How is America going to end? Who most likely to secede?

How it will happen.
Aug. 5 2009 7:02 AM

How Is America Going To End?

Who's most likely to secede?

In the American end times, our government will take one of two forms. One possibility is that federalism will give way to an all-powerful central government. (In yesterday's global-warming thought experiment, this was the climate strongman scenario.) The other option is decentralization—in the absence of a unifying national interest, the United States of America will fragment and be supplanted by regional governance.  

Josh Levin Josh Levin

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor.

Illustration by Jason Raish. Click image to expand.

America was designed to avoid these two extremes—to keep the states and the national government in balance. The United States will end when the equilibrium mandated by the Constitution no longer holds. Tomorrow, I'll look at how the country might transition from democracy to totalitarianism. Today, I'll focus on America's disintegration.

Predictions of modern America's collapse usually say more about the speaker than about the country's condition. Igor Panarin, the Russian political scientist who believes the United States will break into six pieces in 2010, seems to be extrapolating from what happened to the Soviet Union. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who paid lip service to secession at a tax-day rally earlier this year, was less predicting America's downfall than feeding chum to a riled-up, "Secede!"-chanting crowd. "[I]f Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people," Perry said, "you know, who knows what might come out of that."

Eric Zuelow, a history professor at the University of New England and the editor of The Nationalism Project, argues that "loud voices" like Perry's bolster the country's strength. The fact that we can debate our country's legitimacy is a sign of national health. For the United States to fall to pieces, Zuelow says, it'll take more than a demagogue on a PA. Americans will have to come to believe they're no longer Americans.

It wasn't always certain that the states would be as united as they are today. In An Empire Wilderness, Robert D. Kaplan explains that James Madison, one of the authors of the Federalist Papers, envisioned America as "an enormous geographical space with governance but without patriotism, in which the federal government would be a mere 'umpire,' refereeing competing interests." There are regional and ideological differences in the modern United States: People in the Deep South and the Pacific Northwest eat different foods, have different accents, and (generalizing broadly) have different lifestyles and values. But as compared with a place like the USSR, a constructed nation with immense regional diversity, the United States is bound together tightly by its shared origins, a common language and culture, and a widely held belief in the country's mythologies (American exceptionalism, self-reliance, and social mobility). In times of perceived danger, Americans pull together. After 9/11, Zuelow says, "I don't care where you were in the country, the response was We've been attacked. … It wasn't, We eat grits and We eat salmon."

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What kinds of countries fall apart? Jason Sorens, a political scientist at the University at Buffalo who studies contemporary secessionist movements, says that ethnicity, economics, and ideology all come into play. A secessionist sweet spot typically lies in a region with an embedded minority that has a common language and a history of prior independence. Latvia and Lithuania fit those requirements, as do the Serbs in Bosnia and Canada's Quebecois. According to Sorens' models, it's no surprise that there aren't any large-scale movements to break up the United States—the country is too prosperous and too cohesive. (Sorens' own Free State Project—a push to get libertarians to swarm New Hampshire and influence local politics—is "not a secessionist movement," he says, though "there are a lot of people [in the project] who would support that as a last resort.")

That's not to say that everyone who lives in America is content with the state of the union. As Wikipedia's "list of U.S. state secession proposals" indicates, there's no shortage of groups that want the country to split up. American secessionism, however, is less a populist movement than a collection of cranky, lonesome idealists. Thomas Naylor, the brains behind the Second Vermont Republic —a group that bills itself as "perhaps the foremost active secessionist organization in the country"—bemoans the fact that his movement shares the separatist marquee with less serious-minded folk. Naylor mentions one squadron of Long Islanders who've given their "new country" a national animal (Atlantic blue marlin) and a national crustacean (blue crab). The League of the South is also a perpetual source of heartburn for Naylor—the retro-Confederate group insists on singing Dixie at meetings and has a strange obsession with returning American spelling to its traditional Southern roots.   By contrast, Naylor likes what he sees out of the Texas Nationalist Movement. That independence-espousing organization doesn't appear to be racist, homophobic, or violent, Naylor says, though on the last count "you can never be sure."

The Second Vermont Republic's Thomas Naylor
The Second Vermont Republic's Thomas Naylor

Naylor is more soft-spoken than you'd expect for someone who regularly refers to America as an "evil empire." He is 73 years old, stands a sturdy 6 feet 3, and has longish white hair that gives him the look of a founding father. A retired Duke economics professor, he was inspired to come to Vermont in 1993 after seeing an Oprah episode on downshifting your life. (One of the guests was a man who moved to Vermont to run a country inn.) In Secession: How Vermont and All the Other States Can Save Themselves From the Empire, Naylor writes that American civilization "promotes affluenza, technomania, e-mania, megalomania, robotism, globalization, and imperialism." The Second Vermont Republic aspires to dissolve the union nonviolently and return Vermont to the independent status it held briefly in the late 18th century. Naylor believes the mystique of a free Vermont or a free Novacadia —a secessionist joint venture with Maine, New Hampshire, and Canada's four Atlantic provinces—would catalyze separatism throughout America. Ben and Jerry's is "not in the ice cream business," he explains. "They [are] in the Vermont business. We're in the Vermont business also."

I'm eating lunch at an outdoor cafe in Waitsfield, Vt., with Naylor and Rob Williams, the editor of the independence-espousing Vermont Commons newspaper.   Secession, according to Williams, is "as American an impulse as apple pie." The Declaration of Independence marked the United States' secession from the British Empire. New England considered leaving the U.S. during the War of 1812, and Maine seceded from Massachusetts in 1820. Up until the Civil War, nobody questioned the idea that breaking free from the central government was legal and justifiable under the right circumstances. Today, Williams admits, mutual revulsion at the idea of secession is one of the few things the left and right can agree on. "Abraham Lincoln did a number on us," he says.

Naylor ultimately wants the Vermont legislature to call a statewide convention to consider articles of secession. That's not happening soon, even in the land of Bernie Sanders. Kirkpatrick Sale, the founder of the secessionist think tank the Middlebury Institute (and, at 72, the other grand old man of American secessionism), acknowledges that it was "in the depths of the Bush administration that this secession movement began and gained strength." Sale feared that left-wing enchantment with Barack Obama would hinder his cause, but he's been heartened by the progress of the "state sovereignty movement"—bills being pushed by state lawmakers who want to curb federal authority.  

At this point, the state sovereignty push reeks of wishful separatist thinking. But the fact that secession is a marginal idea today doesn't mean it won't ever come to pass. How might secession transition from a fringe idea to a country-ender? In my conversations with economists, political scientists, and futurists, three broad themes came up that I found the most persuasive: economic collapse, the rise of localism, and North American reshuffling.

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