The State of Secession Research, Part Two

The State of Secession Research, Part Two

by Jason Sorens

March 4, 2005

Last week I examined the state of research among political philosophers on the right to secession. This week I address the literature on the empirical causes and consequences of secessionism.

After the November election, we heard quite a bit about “blue state secession” in the U.S. Disaffected Democrats chattered a bit about withdrawing their states from the Union in exasperation at the policies of a federal government under unified Republican control. Is “blue state secession” potentially viable?

My own research on Western Europe and North America suggests that it is not. I’ve built a statistical model to explain secessionist electoral success (percentage of the vote) in advanced democracies, and the most important predictors of secessionism are regional language, history of independence, high GDP per capita compared to the rest of the country, large regional population, geographical separation from the rest of the country, lack of irredentist potential (in other words, not being adjacent to a country where the regional language is also spoken – in these cases the region is more likely to seek to attach to its neighboring country than to seek independence), and a multiparty system. Together, these variables help explain why the strongest secessionist movement in the U.S. is the Puerto Rico Independence Party – Puerto Rico is geographically separate and has its own language. At the same time, Puerto Rico is very poor compared to the rest of the U.S. and benefits from federal subsidies, so it is not surprising that secessionism is still quite weak there.

Sometimes high income, combined with ideological differences, is enough to stimulate secessionism. Thus, Northern Italy has a reasonably strong secessionist movement (the Northern League), despite the fact that northern Italy does not have its own language, and only one region (Veneto) has a recent history of unified independence. Western Canada, which is wealthier than eastern Canada, also spawned a secessionist movement in the 1980’s, Western Canada Concept. This party has since disappeared, but writers still talk of “Western alienation.” In the U.S., Alaska developed a secessionist party, the Alaska Independence Party, during the Alaska oil boom of the 1980’s. The party once elected a governor, Wally Hickel, but since the murder of its founder, Joe Vogel, in 1994 the party has drifted towards irrelevance and may be changing its platform to reject secessionism and its name to “Alaska Independent Party.” The Libertarian Party of Alaska is now championing the independence cause in that state.

Outside Alaska and Puerto Rico, the U.S. does have some other secessionist movements, from the Native Hawai’ian sovereignty movement to the left-wing Cascadia movement (which seeks to split off Washington and Oregon), the far-right Republic of Texas militia, the right-wing League of the South, and the center-left, “populist libertarian” Second Vermont Republic. None of these organizations are organized for electoral contests, a fact that limits their influence and seriousness. It is unrealistic to expect state legislators tied to the Republican and Democratic parties to follow through on a serious secession attempt.

My statistical model correctly predicts that outside Alaska and Puerto Rico, there are no secessionist political parties in the U.S. Nevertheless, “blue state secessionism” is a possibility in the long run. The blue states tend to be higher-income states that pay more taxes to the federal government than they receive in expenditures. They would benefit economically from independence. Many of them are quite large and have bigger economies than the vast majority of the world’s independent states. My model does not show that ideological differences have a strong effect on secessionism, so ideological differences alone will not do the trick. There would have to be some kind of catalyst to make secession a viable option in the United States.

One consequence of secessionism in advanced democracies is decentralization to regional authorities. Throughout the advanced democracies of Europe, governments are decentralizing, but governments facing secessionist challenges are decentralizing faster, presumably because they hope that more regional powers will make independence seem riskier and less attractive. It’s often pointed out that the Canadian constitution is more centralized than the U.S. Constitution, reserving all the residual powers to the federal government and specifying the provincial powers. Yet today, Canada is more decentralized than the U.S.; in fact, in fiscal terms it is likely the most decentralized country in the world. Canada has faced and peaceably accommodated a modern secessionist movement; the U.S. has not. Something to think about.

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