My November 13 post about secession is long overdue for an update, so here goes.
A few days after I posted I was invited to go on a radio talk show to give my expert opinion about secession movements in Louisiana, Texas, and elsewhere. I agreed, and spent a pretty fun 40 minutes or so on Crossfire Radio with Ed Baswell. Unfortunately I had to go before the call-in portion of the show — I’m sure that would have been interesting as well. I made some basic points on the show: that the online petitions are not good indicators of anything besides a general frustration; that secession would, as a practical matter, be extremely difficult; and that most countries that have broken up or spawned independence movements have done so because the people living in the region concerned have a long-standing (or perceive that they do) common identity based on a characteristic such as ethnicity, language, or religion that cuts across other kinds of political preferences. Although it’s true that the US is polarized, nowhere do we have a state where a large majority perceives itself this way, in part because we move around all the time. In most of the South the political divisions are 55/45, or sometimes 60/40 (at least judging by party support and voting behavior). In other states such as California, the Northwest, or most of the Northeast, it’s reversed. 40% or 45% is a very large minority, and would pose an enormously difficult barrier to the formation of any kind of new collective (national) identity, let alone an actual secession.
Since then the secession story has been picked up by many news services, newspapers, and magazines, most recently on November 28 in the Economist. Almost all these stories say the same things — the administration’s “We the People” website is not an election, signers of these petitions come from all over and make up tiny proportions of the populations of the states in question, secession isn’t the goal of any significant political leaders or organizations, and anyway it would be very complicated to work out. In other words, there isn’t much new news on this story and it’s not that big a story to begin with, slightly more significant that a trend in facebook “likes,” but not much more so.
I’m a little smug that when I made notes to myself the night before my radio appearance on this topic, I covered pretty much everything there was to cover. But it’s also frustrating, although not surprising, that this story has gotten so much play. Secession is obviously a topic with a lot of symbolic resonance, like comparing someone to Hitler, and gets a lot of readers and clicks because of this. But so many stories, with such a small amount of information in them aside from a few anecdotes and quotes, aren’t necessary.
I wish journalists and commentators would look for other ways to investigate the polarization and frustration we do have in the US, and to describe and explain it in ways that did more than push buttons. My guess is that they would find it’s not as clear-cut as the regional, or religious, or white/minority models suggest. This is what some social scientists have found. Secession stories do, however, fit into some preconceived narratives that we often use to interpret the world. On one level they’re just tools to help us simplify and understand the world, but they also can feed on themselves and generate polarization and disaffection. When people not only vote for different candidates, but also can’t understand how anyone else could support the other candidate, that’s a problem.