Aug. 13, 2016
This article was published Aug. 12 as an op-ed in the News & Observer under the headline “Texit? In US today, a surprising amount of secessionist sentiment.” It was also published Aug. 25 in the Houston Chronicle (paywall).
My obsession with secession began in 2009, when then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry suggested that if the federal government messed with his state, Texas could go its own way.
Typical Texas talk, I thought. Then the light bulb flashed on.
I wanted to write a Texas novel about a reporter’s adventures in Houston, a bigger-than-life city where I’d worked for 15 years. But I needed a hook, something to knit it all together. Secession was the perfect theme.
Seven years and two Texas suspense novels later, I’m amazed at the amount of secessionist activity threading itself across our country. Pro-secession groups are popping up and flourishing far beyond Texas, in states including California, Vermont, Colorado and Alaska.
This month, the South Carolina Secessionist Party was the latest to grab the headlines. Sparked by the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the statehouse grounds last year, the nascent party is raising funds to erect the flags on private lands across the state. The leader of the group, which has an active Facebook page, is Tyler Bessenger, a man in his 20s who lives in Charleston. I tried to reach him, but his listed phone had been disconnected.
I did reach Scott Huffmon, a political science professor at Winthrop (S.C.) College. He described the group as “very small but very loud” and organized primarily in response to the flag controversy. But he pointed out that secessionist activity in South Carolina is hardly new. The state was the first among 11 to secede from the union during the Civil War. And before the Civil War, the 13 original colonies unleashed the biggest secessionist movement of our history – the American Revolution. Historians have tracked at least a hundred secessionist groups over the years.
Still, the results of a national Reuters poll in 2014 were startling. The poll found that 23.9 percent – nearly 1 in 4 – Americans support their state breaking away from the United States. It found support for secession strongest among young people, rural people, people who identified themselves as conservatives and those living in the Southwest or Western states.
Huffmon said he hadn’t seen that data, but speculated that the polarization of our politics, especially during this election year, might fuel interest in secession. He said people who are disenchanted with politics or the general direction of the country tend to feel that things are better in their state, or in their region, than they are across the nation.
There are no estimates of how many secessionist groups are active. But several of the more active groups are in regions where residents believe their state governments are out of touch with their needs.
Seven counties in northern California have passed resolutions since 2013 to create the state of Jefferson, named for Thomas Jefferson, a champion of the West. Leaders of those counties also would like to include a few similar counties over the border into Oregon, though no Oregon counties have joined the quest. The mostly rural California counties, which are suffering high unemployment in agricultural and logging industries, contend that California state officials have done little to help their region.
Colorado has a similar situation with an active group that wants to create North Colorado from five counties along the state’s northeast border. Leaders in those oil and gas-producing counties have said they don’t agree with some environmental proposals from the Colorado legislature and don’t believe they get a fair share of services in their region, considering the revenues they produce.
Other large secessionist groups have longer-standing grievances, such as the Alaskan Independence Party. One of its governing beliefs is that the 1958 vote for statehood was illegal because voters should have gotten a range of options – including remaining a territory, becoming an independent country or becoming a U.S. commonwealth. Todd Palin, husband of former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, formerly was a registered member of the party. The group tried unsuccessfully to get a statewide vote on secession in 2006.
The Texas Nationalist Movement, born in 2004, is the largest secessionist group in the country, claiming 200,000 members and becoming more visible in state affairs. It narrowly failed, at a recent Texas Republican Party convention, to get the Republican Party to vote on whether to call for Texas secession.
After Brexit in June, the movement started using the term Texit as shorthand for its ultimate goal of making Texas an independent republic. Texas secessionists also have history on their side, because after the state won its independence from Mexico (Remember the Alamo!), it was a republic for 10 years before it was admitted to the union. (Then it left for the duration of the Civil War.)
Some of these groups, Huffmon said, espouse unsavory philosophies, “a crossover between white supremacists and the militia movement.” But, ultimately, he said, it’s about how the groups spend their time. Talking about their beliefs over beers with their buddies is harmless enough, he said.
“But are they willing to commit violence?” he asked. “A lot of these homegrown terrorists, like the ones in Oklahoma City, would like to bring down the government.”
Nancy Stancill is a former Charlotte Observer reporter who lives in Charlotte.