THE WILDCATTERS: #Brexit, #Texit, and U.S. Public Opinion Toward State Secession

When Great Britain surprisingly voted to leave the European Union, the eyes of the nation quickly turned to Texas. With its unique history as an independent Republic, Texas seems like an American Quebec, the most likely state to want to strike out on its own. Liberal Americans might be glad to see it go, though Texans themselves believe they have a right to secede but express little desire to do so.

While Texas is unique in having a group claiming to be the legitimate government of the Republic of Texas, it is not alone in having an independence movement (Texas Nationalist Movement). The Alaska Independence Party is the state’s third largest political party with over 13,000 registered members, while Hawaii has several organizations pushing for sovereignty.

The legal questions surrounding secession were settled by the Civil War and then in Texas v. White 74 U.S. 700 (1869) when the Supreme Court ruled that states could not voluntarily withdraw from the United States. Writing for the Court, Justice Salmon Chase observed that “[W]hen, therefore, Texas became one of the United States, she entered into an indissoluble relation.” The U.S. Constitution, one might further recall, begins with “We the people” rather than “We the states,” assuring the legitimacy of the federal government was based on the consent of the people and not on the states.

But if the legal questions have been resolved, questions of public opinion remain less settled; and pollsters have asked secession questions on multiple occasions often with interesting and surprising results.

In a 2000 survey, Daily Kos asked Texas voters if they thought Texas would be better off as an independent nation or as part of the United States of America. Sixty-one percent of respondents said Texas would be better off within the United States while nearly 1 in 3 Texans (31 percent) believed Texas would be off as an independent nation. When asked in a follow-up question if they agreed with former Governor Rick Perry’s suggestion “that Texas may need to leave the United States,” 37 percent agreed and 58 percent disagreed.

In 2009, a 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair Poll placed a secession question in the context of Obamacare asking survey respondents which state (California, Texas, Alaska or Hawaii) they would most like to see go. California lead the way with 10% of respondents followed by Texas with 8%. Alaska and Hawaii finished with 3% each. The good news for our imperfect union is that 60% said “none” (or perhaps less optimistically that they were not sure which state they hoped would leave).

That same year, a Rasmussen poll reported that 31 percent of Texans said they believed Texas had the right to secede but 3 in 4 Texans said they did not support leaving the United States.

In 2010, the Pew Research Center asked respondents if they “would favor or oppose allowing an American state to secede and become independent from the country if a majority of the people from that state wanted to do this?” One in four Americans (25 percent) favored allowing a state to secede while 67 percent were opposed.

Two years later in wake of President Obama’s reelection, individuals from 40 states—following the lead of Louisiana—petitioned the White House to peacefully withdraw from the union. Texas lead the way with over 125,000 signatures, though three other states (Tennessee, Alabama, and North Carolina) secured over 25,000 signatures. It is not clear that those signatures came mostly from Texas or from residents in other states hoping for Texas’ withdrawal.

Just one year later (in 2013), a CBS News poll, using identical language to the Pew Center survey, found a slight increase – up to 30 percent - in the number of Americans willing to allow a state to secede provided that a majority of residents wanted to do so. When asked about the type of people who might want their state to secede from the union, more than 1 in 3 (34 percent) described these respondents as “mostly patriots” while slightly less than 1 in 3 (31 percent) described them as “mostly traitors.” Roughly equal percentages (17%) described them as neither patriot nor traitor or said they didn’t know what type of people they were.

In 2014, as Scotland debated independence from Great Britain, Reuters asked respondents “Do you support or oppose the idea of your state peacefully withdrawing from the United States of America and the federal government?” Narrowed down to “your state” only 24 percent supported withdrawing from the United States. As you might expect, there were differences across regions: 19 percent of Northeastern residents supported peacefully withdrawing from the United compared to 34 percent in the Southwest (including Texas) and 25 percent in the Southeast. 

In follow-up interviews, respondents who indicated wanting to withdraw were less ideological than an expression of protest. In a 2009 story on the Sooner Poll, one of us (Keith Gaddie) similarly described the desire to secede as a “take your ball and go home” attitude. Support for secession reflects less of a desire to leave than a sense of aggrievement with the federal government.

Most recently, in wake of the #Brexit vote, Democratic polling firm Public Policy Polling asked voters about the possibility of Texas exiting the United States. Twenty-three percent of respondents in a national survey were supportive. Curiously though those most supportive (43%) were not Tea Party conservatives but respondents who self-identified as “very liberal.” Placed in this context, the results may reflect the polarization of American politics where increasingly we dislike those we disagree with.

Overall, while there is no sense that public opinion within any state (even Texas) is supportive of secession, support is perhaps larger and more widespread than one might initially imagine.