Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2012 | 2 a.m.
A friend called from overseas: “Congratulations on Obama’s re-election,” he said. “But isn’t it a shame that so many states plan to withdraw from America now?”
It is easy to see how foreigners might be confused by the flurry of secession petitions posted on the White House website, which promises an official response to any issue that gets more than 25,000 signatures.
Seeking to sever ties to America might sound like an extreme response to Obama’s re-election. But there they are, tucked in between the demand for an official Michael Jackson holiday (275 signatures) and the urgent request for Obama to nationalize the Twinkie industry (3,244).
What should we make of the fact that petitioners from all 50 states have requested permission to secede? Who are those 3,964 Massachusetts residents who want to form a breakaway republic? Do they plan to join up with the 3,566 defectors in Connecticut or the 4,596 rebels in Rhode Island?
My fiance sees it as a sign of how polarized politics has become. A healthy democracy, he says, should be like a good marriage. The idea of the union should be bigger than any one disagreement. No matter how annoyed we are, we can’t threaten to walk out after every spat.
But what if this bickering is a sign of irreconcilable differences in our relationship to the federal government itself?
It’s noteworthy that the highest number of secessionist signers are in the South — Georgia (31, 540), Alabama (29,798) and Louisiana (36,480) — where bad feelings still linger over a real attempt to break away. To many in those states, the Civil War has been re-imagined to be not about slavery, but rather resistance to an overbearing federal government.
“If you actually look at the Tea Party’s websites, many of them invoke the Confederate Constitution, for its resistance to centralized power,” said Yale historian David Blight.
Books that depict Lincoln as the inventor of Big Government have been popular, he said. And in some ways, they are true. To win the Civil War, the union set up the first real federal income tax, and vastly expanded the federal financial system and the transcontinental railroad. Emancipating the slaves — the largest single financial asset in the country at the time — constituted the greatest government confiscation of private property ever, Blight said.
But secessionists are not just in the South, and they are not just a reaction to Obama, according to secessionist writer Kirkpatrick Sale.
Sale, who believes the federal government is too unwieldy to be truly democratic, got involved in the movement in 2004 in Vermont, of all places. George W. Bush had just been re-elected, and about 60 Vermonters held a meeting to discuss what to do about it.
“Bush and the Iraq war and the general process of empire disgusted a lot of people,” he told me.
They considered armed revolution, but dismissed it as “impractical.” Then they hit upon the idea of secession, which they thought would catch on.
“Vermonters regard themselves as different,” Sale said. “They have Holstein cattle. They have cheese.”
So they formed a new political party: the Second Republic of Vermont, named after the one that existed back in 1777.
In 2006, they held their first secessionist conference. Thirty-five groups came: People from Hawaii who decried statehood as colonization. Conservatives from the League of the South. Folks from Texas who believed in Sam Houston’s declaration that “Texas will again lift its head and stand among the nations.”
But, eventually, enthusiasm faded. After Obama’s election, many Vermonters thought secession was no longer necessary.
The only place the movement really continued was Texas.
Today, it claims 250,000 members. That’s why the Texas secessionist petition — started by a non-member on a whim — has more than 115,000 signatures, far more than any other state.
“We live in a historic time,” Daniel Miller, president of the Texas Nationalist Movement, told me. Self-government is spreading around the globe, he said. It is only a matter of time before Texans demand it, too.
The trouble is, if the secessionists ever succeed, it will not end there. The city of Austin already has its own petition to break away from Texas if Texas breaks away from the United States. That’s the funny thing about walking out on a committed relationship: Once you do it, it’s that much easier for others to walk out on you.
Farah Stockman writes for the Boston Globe.