In contemporary American politics, talk of segregation is rarely more than theater. Political leaders are teasing—sometimes shouting—the idea in reaction to unfavorable election results, the prospect of major legislation they disagree with, fodder for their base, or to attract media attention. In reality, the barriers to secession of any state or region within the United States are very high.
However, there are secessionist political movements that do not threaten the territorial or political integrity of the United States but nevertheless express a growing, elemental discomfort with one of the basic tenets of a healthy democracy. Although these efforts, like their secessionist relatives, have little chance of success, the grassroots sentiments that underpin them—in particular, the erosion of American willingness to be governed by their political rivals—gives them due scrutiny for what they say about polarization. , hyper-partisanship, and political intolerance.
Separation from one state to another
From the Mid-Atlantic to the Pacific Northwest, rural counties in blue states have taken steps to redraw state lines to subjugate themselves under neighboring red states or to form of their new states. In some cases, such exercises have garnered significant community support, leading to the placement of the secession question on local ballots and subsequent voter approval.
The Pacific Northwest is home to a long-standing movement to redraw state lines over political disputes. In Oregon, Washington, and northern California, as in much of the United States, rural counties are redder than their densely populated coastal counterparts. Citing dissatisfaction with the state government’s liberal policies, citizens in several rural Oregon counties organized to put on the ballot the question of whether to leave their home state to join neighboring Idaho— a reliably red state for the past fourteen presidential elections, with Republicans holding every state and federal office. In 2021, five of those Oregon counties came forward and voted to join Idaho. Similar votes are likely to be held in the future in rural counties in Washington and northern California.
In the Mid-Atlantic, Republican state lawmakers in heavily Democratic Maryland made overtures in 2021 to the state legislature in West Virginia expressing their desire to secede from their home state. The legislators—all representing parts of three rural counties in Maryland’s western panhandle—claimed in their letters that West Virginia, in both its stated values and the overwhelmingly Republican leanings of its government , will be a better home for their constituents than Maryland, where Democrats enjoy a supermajority in the State House and reclaimed the Governor’s Mansion last November. Residents of the three counties have not yet been asked to weigh in on the move through a ballot question, although lawmakers have indicated such a move could be made in the future.
This phenomenon is not exclusive to the coasts. More than two dozen counties in Illinois, including four in the southern part of the state bordering ruby-red Kentucky, have taken steps to leave Illinois for redder pastures, including by passing non -binding resolution encouraging local officials to explore the possibility of state withdrawal. Meanwhile, residents of a northern Colorado county explored the idea of joining heavily Republican Wyoming. And in 2021, a New Mexico state senator proposed an amendment to the state constitution that would allow counties to pursue secession, either by joining neighboring states or by creating a new one.
Even if voters approve the state transfer by referendum, actually merging with a neighboring state and shifting the state’s borders is a very difficult process. The process, similar to that by which new states are admitted to the country through Article IV, Section 3 of the Constitution, requires the approval of both the legislatures of the affected states and Congress.
Along with those high technical hurdles, states would be hard-pressed to find economic or political incentives to cede counties to a neighbor or allow them to form their own states. State legislatures are unlikely to pass on parts of their tax base to other jurisdictions. Ceding population, which helps determine, among other things, a state’s Electoral College votes and the number of its congressional districts, is also a political nonstarter. Some legal analysts have even argued that Supreme Court precedent makes secession at the county level impossible.
What is remarkable about these movements, then, is not their potential to radically reshape political jurisdictions, but what they telegraph about the erosion of Americans’ willingness to tolerate life under leadership of the opposing party.
Analysis of county-level secession
Residents who vote for their counties that have moved state for political reasons send two messages with their ballots. First, that they are not satisfied with the rule of their political rivals. The second message is less direct but less consequential for the country in general: Those voters indicate an unwillingness to live in a state where their party does not control the levers of power and therefore does not dictate on their state’s policy agenda. Once the bedrock of democratic life, the decay of that tolerance and the drift towards zero-sum thinking about power-sharing in governance does not bode well for the country’s sociopolitical unity.
A sharpening rural-urban divide is a persuasive, though incomplete, explanation for the growth of these movements. The gap between the two groups on key measures—socioeconomic status, education level, age, and so on—has been widening for decades. Values shape what citizens expect of their elected officials and the bodies they comprise, meaning that while rural and urban Americans differ greatly in their views on world, their expectations of their representatives are simultaneously changing. Analysts have also argued that both parties have historically neglected rural populations, exacerbating their discontent.
What rural voters choose to do in the face of that disconnect (or neglect) is where the toxic effects of polarization become clear. For differences in policy priorities among demographics is not new. Americans, as participants in a democracy, will always have to stomach opposition leadership, whether at the local, state, or federal level. In fact, the survival of democracy depends on individuals and parties who maintain the willingness to participate in the democratic system even when their party, their team, loses. Elections have consequences, meaning that when one’s political opponents win an election, granting them the prerogative to run the government, they reserve the right to enact the priorities they campaigned on.
But as American politics became more radical, the willingness to be a minority waned. Americans have become increasingly restless under opposition leadership, be it at the state or federal level, increasingly viewing it as unstoppable patronage. In many ways, the impulse to call lost elections “stolen” or “rigged” is the result of intolerance. The use of more apocalyptic language to describe the electoral success of opposing sides reveals the dire terms in which Americans have come to view life under the control of their political rivals. The spirit of competition that characterizes democracy, particularly the effort to change strategies to attract new voters, to follow leaders who offer real solutions and express a willingness to work across the aisle to build solutions to problems plaguing both rural and urban Americans, and to expand representation in government, replaced a willingness to blow up the system.
Although that destructive impulse is not new, the passionate drive toward life in like-minded political circles is. In fact, in many ways, those counties seeking to join politically similar states are simply taking the next step toward the ideological uniformity that has been building in the United States for the past several decades, where growing each party’s share of the vote in counties and states where it does well. Americans prefer where they live based on the area’s political leanings. Polarization can now be traced in geographical terms.
But there’s a strong case to be made that the cross-aisle conversations that stem from the advent of political ideologies are what once made American democracy so strong, and what now make it so weak. . County-level efforts to address political discontent simply by being part of neighboring states with more kinship political leadership only accelerate self-sorting, which is more separating Americans from their increasingly inviolable ideological trappings.
Instead of louder, more theatrical cries of secession from political leaders seeking points with a base, grassroots, county-level maneuvers to move the state should distract those trying to glimpse the future. of the country. Both exercises—the grandiose and the humble—have little chance of success. But the latter is considered a better barometer of local discontent, a sign that the sociopolitical fabric that anchors American democracy is fraying. Certainly, that fabric is stressed, stretched, and torn; but never so irrevocably that it cannot be stitched back together. Besides offering valuable data to campaigns and leaders seeking to mend, not widen, the nation’s political divisions, these movements offer a window into local thinking about governance. and tolerance in today’s forced America.