global politics, relationally

Secession in Scotland and the US: Not Necessarily What It Seems


There has been a lot of buzz lately about secession, owing to the Scottish vote yesterday on the question of whether to leave the United Kingdom. As a scholar of secessionism, it’s thrilling to see this stuff back in the news, if for no other reason than somebody might think some of our work is relevant. It’s also just plain fun to watch.

Now that the results of Scotland’s vote are in, discussion will turn – if only briefly – to what this means for other parts of the world. My coauthor and partner in ethnic conflict scholarship Steve Saideman has already posted a piece re-arguing a point we have made elsewhere: that secessionism and its outcomes in any one place aren’t really contagious anywhere else. That’s what our research has shown, and it suggests that Scotland’s failure to secede likely won’t deter others from trying (just as success would not have instigated secessionism where it wouldn’t have happened anyway).

This is true because secessionist movements are really driven by underlying political dynamics that are unique to each place. Tip O’Neill was right – all politics really is local. And with that in mind, I read this Reuters piece reporting on secessionist sentiment within the United States with some fascination. Maybe the Scots do have something to teach us – that we should be having much more significant conversations about deep political issues here at home.

The heart of the Reuters piece is a poll showing fairly significant (if still minority) support for the idea of seceding from the US, ranging across the country from nearly 20% in New England to nearly 35% in the southwest (with Texas the likely driver there). In the Old South support stands at about 25%, which might be expected, but even the West Coast clocks in at 22%. Overall, roughly a quarter of Americans are apparently willing to consider having their state, or a portion thereof, leave the United States and strike out on its own.

This result was apparently shockingly high to the author of the piece, and so demands an explanation. Of course, in a country where 30% don’t believe that the global climate is getting warmer it seems that anything is possible, but let’s grant the point that voiced opinion for secessionism must have its roots somewhere.

The Reuters piece actually sort of puts its finger on the issue, without quite getting it:

Those we spoke to seemed to have answered as they did as a form of protest that was neither red nor blue but a polychromatic riot — against a recovery that has yet to produce jobs, against jobs that don’t pay, against mistreatment of veterans, against war, against deficits, against hyper-partisanship, against political corruption, against illegal immigration, against the assault on marriage, against the assault on same-sex marriage, against government in the bedroom, against government in general — the president, Congress, the courts and both political parties.

By the evidence of the poll data as well as these anecdotal conversations, the sense of aggrievement is comprehensive, bipartisan, somewhat incoherent, but deeply felt.

This betrays a standard journalistic desire to fit the explanation to existing, well-understood narratives: that this is a Left thing, or a Right thing, or a Democrat vs. Republican thing, or an issue-specific politics thing. The fact that it is none of these things that show up on the headlines of newspapers every day frustrates journalists to no end. How can you write the story without a storyline that people will understand?

But there is a simpler story here – one that we see played out in secessionist and irredentist cases around the world. What drives this kind of support is simple: a pervasive sense of political and economic disenfranchisement. Simply put, if people think that the current system isn’t working for them and doesn’t show any signs of getting better, they are likely to seek to either change the system or leave and start their own.

That this is true in the United States today for a sizable minority of Americans shouldn’t surprise anybody. The economy, while “growing”, is wildly skewed towards the rich and getting worse. The political system is significantly corrupted and/or dysfunctional, depending on your definitions. The “public conversation” – so richly on display in Scotland these past few weeks – has been replaced by hyper partisan screaming that accomplishes nothing but which has made Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh very wealthy indeed. Across a spectrum of issues and geography, people feel like their voices are not heard, their lives are not getting better, and the future offers little hope of change for either.

Under those conditions, I’m surprised that secessionist sentiment isn’t higher. I think that this is largely because of a lack of options perceived to be viable. The Civil War largely took secessionism off the table for all but a few die-hards; as Steve and I point out in our book, history matters. But because of the entrenched nature of the two-party system and the seeming impossibility of creating new parties, current electoral politics don’t seem to offer much in the way of meaningful change either. Other hopes – the Occupy movement, the election of Barack Obama in 2008 – have come and gone without producing any meaningful change in the overall status quo.

While it’s fun to speculate about secessionism within the US, I don’t think it’s likely. Our tribal identities are too geographically scattered, there’s no good history of separate existence (with the partial exception of Texas), and a lot of powerful interests would line up against any serious threats. But it’s not secessionism itself that I find nearly so interesting as the underlying political dynamics that drive it. There are significant levels of dissatisfaction in the US today, some of which has converted itself to apathy and resignation which may mask a mobilizable population under the right circumstances. That’s not a good recipe for long-term stability, much less long-term prosperity. But it will likely keep both political scientists and journalists busy for years to come.