The Politics of Regionalism: Secession vs. Interdependence

In recent years an old idea has reappeared in U.S. political life. Seemingly settled at the end of the Civil War, the concept of secession from the Union is emerging from across the political spectrum.

Perhaps the best known movements are in states that already have a virtual national identity as realms unto themselves, Texas and California.

The Texas Nationalist Movement insists, “There is no prohibition in the United States Constitution that forbids any state from exiting the Union . . . Imagine the scenario. Fifteen million Texans have gone to the polls and voted in a free, fair, and open referendum, conducted under the laws of the State of Texas, and have chosen, by a majority vote, to leave the Union and assert Texas’ status as a free and independent self-governing nation-state . . .The strong liberal states would likely fall on the side of letting Texas go. The strong conservative states would be split on the issue but would largely be supportive of the basic principles of self-government.”

The group has even published a book, TEXIT: Why and How Texas Will Leave The Union.

Texit is a right-leaving movement. On the other hand, as might be expected, the California National Party tilts to the left, supporting such policies as universal basic income, universal health care, a public bank, and public ownership of power lines.

“Our ultimate aim is complete independence for the California Republic,” states the CNP. “There are many national independence movements that are not based on a right-wing ideology, such as in Scotland and Catalonia. This is especially true for California because our sense of nation is not based on a single ethnicity or linguistic identity . . . One of the key components of our national identity is a respect for the cultural, linguistic and geographic diversity that has made California the place we all love today.”

Support for independence is also strong in Cascadia, the bioregion made up of the watersheds draining to the Pacific from what is currently Northern California to Southeast Alaska. “The reason for being independent is a simple one,” says the Cascadia Department of Bioregion. “It is fundamentally better for all of us if decisions about Cascadia’s future are taken by the people who care most about Cascadia – that is by the people of Cascadia. It is the people who live here who will do the best job of making our nation a fairer, greener and more successful place.”

The vision for independence in Cascadia emerges out of radically democratic and ecological traditions, though Cascadians have had to put up a stern fight against white supremacists seeking to appropriate the idea for their concept of a “white homeland.”  Rightist trends emerge as well in one of the region’s most prominent secession movements, for eastern and southern counties of Oregon to break from the liberal-leaning Willamette Valley and join Idaho. Eleven of the 17 counties across the eastern side of the state have already voted to join “Greater Idaho.”

Even in the hearth of the United States, a secession movement has emerged, the New England Independence Campaign, which describes itself as having supporters from across the spectrum:  “Issues such as government spending, taxation, war and other conflicts, the environment and trade are major topics which New Englanders tend to disagree with much of the rest of the U.S. on.  Support for corrupt foreign dictatorships, endless wars, corporate welfare and destruction of our environment are not values for New Englanders . . . A free and independent New England means a nation committed to justice, peace and harmony with the rest of the world, working in concert with our allies to be better stewards of the earth.”

Large numbers support independence

These movements still exist around the fringes of politics. But that they are coming to prominence at all speaks loudly to the fractures in U.S. life. While the movements that proclaim support for secession and independence are still relatively small, the potential support for the idea is surprisingly large. A poll conducted in July 2022 by Yahoo News/YouGov found:

+ 32% of Republicans and 21% of Democrats believe the U.S. would be better off splitting into “red” and “blue” countries.

+ 42% of Republicans and 51% of Democrats say things would be worse off.

+ As a whole, 21% of voters are in the better off camp compared to 46% replying worse off.

Though the majority favors the status quo, the numbers speak to a large potential base of support for independence movements. A July-August 2021 University of Virginia poll found significant support for regional unions, at 66% among Southern Republicans and 47% among West Coast Democrats. (Results are shown in in the opening graphic.) Overall support for new regional unions was no less than one-third in any region.

These numbers point to scenarios for a broad rearrangement in U.S. governance structures over coming years. If history indicates anything, it is that big changes often come unexpectedly, from the French Revolution to the break-up of the Soviet Union. As tensions long rising on an earthquake fault result in a sudden snap, the conditions that lead to such earth-shattering political events build up for a long time before the break comes. Divisions have been increasing in the U.S. for some time, and could be near a breaking point. Large segments of the population feel marginalized from a political system that seems increasingly unresponsive to all interests but those of big money.

That is why it is time to think in broad and even visionary terms about the forms different political arrangements might take. I generally disagree with free market political economist Milton Friedman. But he was right when he said,

“Only a crisis, actual or perceived, produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.”

Indeed, Friedman carried free market ideas from the time they were discredited in the era after the 1930s Great Depression until they were picked up in the 1980s after the stagflation of the 1970s. In the same way, ideas coming out from regional independence movements for more self-directed and autonomous patterns of development play an important role in shaping future arrangements.

It is clear that current U.S. systems are failing to adequately respond to challenges, whether in health care, housing, criminal justice, climate protection, rural development, or many other areas. The desire to take matters into our own hands at local, state and regional scales is natural, believing we can solve problems better closer to home. In reality, key policy innovations are emerging at these levels, from higher minimum wages to climate response and creation of social housing enterprises.

Interdependence instead

All that said, I have to vary a bit with my independence-oriented friends to say what I think we really need is a new Declaration of Interdependence. With every sympathy for no longer wanting to be a part of a nation with its history of empire building, its racism, violence and avarice, I have to say we are all enmeshed in it. We cannot run away from it, or declare independence from it, because the realities of U.S. history shape our lives down to the neighborhood and community level. Yes, this is where to build responses and create solutions, and the greater the power of communities and regions to do this, the better.

But, at some level, we are all going to have to do this together. In practical reality, it is highly unlikely that any singular state, region or bioregion is going to be able to declare independence on its own, whatever the Texiters think notwithstanding. Similar movements would have to be taking place across the country. And if such centrifugal forces really did develop, it would be better to have on the table ideas of how we work in a frame of mutual interdependence. How we together address such crucial issues as climate, manage watersheds which span regions, and build economies based on cooperation and with a more equitable balance between urban and rural. Thus, I would distinguish myself from my secessionist friends and call myself a confederationist.

On key issues of rights, let’s face it. It has taken a national moral consensus to overcome racism grounded in regional cultural geographies. The South would not have desegregated without strong pressure from the North, though it also took a rooted movement in the South itself. The fact Southern states have gutted voting rights protections after a U.S. Supreme Court decision opened the door says we need larger frameworks that transcend regional bigotries. In the same way, and this I know from personal experience, if it had not been for the application of federal endangered species law, unbridled logging would have continued in Cascadia’s old growth forests. Many rightists would indeed like to see federal authority over public lands devolve to the states to lift what controls there are on logging, mining and ranching.

There are places where local cultural prejudices and economic interests must be limited by larger ethical considerations. If what we know as the U.S. moves into a starkly different political arrangement, we must ready for that day by insisting on broader compacts of rights and protections for humans and nature. That is a conversation we can have in thinking of a more confederal system, but that we cannot if we are looking purely at independence. And if one looks at those numbers and sees possibilities on the horizon that now seem unimaginable, it is a conversation we must have, or we could see rollbacks similar to the current loss of women’s reproductive rights in many states.

Two key regionalist thinkers

Even since the 1970s and 80s, I have been inspired and illuminated by the thinking of two scholars on regionalist directions for the U.S.  One is radical historian William Appleman Williams who envisioned a confederation of regional communities that substantially guided their own development, joined together in a larger continental confederation that ensures basic rights. Williams looked to regions and a nation more focused on internal development as an alternative to what he called our empire as a way of life with its emphasis on endless expansion. In a time when humanity has exceeded a series of natural boundaries, notably the capacity of the atmosphere to absorb heat-trapping gases, it is a vision that must be considered.  About a year ago, I did a 6-part series exploring Williams’ ideas on how a new confederation might be constructed. It starts here.

The other thinker is Lewis Mumford, urbanist and regionalist best known for his book, The City in History. Mumford saw history unfolding in regional frameworks built around cities, obscured but never fully overcome by the nation-states which began to emerge in Europe in the late middle ages. Mumford viewed regions not as stand-alone entities, but as dynamic actors in interdependent relation to other regions. The crucial need, in Mumford’s view, is for regions to have sufficient tools of self-governance and resources to guide their own development.

“One must create an identity, a center of one’s own, before one can have fruitful intercourse with other personalities. This is true, too, for the relations between regions,” Mumford wrote. “. . . the region cannot engage in the necessary interchanges and intercourse with other regions until it possesses an integrated life, on its own solid foundations.”

Mumford and his companions formed a movement in the 1920s and 30s aimed at creating a more balanced regional development in the U.S. as an alternative to the massive sprawling metropoli we see today. It was a road not taken, but which still has much to offer. Last April, I posted a 5-part series on Mumford’s regionalism and its relevance to today. It begins here.

Williams and Mumford were willing to think in bold terms, about how we might make profoundly different political arrangements more suitable to the challenges of the day. We must be similarly bold. In practical effect, in terms of what we do this week or this year, the path is clear whether one believes the endgame is independence, or, as I do, a more confederal arrangement that allows regions far greater latitude in governing their own development, but which unites us around common values and principles. That is, to build grassroots democratic movements that take power in existing political institutions and build new institutions that empower communities to meet their needs.

Whatever is coming, we must prepare by taking account of the centrifugal forces implicit in the polling numbers and manifest in the independence movements. We must have ideas on the table for what might now seem politically impossible but in a few years seem politically inevitable. Let us think in terms of mutuality and interdependence, how we will work together, rather than separation and how we will break apart.

This essay first appeared in Patrick Mazza’s Substack page The Raven..