Skip to main content

Is secession bid more than a cry of rage?

By Timothy Stanley, Special to CNN
updated 8:59 AM EST, Mon November 19, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Tim Stanley: Secession movement reveals real feelings of some conservatives
  • He says it's not realistic, but still shows far right's feeling of dispossession in U.S. politics
  • He says election stoked idea of two Americas; conservatives fear they are the new minority
  • Stanley: GOP must integrate secession group into mainstream, legitimate politics

Editor's note: Timothy Stanley is a historian at Oxford University and blogs for Britain's The Daily Telegraph. He is the author of "The Crusader: The Life and Times of Pat Buchanan."

(CNN) -- Nothing says "sore loser" like threatening to leave the country after an election defeat. And that's what hundreds of thousands of Americans have done by petitioning for their states' secession on the White House website. It's reminiscent of the great British tradition of right-wing celebrities threatening to leave the UK if the Labour Party wins power. Alas, they never do.

From the demography and geography of the vast majority of signers, it's tempting to conclude that this is just a Republican cry of rage against four more years of President Barack Obama. But it's more significant than that. Strip away the right-wing fantasies about whether or not secession is really possible (it isn't), and you have a movement that testifies to the extraordinary divisions within American politics. The far right feels angry and dispossessed. Rather than getting even, it's threatening to run away.

Timothy Stanley
Timothy Stanley

If it weren't for the sheer number of signatures, the media wouldn't be paying attention. Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana describes the secession movement as "silly" and Gov. Rick Perry of Texas has dismissed it, too.

Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank points out that many of the petitioners live in states that are net beneficiaries of federal largesse: Louisiana gets $1.45 for every $1 it pays in taxes and Alabama gets $1.71 for every $1. Given how much they take from the less mutinous states, he cheekily suggests that the secession petitions "give the opportunity to create what would be, in a fiscal sense, a far more perfect union."

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Meanwhile, The Southern Poverty Law Center notes that the secession effort has attracted a predictable rogues' gallery of racists and neo-Nazis. Given that there was no similar large-scale effort to secede when Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton or George W. Bush won re-election, liberals can't be blamed for detecting a particular white fury at Obama's success.

Legally, secession is impossible, and all attempts to do it have failed. But it's not a philosophically unattractive idea. A democratic society works best when it's rooted in the principle of free association: We all get along with one another because we choose to. Good will is maintained because the individual's membership in the community is voluntary -- were it compulsory, that would breed resentment. But free association only works so long as the individual is free to disassociate when he or she wants.

As with individuals, so with nations. In the case of the United States, the states are historically there by choice. Although there is no mechanism for secession, the generous distribution of powers to the states reflects a spirit of voluntary federation.

Secession: Legitimate or sour grapes?

Since the end of the Cold War we've witnessed the surprising fluidity of supposedly fixed national identities. The Soviet Union broke up, adding 15 new countries to the map. Yugoslavia witnessed terrible wars for national self-determination. Belgium is on the permanent brink of fracture. And my native Great Britain is getting ready for a historic vote on the independence of Scotland. The complexities of Scottish independence illustrate that secession doesn't have to mean a violent rupture sparked by right-wing nationalism.

The domestic program of the Scottish nationalist movement is broadly liberal; it will seek to join the European Union and its leaders often insist that the Scottish people will remain culturally British.

In Europe's case, the motor for secession is ethnicity. In America, however, it's a politics turned toxic. The 2012 election encouraged the idea that the U.S. is split into two camps that are politically and culturally alien and with opposing economic needs. Mitt Romney's infamous formula of the 47% (reiterated in his equally ugly post-election remarks about "gifts") played upon an old idea that one half of the country feeds off the taxes paid by the other half.

Secessionists are likely to be those who see themselves as disadvantaged by the redistributive federal state: as taxpayers bled dry by freeloaders, and businesspeople penalized by liberal regulation. WKRG-TV found an eccentric example of that when it interviewed the founder of the Alabama petition and discovered that he was furious at the government for shutting down his topless car wash: "He said he was arrested and charged with obscenity by city officials in 2001. 'The government ripped my business away, and now they're choking America to death with rules and regulations,' he said."

But the 2012 election introduced the idea that the welfare-recipient minority is now the majority. A common theme in conservative post-election analysis is that the Democrats now have an unbeatable coalition of ethnic minorities, single women and socially liberal youth that is turning the U.S. into a European social democracy. (Mark Steyn: "Tuesday's results demonstrate that, as a whole, the American electorate is trending very Euro-Canadian.") If that is the consensus among the conservative talking heads, then it's rational for conservative grass-roots activists to conclude that the only viable future for the conservative minority is to form its own country.

The call for secession will be mocked and dismissed. But while it is built on a legal fallacy, it does articulate honestly the feelings of a growing number of conservatives who feel emasculated in 21st century America. It's now the duty of the Republican Party to try to integrate them back into mainstream, legitimate politics.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Timothy Stanley.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
updated 9:10 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
updated 1:34 PM EDT, Sat August 16, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Sun August 17, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
updated 5:46 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
updated 6:26 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
updated 4:24 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
updated 6:56 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
updated 4:35 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
updated 7:08 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Mary Allen says because of new research and her own therapy, she no longer carries around the fear of her mother, which had turned into a generalized fear of everything
updated 3:59 PM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Gilbert Gottfried says the comedian was most at home on the comedy club stage, where he was generous to his fellow stand-up performers
updated 4:54 PM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Iris Baez, whose son was killed by an illegal police chokehold, says there must be zero tolerance for police who fatally shoot or otherwise kill unarmed people such as Michael Brown
updated 8:46 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Maria Cardona says as he seeks a path to the presidency, the Kentucky Senator is running from his past stated positions. But voters are not stupid--and they know how to use the internet
updated 10:19 PM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Gene Seymour says the shock at the actor and comedian's death comes from its utter implausibility. For many of us over the last 40 years or so, Robin Williams was an irresistible force of nature that nothing could stop.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Soledad O'Brien says the story of two veterans told in a documentary airing on CNN shows the challenges resulting from post-traumatic stress
updated 11:25 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT