Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


10 Steps to a Breakaway State: A Secessionist’s Guide

• November 30, 2012 • 1:10 PM

Helpful advice to the politically embittered: start with a spiffy new flag this weekend.

In the three weeks since voters elected Barack Obama to a second term as U.S. president, a number of Americans have circulated petitions to begin seceding from the union. The efforts are specific to individual states and vary in their success at gaining adherents; a quick tally of petitions on the White House petition website, which gives running totals, suggests 500,000 signatures have been submitted so far, with other estimates reaching 700,000. Whatever the exact number, it’s less than a percent of the U.S. population of 312 million.

That’s not many secessionist Americans. But it is a lot of people, period. One can imagine how a slightly better-organized effort could maximize its possibilities.

For example: 700,000 people is about the population of Alaska. If a proper secessionist leader could emerge, and convince those 700,000 to all move to Anchorage at the same time, they’d be close to a majority. (If they went to Wyoming, the least-populous U.S. state, they’d outnumber the locals by 200,000 and could declare independence on day one. But they’d also be surrounded.)

Let’s assume the secessionists can get their act together. What do successful secession drives tell us about next moves?

Secession efforts — serious ones — are surprisingly common. In living memory, the east of Czechoslovakia has become independent Slovakia, and the Soviet Union has become at least 15 and arguably 17 countries (depending on how one counts Chechnya). The fall of the Berlin Wall in part began with declarations of independence in the Baltic states. Scotland has negotiated a referendum for independence for 2014. Quebec already held a referendum in 1995; it failed. Singapore left Malaysia peacefully in 1965. Biafra tried to leave Nigeria in 1967, resulting in war. South Sudan successfully separated from the rest of Sudan last year. Yemen was North Yemen and South Yemen for a while, then became a single Yemen, nearly separated again, and remains in flux. Dividing Belgium into two countries is on the table so often, the only detail they’d need to hammer out is who is seceding from whom.

A little over a week ago, parties scheming to break the Mediterranean region of Catalunya away from Spain won local elections, and are now negotiating a pact toward an independence referendum.

So secession is tough, but it’s not unheard of. In aggregate, what do these experiences teach potential American breakaway states?

1. Make the economic argument

The largest city in Belgium, bilingual Brussels is an enclave within the country’s Flemish-speaking north. (PHOTO: CRM / SHUTTERSTOCK)

Libertarian economist Daniel Mitchell, who frequently muses about the issue for the Cato Institute, argues that “the cause of liberty is best advanced by having a large number of competing jurisdictions.” His theory is that more options in statehood is better: “Governments are less likely to be oppressive when they know that people (or their money) can cross national borders.”

Take Belgium. “The Dutch part of Belgium pays, and the French part of Belgium takes,” Mitchell argued. “If you’re Walloon and your politicians can no longer mooch off the Flemish, maybe that forces you to improve. Secession becomes a means of limiting the greed of the political class.”

One can argue the point. But it does come off as more reasonable than, “I lost an election so I am leaving the country.”

2. Sell reasonably priced copies of your new flag

Participants in the rally for the independence during the National Day of Catalonia on September 11, 2012 in Barcelona, Spain. (PHOTO: nito / SHUTTERSTOCK)

Data is thin, but symbolism appears to play as much of a role as anything else in secession. In Barcelona right now — capital of maybe-breakaway, maybe-not Catalunya — a senyera costs nine Euros (about $12) and is available at places like bookstores, hardware stores, and gas station mini-marts. (Why? More proof that gas stations don’t really make their money on the gas.)

The easy access to flags means that virtually every block of the city has several banners visible, typically hanging from apartment balconies. To walk down a street in Barcelona right now is to think, “I am in a secessionist territory.” This is probably not true in Austin, and mindset matters.

3. Don’t rattle sabers

No one wants another Fort Sumter, and it turns out reasonable demands resulted in successful secession several times. Wealthy Singapore is the obvious case. After initially enjoying independence from Britain as part of Malaysia, the Southeast Asian state found itself at loggerheads with national leaders over banking rules, and ethnic tensions rose between Chinese and Malay groups. A negotiated divorce took less than a year. Both states have found success and co-exist peacefully.

Thirty years later, a list of grievances between the eastern and more prosperous western regions of then-Czechoslovakia led to a similarly amicable divorce. Like most divorces, grievances remain. But no one threatened anyone, and ultimately, no one got hurt.

4. Focus on things outside politics. Like sports.

Polish and Scottish soccer fans during Euro 2012 in Poland (PHOTO: BartlomiejMagierowski / SHUTTERSTOCK)

Scotland won the right to represent itself in some international competitions, notably soccer’s prestigious World Cup, and has built a separate identity via its athletes — on the sports page. So has its antagonist: David Beckham played for England all those years, not Great Britain.

Back in Barcelona, the president of the local soccer team has spoken frequently to calm fears that an independent Catalunya would result in the cancellation of the annual match against rival Madrid. In both cases, an international brand-building exercise via sports appears to have bled into sympathy, or at least interest, in the local secession movement.

During last summer’s London Olympics, good feelings from the host city’s role and the fat haul of medals by a pan-U.K. team briefly dented Scottish independence discussions.

5. Don’t petition

Most secession petitions in the U.S. have between 30,000 and 40,000 signatures. Florida’s secession petition has just shy of 35,000. Georgia is at 32,000, Louisiana at 37,000, each of the Carolinas is in the low thirties. The big one, Texas, is at 118,000 and change so far.

However, a petition to “Remove Marijuana From the Controlled Substances Act,” filed with the White House about the same time, got 64,000 signers, or more than double the number of most secession drives. Petitions to repeal Obamacare, to make publicly funded scientific research available online, and to recount November’s ballots, are all out-drawing the secessions by significant margins.

Alternatively, a secessionist rally in Scotland two months ago pointedly did not count its participants very carefully, opting instead for visuals, filling a square in Edinburgh with flags. It looked persuasive.

For the record, the White House’s We the People website — the place where Americans are sending the domestic secession signatures — also has a petition in support of the Catalan secession. It currently has 14,960 signatures. A domestic breakaway filed from Oregon, at the same site, only has 10,000.

6. Don’t vote

(ILLUSTRATION: SHUTTERSTOCK)

After two million people paralyzed Barcelona in a pro-secession rally in September, the Catalan government called for early elections, seeking to identify itself with the independence cause and gain a mandate for a popular referendum. Instead, local infighting took over, and the ruling party, in a vote last Sunday, got clobbered. Polls still show secessionist leaders with a healthy majority — but locally, various parties fell into sniping, and the secession forces now look like anything but a united front.

7. Get the world behind you

A Sudan solidarity mural on a wall in Sardinia (PHOTO: steve estvanik / SHUTTERSTOCK)

Of recent secessions, South Sudan’s successful effort had the advantage of moral certainty in a way America’s secession would struggle to match. After decades of  religious and ethnic friction, the north/south rupture finally became realistic when the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for the arrest of Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir on human rights charges in 2009. It’s hard to argue against secession from a butcher.

The same region had seen a previous secession two decades before, when Eritrea broke from Ethiopia in 1993. In that case, again, a consensus of international bodies, including a U.N. vote of confidence, proved key.

Most radically, when East Timor broke from Indonesia in 1999, via a UN-brokered referendum, Australian troops had to arrive and put down a violent reaction by Indonesian military and militias against Timorese civilians.

An effort directly opposed to secession, Puerto Rico’s mutterings about joining the Union as the 51st state, also seems to lack much international outreach. It regularly stalls.

8. Be prepared to get a new job

(PHOTO: SHUTTERSTOCK)

Secession isn’t just a public matter, and it disrupts business. In the Sudans, home of some major oil fields, pipeline issues have dogged the split. Even without Catalunya, Spain would still be a 40 million-plus-person market, and Catalunya would be a fifth of that.

In the U.S., secession would in part mean secession from favored access to the U.S. market. Should North Carolina secede, Bank of America would either need to leave its headquarters in Charlotte, laying off a ton of people as it did so – or change its name, rewrite its loans, renegotiate its tax relationships, and rethink its debt commitments. (A shortcut might be to just run its CEO for president of New Carolina.)

9. Avoid violence

British army paratroopers patrol Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, on July 1, 1999, days after Yugoslav army troops were forced from the province by NATO airstrikes. (PHOTO: Northfoto / SHUTTERSTOCK)

Kosovo’s secession against overwhelming odds suggests that virtually anyone with enough pluck and determination can defend his or her tribe, and hold on long enough for help to arrive – if it’s coming. On the other hand, Kosovo remains a militarized zone more than a decade after independence from Serbia, and it doesn’t seem likely to be “independent” in the sense of self-reliance any time soon. (Spain, by the way, pulled out of the NATO peacekeeping mission a few years back, uncomfortable backing a secession amid its own troubles.)

For the committed secessionist, a fantastic if obscure work of reporting called Be Not Afraid, for You Have Sons in America (fabulously subtitled “How a Brooklyn Roofer Helped Lure the US into Kosovo’s War”) is a virtual roadmap for how to get out from under a repressive regime’s thumb. However, it is worth noting that lots of people in the book are in terrible shape by the end.

10. Stay with the group

(PHOTO: SHUTTERSTOCK)

An interesting but little-studied aspect of the post-election secession trend is its collective nature. Though current secessionists are presumably more likely to have voted for the losing Republican candidate, a typically liberal response – petitions, community organizing, a move toward a politics of identity and offense – marks the movement.

On the other side of the line, when Democrats wanted to express dismay after the 2000 and 2004 elections of then-President George W. Bush, they commonly expressed a desire via more typically Republican, individualist action: Moving to Canada, under their own initiative and finances, by themselves, in search of individually expressed freedoms.

In both cases, the desire to quit America expressed itself in the style of one’s opponent. No precedent of which we’re aware exists for this kind of behavior in recent secession cases, other than America’s.

Finally, a last option: Consider moving to New Hampshire

The Crawford Depot in New Hampshire (PHOTO: SHUTTERSTOCK)

Though the recent wave of secessionist fervor seems new, an organization calling itself the “Free State Project” (slogan: “Liberty in Our Time”) in fact long ago hatched a plan very similar to secession, in which like-minded people all decided to move en masse to a small-population state and take over by flooding the polls. “What are the prospects for achieving greater liberty where you currently live?” the movement’s organizers write, on their still very-much-active community website. “If you are like many, the outlook is not good. The Free State Project offers a solution: join thousands of other liberty-lovers who are moving to New Hampshire, America’s freest state, and working together there to achieve true liberty in our lifetime.”

They seek 20,000 people. New Hampshire’s lovely.

Marc Herman

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 20 • 4:00 AM

Coming Soon: The Anatomy of Ignorance


October 17 • 4:00 PM

What All Military Families Need to Know About High-Cost Lenders

Lessons from over a year on the beat.


October 17 • 2:00 PM

The Majority of Languages Do Not Have Gendered Pronouns

A world without “he.” Or “she.”


October 17 • 11:01 AM

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.


October 17 • 10:00 AM

Can Science Fiction Spur Science Innovation?

Without proper funding, the answer might not even matter.


October 17 • 8:00 AM

Seattle, the Incredible Shrinking City

Seattle is leading the way in the micro-housing movement as an affordable alternative to high-cost city living.


October 17 • 6:00 AM

‘Voodoo Death’ and How the Mind Harms the Body

Can an intense belief that you’re about to die actually kill you? Researchers are learning more about “voodoo death” and how it isn’t limited to superstitious, foreign cultures.


October 17 • 4:00 AM

That Arts Degree Is Paying Off

A survey of people who have earned degrees in the arts find they are doing relatively well, although their education didn’t provide much guidance on managing a career.


October 16 • 4:00 PM

How (Some) Economists Are Like Doomsday Cult Members

Cognitive dissonance and clinging to paradigms even in the face of accumulated anomalous facts.


October 16 • 2:00 PM

The Latest—and Most Mysterious—Player in the Nasty Battle Over Net Neutrality

As the FCC considers how to regulate Internet providers, the telecom industry’s stealth campaign for hearts and minds encompasses everything from art installations to LOLcats.


October 16 • 12:00 PM

How Many Ads Is Too Many Ads?

The conundrum of online video advertising.


October 16 • 11:00 AM

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.


October 16 • 10:00 AM

The False Promises of Higher Education

Danielle Henderson spent six years and $60,000 on college and beyond. The effects of that education? Not as advertised.


October 16 • 8:00 AM

Faster Justice, Closer to Home: The Power of Community Courts

Community courts across the country are fighting judicial backlog and lowering re-arrest rates.


October 16 • 6:00 AM

Killing Your Husband to Save Yourself

Without proper legal instruments, women with abusive partners are often forced to make a difficult choice: kill or be killed.


October 16 • 4:00 AM

Personality Traits Linked to Specific Diseases

New research finds neurotic people are more likely to suffer a serious health problem.


October 16 • 2:00 AM

Comparing Apples to the Big Apple: Yes, Washington, D.C., Is More Expensive Than New York City

Why shouldn’t distant locales tied to jobs in the urban core count in a housing expenditure study?


October 15 • 4:00 PM

Why Asian American Parents Are the Least Likely to Spank Their Kids

Highly educated, middle-class parents are less likely to use corporal punishment to discipline their children than less-educated, working-class, and poor parents.


October 15 • 2:00 PM

The Federal Government’s New Doctor Payments Website Is Worthy of a Recall

Charles Ornstein takes a test drive using the federal government’s new website for drug and device payments and finds it virtually unusable.


October 15 • 12:00 PM

How Cosmetic Companies Get Away With Pseudoscience

Anti-aging creams make absurd claims that they repair DNA damage or use stem-cell treatments. When cosmetics companies and dermatologists partner to maximize profits, who is responsible for protecting the consumer?


October 15 • 10:00 AM

What Big Data Can Tell Us About the Things We Eat

Pizza might be the only thing that can bring men and women together.


October 15 • 9:04 AM

‘Looking’ at Art in the Smartphone Age

Technology is a great way to activate gallery space, but it shouldn’t take it over.


October 15 • 8:00 AM

A Brief History of High Heels

How what was once standard footwear for 16th-century Persian horsemen became “fashion’s most provocative accessory.”


October 15 • 7:22 AM

Advice for Emergency Alert Systems: Don’t Cry Wolf

A survey finds college students don’t always take alerts seriously.


October 15 • 6:00 AM

The Battle Over High School Animal Dissection

Is the biology class tradition a useful rite of passage or a schoolroom relic?


Follow us


How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

Advice for Emergency Alert Systems: Don’t Cry Wolf

A survey finds college students don't always take alerts seriously.

Brain’s Reward Center Does More Than Manage Rewards

Nucleus accumbens tracks many different connections in the world, a new rat study suggests.

A City’s Fingerprints Lie in Its Streets and Alleyways

Researchers propose another way to analyze the character and evolution of cities.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.