Public Opinion on Secession

A recent Huffington Post poll shows that some 22% would “strongly support” (12%) or “tend to support” (10%) their state’s secession from the union (complete results here). This result, combined with recent petitions for secession sent to the White House by citizens of Texas and other states, has led to considerable alarmist discussion of the subject. In reality, however, public support for secession has not increased significantly since mid-2008, when a Middlebury Institute/Zogby poll showed that 18% of the public said they would “support a secessionist effort in my state.” Since the 2008 poll didn’t give respondents the option of merely “tending” to support a secession movement, it’s likely that support for secessionism in that survey would have been even higher had the question been worded the same as in the 2012 Huffington Post poll. I blogged about the 2008 poll here.

There is, of course, a big difference in the distribution of support for secession between the two polls. In 2008, liberals and African-Americans were the ones most likely to express support for secession. For example, some 33% of African-Americans said they would support a secession movement in their state, and 40% expressed support for states’ right to secede. In the 2012 poll, support for secession is highest among Republicans, with 42% saying they would support secession by their own state, and 46% expressing support for a general right of states to secede if a majority of their people want to.

Obviously, the contrast between the 2008 and 2012 results is largely due to who was in the White House. In 2008, liberals and African-Americans were reacting to their anger at George W. Bush. In 2012, Republican secessionist sentiment is driven by anger at Barack Obama. In neither case has the outrage resulted in a serious secessionist movement. And that’s a significant fact. There is a major difference between expressing abstract support for secession in a survey and actually supporting a serious effort at secession in the real world. In the modern United States, few people feel enough loyalty to their states to have a strong commitment to establishing the state as an independent nation. Some 42% of Americans have lived in more than one state, and many others are recent immigrants who identify more with the US as a whole than with the state they happen to live in.

Even setting aside the possibility of the federal government using force to suppress a secession movement, any serious effort at secession would run into significant problems. A state that chooses to secede would have to negotiate with the US as to the percentage of the national debt it would take on. It would have to deal with the problem of federal facilities on its territory, such as the numerous military bases in Texas. The US and the seceding state would have to negotiate some kind of free trade agreement, or risk serious economic harm. And what about the residents of that state who are collecting entitlement payments from Washington for Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security? These problems may not be insoluble, addressing them would be difficult and in some cases costly. I doubt that very many of the 22% who say they support secession are really willing to pay the substantial transition costs of forming an independent nation.

That said, the survey results are not completely meaningless. The fact that around 20% of the public express support for secession in both 2008 and today is yet another indication of political polarization and dissatisfaction with the status quo. Distrust of the federal government when the presidency is controlled by a hostile party is strong enough that a large fraction of the population considers secession to be a reasonable option (even if they are not prepared to support a serious secession movement). The polls also show that, for much of the general public, secession is not an unthinkable taboo, in the way it is for most intellectuals and political elites. The latter still tend to associate secession primarily with the Civil War, slavery and racism. Many in the general public don’t see it that way, as is especially clear from the extensive support for a right of secession among African-Americans in the 2008 poll.

This is one of those instances where the public may be closer to the truth about a complex political issue than the more highly educated elite. Although the southern secession movement of 1861 was indeed a despicable effort to protect the evil institution of slavery, it does not follow that all other secession movements are tainted by association. Each such effort must be judged on its own merits. Some, such as the Baltic States’ 1991 secession from the USSR, have great merit; others, such as the Confederacy, not so much.

In my view, state secession from the US today is likely to cause more harm than good. Both the seceding state and the rump US could easily end up worse off than before. But that could potentially change if the federal government becomes sufficiently dysfunctional and the seceding state has a good chance of setting up a better regime. For the moment, most public support for secession in the US is an expression of frustration with the federal government and its current leaders rather than a serious effort to form a new nation. I hope and expect that the economic and political situation will not deteriorate enough for that to change.