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