wording as well. The next paragraph of the petition then spells out the reason for the petition, and a few differences between the petitioners and the current U.S. government.
The Texas petitioners state: “The US continues to suffer economic difficulties stemming from the federal government’s neglect to reform domestic and foreign spending. The citizens of the US suffer from blatant abuses of their rights such as the NDAA, the TSA, etc. Given that the state of Texas maintains a balanced budget and is the 15th largest economy in the world, it is practically feasible for Texas to withdraw from the union, and to do so would protect it’s [sic] citizens’ standard of living and re-secure their rights and liberties in accordance with the original ideas and beliefs of our founding fathers which are no longer being reflected by the federal government.”
Louisiana, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Alabama petitioners simply quote from the Declaration of Independence; Florida petitioners claim that “…in today’s world the Federal Government has not led our citizens justly and with honor” so “it is time to take matter[sic] upon ourselves to ensure our continued freedom, and to enact our own laws and here buy [sic] govern ourselves…;” and Tennessee’s petition merely states: “Helping the people of Tennessee.” In short, the petitions that have earned a response are less than thoughtfully considered, to say the least.
What, If Anything, Do These Petitions for Secession Mean?
Upon analysis, these petitions have no meaning whatsoever, other than to the few petitioners whom they may make feel good. The President of the United States does not have the power to permit any state to secede, even if every person in a state wished to do so. But clearly, the petitioners are a very, very, very small minority of these petitioning states. Take Texas, again. Although almost 120,000 people have petitioned for secession on behalf of Texas (not all, however, are citizens of Texas) it is a state with a population approaching 26 million people. The Texas secession petitioners are thus far too few in number to represent anything about Texas, and this is also the case with all 22 secession petitions.
In fact, the secession petitions tell us less than does polling on this subject, which at least theoretically is based on a representative sampling of the population of the state or nation, or of those who belong to the GOP. Polling shows the following: Only some 24 percent of Americans think states can secede—six percent fewer than believe space aliens have visited us. Post-election, twenty-five percent of Republicans would now like their state to secede from the Union, although almost 60 percent of Republicans do not want such an extreme reaction to occur. This same poll also had forty-nine percent of the GOP blaming ACORN (which went out of existence in 2010) for the Obama win in 2012.
Given the fact that the secession petitions began to appear on the White House’s We The People site right after the election, they clearly are primarily the work of GOP extremists, protesting the election results. This kind of protest, of course, is not new. Sore losers always say that they want to leave the United States. Unfortunately, they never actually do. And anyone who has not noticed the racist tone of the comments made by many of President Obama’s detractors is living in denial.
UK-based historian Timothy Stanley (a student of American conservatism) believes that the new secessionists are mostly “conservatives who feel emasculated,” those who believed Mitt Romney’s infamous claim that “47 percent” do not pay taxes rather live off government handouts, thus those “who see themselves as disadvantaged by the redistributive federal state: as taxpayers bled dry by freeloaders, and businesspeople penalized by liberal regulation.” Thus, as CNN described it, this view the petitions represent a cry of rage. Or, as I might state the point a bit differently, if you’ve ever heard these people (and I have heard too many) it is more of their ongoing tantrum.
The secession efforts will mean more incivility, which in itself is a tactic embraced by many conservatives. (I have written at length, in many articles and a book, about the authoritarian conservative personality. Those with this personality type easily adopt ideas like secession, and then strike out at those who see the world differently from the way they do.) Unfortunately, the secessionists have provoked too many opponents to viciously belittle them, which is neither necessary nor productive, because the secession fantasy is going nowhere; thus, the secessionists’ opponents should save their energy for more productive undertakings. Secession will never happen, because it is illegal, notwithstanding opinions to the contrary by those—including a few law professors—who incorrectly claim that secession is not addressed by the U.S. Constitution and, therefore, it is possible.
Secession Is Patently Unconstitutional
It is true, of course, that the word “secession,” as well as the concepts relating to it, are not mentioned anywhere in the Constitution. It is also true, as a few historians and law professors have argued, that the Civil War itself did not resolve the issue of legality of secession, but only established that those states that had seceded were defeated by the Union Army, and returned to the Union. Yet those that believe the secession issue is unresolved can only do so by ignoring the Constitution as amended by the post-Civil War Fourteenth Amendment. It was the Civil War AND the Fourteenth Amendment, together that have definitively resolved the issue.
I am not going to summarize the overwhelming academic and scholarly analysis that shows that secession is illegal. Rather, allow me to direct readers to a recent symposium on this issue that occurred at the University of Akron School of Law, and more particularly, on the essay by UC Berkeley Law School Professor, Daniel Farber, on “The Fourteenth Amendment and the Unconstitutionality of Secession.“ For a more general legal analysis, see Adam Cohen’s essay that focuses on Texas’s leading effort to secede. Or take it from Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who explained to a screenwriter: “If there was any constitutional issue resolved by the Civil War, it is that there is no right to secede. (Hence, in the Pledge of Allegiance, ‘one Nation, indivisible.’)”
I particularly enjoyed that Cohen, in turn, cited a piece in The New Republic by Chuck Thompson, the author of Better Off Without ‘Em: A Northern Manifesto for Southern Secession, entitled “Go Ahead and Secede, Texas. I Dare You.” Thompson argues that the utopian “small government” world of which Texans, if not all secessionists, fantasize already exists.
To largely paraphrase Thompson, it is a place rich in natural resources with vast potential wealth; it has a small federal government with limited power and little influence over its citizens; extremely weak trade unions; an extremely pro-business federal government; only nominal income taxes; very few immigrants; a dominant (70 percent) Christian population; no mandatory health insurance; a highly anti-homosexuality tradition; and a constitution that expressly forbids same-sex marriage. There, too, there are guns, lots of guns and automatic weaponry that is easily available, if not ubiquitous.
This dreamland of conservatives is called the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Chuck Thompson would provide free, one-way tickets there to Texas secessionists. I’d opt for a broader solution: free passage to all would-be secessionists, regardless of the state in which they reside.