Breakaways

09.12.13

Secession Fever Sweeps Texas, Maryland, Colorado, and California

It seems to be sweeping the nation, with Texas seeking to become its own country and parts of Maryland, California, and Colorado trying to break off into new states. But do any of these movements have a chance? Caitlin Dickson reports.

Five counties in Maryland want to form their own state. So do eight in Colorado and one in Northern California. And the Lone Star State is on its way becoming an independent “island nation,” according to an influential Texas Republican.

The wave of U.S. secession movements, the largest since the South tried to break up with the Union, is being fueled by a deep urban-rural split, says Frances Lee, a professor at the University of Maryland’s Department of Government and Politics. The fault lines are partisan affiliations and social issues such as reproductive rights and gun control. So it’s no coincidence that the counties seeking to break free generally identify as conservative or libertarian, nor is it a coincidence that they tend to be in rural areas. “This has a lot to do with the current composition of the White House,” says Lee. “Rural counties want to secede from states where they’ve been on the losing side of politics—even at the state level.”

In an interview with The Washington Post, western Maryland Initiative leader Scott Strzelczyk said his region, along with several others across the country vying for the title of America’s 51st state, is determined to separate itself from “the dominant ruling class.” Strzelczyk, an information-technology consultant, said he is frustrated with Maryland’s influential Democratic Party. “If you don’t belong in their party, you’ll never have your views represented,” he told the paper. “If we have more states, we can all go live in states that best represent us, and then we can get along.” Although the Western Maryland Initiative is little more than a Facebook page today, it’s gaining traction and support from members of the community eager to offer their services and suggestions for the formation of their dream state.

The movement in Colorado has made a bit more headway. Officials from eight counties met in July to start drawing up boundaries for a state dedicated to bettering the lives of those living in rural northern and northeastern Colorado. “Our voices are being ignored in the legislative process this year, and our very way of life is under attack,” Weld County Commissioner Sean Conway said in July, adding that not only is the effort “not a stunt,” it is indisputably motivated by a feeling of disenfranchisement among people in rural communities. Weld County is one of six in Colorado that will vote on a secession initiative in November.

Many of the rural counties itching for independence in northern Colorado are dependent on the oil and gas industry, says Kimberly Karnes, a professor of political science and geography at Old Dominion University in Virginia. So it stings when liberal politicians who live far from the range push for things like renewable energy. “Issues such as energy policy, gun control, taxes, and social issues often break on a rural-urban divide,” Karnes told The Daily Beast. “So if the state legislature produces a policy that a majority of residents in the urban and suburban areas prefer, it leaves the rural residents feeling like they are ignored, which over time can build to resentment and lead to the choice of extreme response, such as secession.”

Just last week, the Board of Supervisors in Northern California’s Siskiyou County voted almost unanimously to make a declaration of its intention to break off from the state and invite neighboring counties in California and Oregon to join them in forming a new state called “Jefferson.” Ahead of the vote, more than 100 citizens gathered to debate, most of them apparently in favor of separating themselves from the regulations and values supported by their state’s more populous and liberal southern region.

The last time a state successfully sought approval from the state legislature and Congress for secession was West Virginia in 1863. And while clusters of counties have attempted unsuccessfully to form their own states over the years, social media and the Internet have allowed these movements to gain more traction than they may have in the past. Now, instead of simply commiserating with their neighbors about the liberals in the capitol and trying to get a representative with their values elected, disgruntled Californians can find and meet like-minded residents around the county, encouraging them to give secession a shot.

And then there’s Texas. Last week, Texas railroad commissioner and aspiring attorney general Barry Smitherman declared that the Lone Star State has “made great progress in becoming an independent nation.” Smitherman, whose job is to regulate the state’s energy industry, not its railroads, argued that Texas’s “energy resources, fossil and otherwise, and our own independent electrical grid” make the state “uniquely situated” to “operate as a stand-alone entity” if the United States falls apart.

‘If the state legislature produces a policy that a majority of residents in the urban and suburban areas prefer, it leaves the rural residents feeling like they are ignored.’

Texas’s motivation for wanting to break free doesn’t fall along the same rural-vs.-urban pattern of the rest of the counties seeking secession. That’s hardly a surprise. In political science, “Texas is Texas. It doesn’t really follow what other states do,” said Karnes. “There’s really an independent political culture of that state that definitely identifies with its independence, the Republic of Texas. It doesn’t follow the trend of what these other states are doing. It’s in its own unique situation.”

Still, that doesn’t mean Texas has a greater chance of seceding successfully than western Maryland or northern Colorado or “Jefferson.” Even if one of them were to get the approval of both Congress and their state legislatures, they’d be faced with a barrage of new issues such as how to collect taxes, provide education, or transfer public records from the original state to the new one. How would a new state—with a rural economy that in many cases has long been propped up by its state’s urban and suburban economies—fund all these programs?

The list of issues Texas would face as its own country is even longer. Creating a military, setting up trade agreements, and finding a way to compensate for the federal funding it receives—whether or not its lawmakers want to admit it—only scratches the surface of what it takes to form a country. As for the counties seeking statehood, even if they accomplished their goal and became “the promised conservative or libertarian utopia these residents so often seem to want, the state is still a part of the United States of America, meaning it answers to and must work within the U.S. system, as it currently operates,” said Karnes. “For residents who want more personal freedoms and less government intrusion, they may find that even in a new state, Uncle Sam is still a frequent visitor in their community.”