Analysis: Secession movements underscore a polarized America

Despite the effort’s futility, there is a growing movement of rural counties in blue states seeking separation.
The Idaho state flag hangs in the Idaho State capitol in Boise, Idaho, on Monday, Jan. 9, 2023. (AP Photo/Kyle Green)

The Idaho state House voted this month to request formal talks with Oregon over the fate of 11 rural counties that want a divorce from liberal Portland and a new marriage to their conservative neighbor.

The proposal is doomed to failure; even legislators who support what is known as the “Greater Idaho movement” acknowledge as much. But it is the latest in a growing movement among rural counties in blue states that have voted for, organized around, or more informally sought a new beginning in an increasingly polarized political atmosphere.

In Illinois, voters and commissioners in 27 counties have approved resolutions to explore joining other states or creating their own. Republican lawmakers from three western Maryland counties sought permission to join West Virginia in 2021. A group of rural Coloradans want to join neighboring Wyoming. Counties in Southern Oregon and Northern California have for more than half a century contemplated forming a new state of Jefferson.

In every recent case, those who support breaking away want to form new states, or new alliances, with conservative brethren to get out from under the political influence of liberal cities. Chicago, Baltimore and the Washington suburbs, Denver and Boulder, and California’s population centers all carry far more political clout than their rural neighbors.

U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), never one for subtlety, underscored the perceived stakes at play in a tweet this week, when she called for “a national divorce.”

“From the sick and disgusting woke culture issues shoved down our throats to the Democrat’s [sic] traitorous America Last policies, we are done,” Greene wrote.

American secession movements are as old as the republic that was itself born of a split with Great Britain. Vermont, Kentucky, Maine and West Virginia were all admitted to the Union after splitting off from other states. Votes in 11 states to secede from the Union altogether, following the election of 1860, begat the Civil War.

Though the ideological divide between rural America and urban America may feel wider than at any point in 160 years, the current movements do not have the same characteristics of earlier times — beginning with the consent of current state legislatures, a step required by the Constitution.

Vermont, Kentucky and Maine all formed new states with the consent of legislatures in their former states — New York, Virginia and Massachusetts, respectively. West Virginia earned its statehood after Virginia itself seceded to join the Confederacy.

None of the current movements are likely to win support in existing state legislatures, which have little incentive to give up territory — and political representation in Congress — to a neighboring state.

“Those processes, they’re hard to pull off. You need to have both sides in agreement. It just doesn’t happen that much,” said Ryan Griffiths, a political scientist at Syracuse University who studies secession movements. “The thresholds for success are just too high to make it work.”

But the very fact that voters — and, in Maryland’s case, sitting state legislators themselves — express their interest in leaving highlights the growing perception that American politics is a game played for keeps, and that when one party wins elections, it is the other party’s constituents who will lose out or, worse, be punished.

“Americans have become more restive under the rule of the opposition, be it at the state or federal level, increasingly viewing it as insufferable tutelage,” Colby Galliher and Edison Forman, researchers at The Brookings Institution, wrote in a recent post on secession movements. “The use of increasingly apocalyptic language to describe the election victory of the opposing side epitomizes the dire terms in which Americans have come to view living under the control of their political rivals.”

In some ways, county-level secession movements are a natural outgrowth of demographic and political trends at the individual and neighborhood level that have been exacerbated over the last several decades, as Americans self-sort into ideological bubbles.

The average American, whether a Democrat or a Republican, comes into less contact with someone from the other side of the aisle today than ever before, according to recent studies. That separation breeds animosity; both Democrats and Republicans are far more likely today to call members of the other party dishonest, immoral, unintelligent or lazy than they were even seven years ago.

The divide is evidenced in election results, as the number of counties that vote overwhelmingly for one side or the other has exploded in recent years. In 2000, about 550 counties in America gave either George W. Bush or Al Gore more than 70% of the vote. In 2016, more than 1,500 counties gave either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton more than 70% of the vote.

Griffiths, the Syracuse political scientist, said American secessionist movements do not have much in common with international movements in places such as Catalonia, the autonomous region of Spain; Scotland; South Sudan; or East Timor — all movements that feature distinct ethnicities chaffing under the control of another group.

“At the global level, when these things happen, there’s almost always an ethnic component,” Griffiths said. Here, he added: “These things have to be escalated so far beyond what we see in the United States before they begin to get traction.”

Even supporters agree that no national or state-level separation is likely on the horizon.

“The reality is,” said Idaho state Rep. Lance Clow (R), who voted to open talks with Oregon, “I don’t believe this will ever happen.”