Peter Schiff is one of the recession's biggest winners. The Connecticut stockbroker, once a cable news piñata on account of his predictions of economic catastrophe, is now celebrated for his eerily accurate prophecies. Schiff, who has formed an exploratory committee in anticipation of a potential 2010 Senate run, believes America is going under thanks to a "phony economy" built on borrowed cash. The stimulus, he argues, will make things worse by temporarily taping over structural problems with unsustainable borrowing and spending. "After we do the wrong thing and destroy [the value of] our money, are we going to become a totalitarianist country?" Schiff asks. "Will there be a Soviet revolution or an American revolution?"
Let's say there's an American revolution—who leaves first? Once the feds "start imposing just huge taxes," Schiff says, the states that have to pay more in than they're getting back out will pull their stars off the flag. Schiff lists Texas and California as potential pull-out candidates, whereas "Florida probably wants to stay because of all the Social Security money."
If taxation doesn't cause a mass revolt, economic polarization could yank everything apart. "The Sun Belt states and the interior West are growing faster than the Midwest," says secession scholar Jason Sorens. "If they get rich enough, they might see their membership in the U.S. as burdensome if they have to support dying industries in Ohio and New York." (Sorens apparently hasn't considered the possibility that Cleveland and Buffalo will become America's oasesthanks to global warming.)
A place like Texas has the means to support itself as an independent country. What it needs is an ideological spark. Northern Italy's Lega Nord could be a potential model. Rather than emphasize a linguistic or ethnic difference, the political party has espoused independence for economic reasons. In Italy's 1996 general elections, the political party won 10 percent of the vote nationwide by calling on rich, conservative northerners to go it alone in a state called Padania. In the last eight years, Lega Nord has moderated its separatist rhetoric as it's become a part of Silvio Berlusconi's coalition government. (Still, the party is regularly accused of xenophobia.)
For secession to tear the United States to pieces, somebody has to jump first. "As states leave, more states want to leave," Schiff says, "which is why the government will try to say you can't leave, or we'll invade you." The Second Vermont Republic's Thomas Naylor agrees that someone has to set a secessionist example. But Naylor doesn't believe that the U.S. would try to "enslave free Vermont." (His farcical suggestion: "They could burn all the maples and destroy all the black-and-white Holsteins.") If American troops did invade Montpelier, he says, it would destroy America's moral authority just as attempts to stamp out anti-Communist movements in the Soviet Bloc eventually undercut the USSR.
The Institute for the Future's Jamais Cascio contends that "very few national entities maintain their structural coherence for much more than a couple hundred years." In Cascio's 50-year forecast "The Long Crisis," the United States breaks into eight pieces. By 2054, the Midwestern states have invaded the Gulf and Southern Federation, with New Columbia (the Atlantic seaboard) and Pacifica (the West coast) supplying arms to the Southern insurgents.
What could precipitate such a schism? Cascio foresees a shift to localism—a focus on eating where we live, on supplying our own energy (micro-wind and micro-solar), and on fabricating our own products (and possibly weapons) with industrial-grade 3-D printers. Allen Buchanan, the author of Secession: The Morality of Political Divorce From Fort Sumter to Lithuania and Quebec, says that (while he's not predicting this) climate change, a pandemic, or an economic collapse could lead to what he calls sauve qui peut secession—"let him save himself who can."
This idea of a reversion back to a time when no kingdom or ruler had enough power to control a large territory squares with collapsists like Dmitry Orlov and James Howard Kunstler, who argue that America will revert to pre-industrial times in the post-petroleum age. In an essay called "Thriving in the Age of Collapse," Orlov writes that a dearth of oil will force people "to stay put most of the time, perhaps making seasonal migrations, and to make use of what they have available in the immediate vicinity." Not one to dwell on the negative, the Russian writer points out that societal collapse boosts one's health and vigor: "[T]he air will be much cleaner, there will be no traffic jams, … [l]ocal culture will make a comeback, [and p]eople will get plenty of exercise walking around, carrying things, and performing manual labor."