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
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.”
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.)
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
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
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.