How ironic is the recent call for the secession of Texas from the United States by Republican Governor Rick Perry, who recently announced his candidacy for the presidency of the United States? And why should we think about this attitude in relation to recent debates about revisiting the birthright clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution?
In two separate incidents Perry has invoked secession as an option for Texas. In reference to the policies of President Obama, he first stated:
There's a lot of different scenarios. We've got a great union. There's absolutely no reason to dissolve it. But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what might come out of that. But Texas is a very unique place, and we're a pretty independent lot to boot.
If there is any doubt that his reference to Texas as a land of independent minded folk only alluded to their free-thinking, Perry subsequently was quoted at a meeting of governors as stating "When we [Texas] came into the nation in 1845, we were a republic, we were a stand-alone nation. And one of the deals was, we can leave anytime we want. So we're kind of thinking about that again."
Perry stated just last week that, "I think you want a president who is passionate about America -- that's in love with America." He then called Obama the "greatest threat to our country." And when asked by reporters if he was suggesting Obama did not love America, Perry quipped, ""You need to ask him."
In thinking seriously about Perry's advocating for secession, we should consider his claims historically and globally to determine their uniqueness. Secessionist movements have usually emerged from the breakup of empires and resulting cultural, religious and ethnic tensions. Secessionist movements sometimes lead to national plebiscites, but more often to civil war. Sudan is one contemporary example of a secessionist movement leading to civil war. Secessionists in Quebec, Canada strongly believed that their linguistic and cultural differences and discrimination against them based on these differences demanded a separate and autonomous state. Their movement was defeated in part by plebiscite.
The short-lived republic of Biafra was the result of a secessionist movement in the oil rich, ethnically diverse, eastern region of Nigeria. A civil war lasting for nearly three years between Biafran troops and the Nigerian army resulted in mass slaughter. Another example is the Spanish Civil War, which led to the defeat of Republican forces in Catalunya, Spain by the Falangist forces of Francisco Franco. In a sense, the Falangists got two for one: the takeover of the Spanish republic and the repression of Catalan nationalism. Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell, among others, noted the irony of Catalunya, a region filled with nationalists who wanted their own state separate from Spain, as the last stronghold for Spanish Republicanism. Two generations would pass before Catalan, the national language, could be taught in the universities and serve as the official language of the region.
What we find unique about many American secessionist ideologies and movements is their explicit and implicit references to the nation -- rather than the government -- of the United States. The federal government is now led by a black man whose birthright claim continues to be treated with suspicion by some on the right, who also believe that Obama's policies are robbing the nation of its material and human resources. Thus, Perry can claim to be a Patriot and a secessionist in the same breath, because he is suggesting that America is in the hands of an un-American alien of sorts acting against the interests of "real" Americans.
Perry's historical reference raises the specters of racism, slavery and colonialism, deeply intertwined with Texas' history as a Republic. Texas became an independent Republic in 1836 in part to thwart Mexican abolition and build a cotton kingdom in Texas. It became a republic for a second time in 1861 when it voted to join the confederacy in defense of slavery. Part of the stunning denials in the commemoration of the end of Civil War is the actual role of slavery as its principal cause, evidenced in the suggestion by presidential candidate Michele Bachmann that the founding fathers -- the crafters of the constitution -- "worked tirelessly" to end the institution of slavery, despite all evidence to the contrary. Thus, we believe that one of the core aspirations of secessionist claims then and now is a desire to be "free" to live as one wishes, even if this "freedom" is based on massive inequalities.
In this country, as well as others, anti-immigrant, racist and xenophobic fantasies often lurk within secessionist claims. In Italy, a movement in Lombardy called the Northern League has sought to secede from Italy and create the republic of Padania. According to its leader Umberto Bossi, the Italian north, and Lombardy in particular, is weighted down by an inefficient south, filled with Mafiosi, corrupt officials and a lazy work force. Worse still, he argues, is the influx of immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East, which further threatens Lombardy's cultural patrimony and economic stability.
Like the National Front in France in recent years, the Northern League has made some inroads into national politics, gaining political respectability through coalitions with other more centrist and leftist political parties. Their anti-immigrant stance is ironic given that falling birth rates in Italy, as in many EU countries, means that there simply are not enough people to fill jobs, particularly semi-skilled ones, and many immigrants now work in Lombardy's capital, Milan which recently has had several violent incidents involving attacks on African immigrants. These incidents, coupled with the visibility of the Northern League and similarly inclined organizations and people, has led to voluble debate in Italy over what it means to be Italian in the 21st century.
So how is it that a candidate for the presidency of the United States can simultaneously proclaim allegiance to the very office and country he has hinted at leaving? According to U.S. secessionist logic, if Barack Obama's presidency is "un-American," it makes sense for the Rick Perry's of the United States to want to break away from a nation-state they no longer recognize as their own. But then why run for president? Perhaps as in the case of the Northern League and Umberto Bossi, Perry and other secessionists want once again to proclaim this land as their own, but solely with "their own" people at the helm and living within its borders.
Michael Hanchard, Dept. of Political Science, Johns Hopkins University, Director of Racism, Immigration and Citizenship; Mark Sawyer, Dept. of Political Science, UCLA, Director of The Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity and Politics.