Secession and the Politics of Venting

Why we talk about proposals that aren't actually going to happen.


The commentariat seems torn about those secession petitions at the White House's We the People website. On one hand, everyone understands that the chance that these will lead to an actual attempted secession is about as high as the chance that Joe Biden will be the first man on Mars. On the other hand, there is apparently a deeply felt need to vent at the petitioners anyway.

The editors of the Baton Rouge Advocate want you to know that they "don't take these secession petitions seriously," but they took them seriously enough to publish an editorial calling them "deeply unpatriotic" and a sign of "how sick our political discourse has become." An item in Time suggests that the movement is "just comic relief," then declares that there's a "seamy aspect" to it too. Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center reminds us that the petitions "carry no legal weight at all" and won't amount to more than "a collective blowing off of right-wing steam," but he still thinks it's important to note that some "white nationalists, neo-Nazis and Klan sympathizers" have endorsed the cause. (Salon evidently thinks this is significant news too, since it reprinted Potok's article.) A Huffington Post writer devoted an entire column to arguing against secession even as he declared repeatedly that it will never happen; the main point of the piece, as far as I can tell, is to fantasize about the horrors that would befall the separatists if they really did try to withdraw from the Union. Evidently the petitioners aren't the only people who need to blow off some steam.

For a more level-headed response, go to Erica Grieder. Secessionist rhetoric, she writes, is

a euphemism for more general frustration, rather than a serious suggestion. In fact, I would argue that it's precisely because secession is such a preposterous suggestion that it's safe to clown on about; that's why some people in Austin have started up their own petition to secede from Texas if Texas secedes from America. I'm sure you can find people here and there who are seriously pushing secession, of course, but I doubt a new secessionist movement is going to spring from an online petition on the White House's website.

Symbolic politics is better when you can drink it.

These proposals are about as heartfelt as the secession chatter that greeted the reelection of George W. Bush, back in the dark days when Americans had to email Jesusland maps to each other rather than propose them in the utopian direct democracy that is the White House petition site. They are considerably less heartfelt than some of the notions that circulated in the Clinton years, when a resolution "proposing the dissolution of the federal government of the United States of America if certain conditions occur" managed to earn the endorsement of a committee in the Arizona state legislature. (At least six other states voted on versions of the same idea.) Those Clinton-era efforts didn't get anywhere either, but they at least involved an investment of time and resources greater than is required to put your name on an online petition. When you're trying to suss out the seriousness of a political movement, that's a pretty good baseline.

A great deal of politics takes place in an entirely symbolic realm. The Obama administration created the We the People site as a symbol of democratic participation. People who don't like Obama filed secession petitions as a symbol of their dissent. The articles blasting the petitioners fulfill a similar symbolic need. So does this post, probably, though I'm holding out hope that it's gonna change the world.

Elsewhere in Reason: My colleage J.D. Tuccille takes a look at some of the secessionists' grievances and finds that it's "hard to argue with those sentiments, though I might quibble with grammar and spelling."