Could 932,367 Secessionists Be Right About Dying America?

Silhouettes of people's heads are seen in front of an electoral U.S. Map, displayed during an election night event organized
Silhouettes of people's heads are seen in front of an electoral U.S. Map, displayed during an election night event organized by the U.S. embassy in Skopje, Macedonia, early Wednesday, Nov .7, 2012. President Barack Obama won re-election Tuesday night despite a fierce challenge from Republican Mitt Romney. (AP Photo/Boris Grdanoski)

Within the month since Election 2012, almost a million Americans have drafted and signed petitions to the White House for peaceful secession from the United States of America.

It is easy to dismiss such developments as silly, partisan, or racist reaction to President Barack Obama, but those of us in political and academic leadership have to take a serious look at this movement. Regardless of our opinion of secession sentiments (which also surfaced among anti-Bush activists), this movement speaks to our hopes and fears for the future of American democracy.

Who Are These People?

The political distemper underlying secession has been simmering for quite awhile historically, but this particular movement clearly has been triggered by President Obama's reelection on November 6.

It began the next day when a Louisiana citizen filed his petition on the White House website reserved for such initiatives. Since then, more than 70 petitions have been filed in all 50 states, engendering a flood of online adherents -- precisely 932,367 signatures as of this posting. Texas leads the parade with 118,957 names; and already, eleven states, some through multiple petitions, have surpassed 25,000 signatures. Most of these states are in the South; but significant numbers are piling up in Arizona (23,962), New York (23,918), Pennsylvania (23,318), Colorado (22,704), Indiana (21,916), California (20,021), and Michigan (19,971). The White House officially reviews and responds to any petition securing 25,000 signatures; so it may not respond to all of these petitions. However, 932,367 secession signatures in one month comprise an interesting demonstration of protest sentiment.

These disgruntled Americans probably include a sizeable portion of conservative Republicans unhappy with Obama and I suspect there is a strong presence of libertarians and fringe groups. The petitioners are not concentrated in any one region, with petitions having been filed from all 50 states. Much of the excitement and energy come from the predominantly "red" areas of the country; but, as already cited, Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Michigan, and California are among the top 20 states represented by signatures.

What Do They Want?

I imagine you can find myriad gripes among the secessionists; but their general complaint is amazingly similar to what the colonialists said about Great Britain in the 1770s. For example, the Texas petition purports "to re-secure their rights and liberties in accordance with the original ideas and beliefs of our founding fathers which are no longer being reflected by the federal government."

Solid support for the cause comes from libertarian icon Ron Paul. Just a few days ago, the GOP congressman from Texas pronounced secession a deeply American principle: "There is nothing treasonous or unpatriotic about wanting a federal government that is more responsive to the people it represents."

Furthermore, he added: "And if people or states are not free to leave the United States as a last resort, can they really think of themselves as free? If a people cannot secede from an oppressive government, they cannot truly be considered free."

The petition submitted from here in my home state of Alabama likewise recites the sentiment of the original Declaration of Independence ("When in the course of human events...") to support withdrawal from the United States of America.

Similarly libertarian philosophy seems to motivate the man who started the Alabama petition. "I don't want to live in Russia. I don't believe in socialism ... America is supposed to be free," says Derrick Belcher. He also has a specific complaint -- he says the federal government forced him to close his topless car wash.

History of Secession Movements.

The current petitioners are the latest in a long line of secessionists, from New Englanders ranting about regional discrimination during the early 1800s, to Northern anti-slavery abolitionists in the 1850s, to Pacific Northwest separatists pushing a multiplicity of causes in the 1990s, to a wide variety of secession discussions this past decade in Alaska, California, South Carolina, Texas, and Vermont. There are poll results floating around the Internet suggesting that close to half of American adults believe that the United States' system is broken beyond repair by traditional politics -- and, according to these reported polls, more than a fifth of the people agree that states have a right to peaceably secede from the union.

Obviously, these movements and ideas have achieved no more success than did the Confederacy in the Civil War. They represent no immediate threat to conventional government in America. But they can reveal the presence of festering infections here in our own civic body. They are like canker sores -- unsightly and symptomatic of underlying conditions that bedevil our Great Experiment.

Lessons for the Future of American Democracy.

Now, let me return to the headline of this post: "Could 932,367 secessionists be right about the United States?"

The quick answer is "Yes" and "No." Yes, our national experiment in democratic ideals has changed dramatically over the years and is in dire need of revolutionary attention; and no, secession is not the answer to our distemper. However, the ease and quickness and fervor with which the petitions took hold is indicative of something awry; and each day more people are signing up for secession.

Considering the distempered condition of contemporary America, we have to keep wary watch on such movements. There is a disturbing confluence of negative developments at the national level that fuel these outbursts at a critical time for American democracy.

Furthermore, if my analysis in the rest of this series is sound, political power and energy is devolving from Washington to regions and communities, where secessionist thinking is more concentrated, entrenched, and determined. Therefore, these developments could present serious problems in the future.

Now, having dealt with the secessionist petitions as a theoretically interesting, perhaps consequential, but non-fatal movement, let's look -- in my next post -- at more serious, systemic dysfunctions of our Great Experiment.

Author's Note: This is the fifth in a sixteen-part series of discussions about Election 2012, Barack Obama, and the future of American democracy. This series includes edited, updated material from my book, The Future of American Democracy: A Former Congressman's Unconventional Analysis (2002). I'm grateful to University Press of America for allowing me to borrow from that publication for my discussions on Huffington Post.