by Jay Johansen | Dec 19, 2020
After the last few elections, the losers have made joking and half-joking comments about seceding from the United States. When George Bush won in 2000 and 2004, Democrats talked about seceding. When Obama won in 2008 and 2012, Republicans talked about seceding. When Trump won in 2016, there were actually steps to put a referendum to secede on the ballot in California, though ultimately nothing came of it. Before the 2020 elections, the Atlantic magazine published an article in which they said that if Trump won, several states might secede.
Of course seceding from the union is a huge step, so few really seriously consider it. Most of the talk about seceding is just blowing off steam. But what would happen if one or more states really did try to leave the United States?
I've been in several discussions of this subject where someone will say, "That could never happen because the courts have ruled that seceding is illegal." One can only reply, So what? If millions of people wanted to leave the union, would they just give up because some judge wrote on a piece of paper that it's not allowed? If someone wants to secede, by definition they must not respect the authority of the federal government. The last people who would care about some federal judge's ruling would be people planning to secede.
What stopped the southern states from seceding in the 1860s was not that a judge wrote on a piece of paper that it wasn't allowed, but that Union armies invaded the South and brought them back into the Union by force. The operative question is, would anyone do that today?
I'm assuming for this discussion that the nation splits along conservative/liberal lines. The west coast and New England join liberal America. The south and mid-west join conservative America. There would be a few other isolated states that would want to join the liberal side: Illinois, Minnesota, New Mexico, maybe Wisconsin and/or Michigan. A few states might be toss-ups, like Pennsylvania and Nevada. If you look at a map, the conservative states form a contiguous block so they'd have a cohesive nation. The liberal states have the problem that they would be disconnected.
If some states wanted to break off and form their own nation, it's likely that many would be happy to see them go. Politics in the United States is growing more and more divisive and hostile. It's probably the nastiest it's been in my lifetime, perhaps the nastiest since the Civil War. If the country broke in two, then each part could go its separate way. If we split into a liberal America and a conservative America, then the liberals could pursue liberal policies and the conservatives could pursue conservative policies. Neither would have to worry about the other blocking their preferred policies.
Others would say that the nation should not be divided and would do all in their power to keep it together. But then the question becomes, Just what would they do? How far would they go?
There would surely be debate and negotiations. But where any negotiations went would depend on what actions either side was willing to take to back them up.
Maybe one side or the other would go to court. The seceding states would have the advantage here. If the two sides went to court and the courts ruled that states have a right to secede, that would make it difficult for the Federal government to take any action to prevent them from leaving. But if the courts ruled that states are not allowed to secede, the seceding states might well just ignore such a ruling. If they secede, they won't be under the federal courts any more anyway. Federal courts would have no more jurisdiction over a new nation than, say, French courts have over the US today. Therefore, I'm guessing that the federals would not want to go to court. It would be a no-win game.
If a state declared they were seceding, the federals might say that this is treason and try to arrest the leaders. They might send federal marshalls or the FBI to arrest the governor or whoever was leading the movement. I see five possible outcomes to that.
Note most of the above scenarios end up badly for the federals. I think this would make the federals reluctant to try this. The risks outweigh the likely benefits.
And that leaves the big question: Would the federals try to use the military to force the states to stay in the United States, as the Union did during the Civil War?
Personally, I think this is unlikely. Times are different now. I have a hard time imagining either side being willing to initiate the use of military force.
I had a conversation about this once where someone said that the government could quickly put down any attempt to secede by dropping nuclear bombs on the major cities of the seceding states. Really? There's a lot of hostility between Democrats and Republicans, but I have a very hard time imagining a Republican president ordering nuclear bombs to be dropped on Los Angeles and New York and Boston, or a Democrat president ordering nuclear bombs to be dropped on Houston and Atlanta and Salt Lake City. That just seems wildly unlikely.
And if they did, would the military obey such an order? The military swear to follow the commander-in-chief, but if a soldier from Texas was ordered to drop nuclear bombs on Texas, would he just say "Yes, sir" and do it? It's not at all obvious that he would.
Which brings us to a larger question. In the at least somewhat more plausible scenario that the federal government ordered the army to invade seceding states and force them to remain in the union, would the army obey those orders? Would soldiers obey orders to kill their fellow Americans? About half the soldiers would be from seceding states (depending on just how the states divided up). Would soldiers obey orders to invade their home state and kill their own friends and neighbors and family? I suspect that the military would quickly find itself divided into factions: Some obeying the orders from the federal government, some mutinying and fighting against these soldiers, and some refusing to fight on either side, possibly deserting. The federals would probably have the advantage that some number of soldiers would obey orders regardless. But plenty wouldn't.
So far I haven't talked much about which side is the federals and which side is the rebels. Are we supposing that a Democrat wins the election and Republicans secede, or that a Republican wins the election and Democrats secede? In many ways it wouldn't matter which was which, but I think when it comes to the response of the military it would. The military is disproportionately conservative and disproportionately from the south. A Democrat president who orders the military to attack the south would likely be on much shakier ground then a Republican who orders the military to attack the west and northeast.
So my best guess is that if a group of states tried to secede, the other states would just let them go. They'd yell and scream and negotiate and threaten, but in the end they'd just let them go.
© 2020 by Jay Johansen
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