Secessionist movements are nothing new, and punishing those who support them is a terrible idea. Their causes are complex and almost always point to serious problems.
Let’s start with those who want their states to leave the country. The last time this was seriously attempted, a divided nation fought a war that claimed a staggering 600,000 lives. President Abraham Lincoln’s 1861 proclamation calling on the militia to suppress the insurgency is one of the great documents of political history. But it hardly follows that anyone who advocates carving a new nation out of parts of the US is an insurgent.
Consider the issue of race. In 1917, black journalist Cyril Briggs, inspired by the Irish Rebellion, published an essay arguing that “reason and justice” demanded the establishment of a new black-run country within the borders of the US in exchange for “many Generations of unrequited labor and half a century of contribution as free men to American prosperity.” Eleven years later, the Communist International cited Briggs’ article when it passed a resolution calling for black self-determination in the United States.
Beginning in the 1930s, numerous radicals advocated the creation of a separate black entity. In the late 1960s, the Republic of New Africa called for the creation of a new country in the so-called Black Belt. (This may have been part of the inspiration for Fletcher Knebel’s mediocre 1969 novel Trespass, in which a group of black militants takes prominent whites hostage and demands the immediate creation of a southern homeland for the descendants of slaves.) In 1982, James Forman published , leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, “Self-Determination and the African-American People,” in which he advocated the creation of a new country within the Black Belt’s “historic homeland.” He wryly pointed out that with a selection of 958,000 square miles, there was sure to be room.
As I noted earlier in this space, many black radicals proudly wore the insurgent label up until January 6, 2021. Should they have been discouraged from running for office after that? Or should the nation have tried to get a deeper sense of their grievances?
There are also numerous examples unrelated to the history of racial oppression in the nation. I’m old enough to remember the Martha’s Vineyard secessionist movement in the late 1970s, which culminated in a 10-2 vote by the elect to leave Massachusetts and either found a new state or join an existing one. Some residents went further and proposed independence from the United States. You can still buy the seagull flag that some hoped would fly over the island. Anything insurgent?
Parts of California have been calling for secession from the United States for years. Silicon Valley bigwigs, for example, have long talked about founding a new country, initially in search of a libertarian paradise, and then protesting the election of President Donald Trump. In fact, Trump’s 2016 victory prompted cries across the deep blue states that it was time to break into business.
Obviously not. We should not punish secession talks. Kudos to New Hampshire for understanding.
On the other hand, no one is trying to punish the efforts of San Bernardino County leaders to secede from California, rather than from the United States. Maybe that’s because no one thinks they have a chance of succeeding. Under the US Constitution, the spin-off of a new state requires the approval of both the state losing territory and the US Congress. (For this reason, some scholars wonder if West Virginia is actually a state. Seriously.)
It is true that in the 1960s the California Senate passed legislation that would have split the state in two. But that was a transparent attempt to gain more power in Washington by doubling the number of senators, and it never worked.
Still, size might play a role. Proponents point out that San Bernardino County is larger than the land area of Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey and Rhode Island combined. However, your substantive argument has nothing to do with size. They claim that the city dwellers who hold power in Sacramento ignore the concerns of rural counties. (Long before the Civil War, an analogous claim was made by West Virginia’s statehood advocates, and the state’s first governor cited as justification for leaving Virginia that his region was “as a kind of external appendage—a territory in a student body state ” will be treated”. )
As legal scholar Glenn Harlan Reynolds (formerly my student) points out in his much-discussed 2019 essay on secessionist movements, the argument is common. Whether we’re talking about Eastern Oregonians or New Yorkers wanting new states, the key concern seems to be that people will feel ignored. Reynolds argues that states should either let their counties go or take their concerns more seriously—specifically, that lawmakers shouldn’t be so quick to assume that city-friendly regulations make sense elsewhere.
Fair enough. But would regulatory reform suffice? Drawing from a study of thousands of secessionist movements around the world, a new paper argues that a group’s sense of shared cultural identity is a more important predictor than economics. Philosophers have long debated whether the existence of a shared identity built around culture creates a prima facie case for secession. Whatever the answer, the new research suggests that if we’re as hopelessly polarized as experts seem to think, we’ll be having a lot more secession talks in the years to come.
More from the Bloomberg Opinion:
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• Trump and his bogus deals are settled: Timothy L. O’Brien
• You don’t want later abortions? Make the early more approachable: Sarah Green Carmichael
This column does not necessarily represent the opinion of the editors or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Stephen L. Carter is a columnist for the Bloomberg Opinion. As a law professor at Yale University, he is most recently the author of Invisible: The Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Take Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster.
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