Secession petitions: Why Americans don't really want to break up

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Clockwise from top left: Abraham Lincoln memorial; girl with US flag painted on her face; American Revolutionary Way re-enactor; Stars and Stripes; US Capitol; Confederate flag

Independence movements are on the march in many Western countries, but the secessionists who have been making news in the US since last month's election are not, realistically, going anywhere. Americans are, in fact, unusually keen to stick together. Why is this?

The USA is a divided country, we're often told, polarised in a cultural civil war between the blue and red bits on its map.

Unlike almost all of their Western counterparts, however, Americans appear remarkably happy to stay together despite their differences.

While separatist parties are thriving in Canada and Europe, recent bids to take individual states out of the union have only served to demonstrate just how little appetite there is for this kind of politics in the US.

A series of petitions has been posted on the White House website calling for each of the 50 states to be allowed to secede.

So far Texas, South Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana, Florida, Missouri, Tennessee, North Carolina, Alabama, Oklahoma and Ohio have all attracted more than 25,000 names apiece - entitling them an official response from the administration.

In the context of the US population of 312 million, however, the numbers involved are minuscule.

Some 700,000 people in total are estimated to have signed so far - around 0.2% of all Americans. Even Texas's 118,000 signatures - the most of any state - represent less than 0.5% of its inhabitants.

These tiny figures actually set Americans apart from their counterparts in other major Western countries.

Scotland, Catalonia and Quebec are all governed by parties seeking a referendum on independence.

European nations such as Italy, France and Belgium all contain flourishing constituent nations demanding independence.

Nor is the trend confined to the West. The USA's Cold War rival, the USSR, fragmented into no fewer than 15 different states upon its collapse some of which also contain smaller national groups eager to break away. China, meanwhile, has nationalist movements in Tibet and Xinjiang.

The US is in an entirely different situation.

Even those who backed the petitions were most likely acting purely out of frustration with the presidential election result, believes Neil Caren, assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, who has carried out research into the signatories.

"My reading would be that even among the people who signed these petitions, probably a majority wouldn't actually want secession," he says.

"It's like saying you'll move to Canada - it's about how you express your dissatisfaction in the immediate aftermath of the election."

Certainly, the states where the petitions have attracted the most support are all among those which most favoured the defeated Mitt Romney over Barack Obama.

But any serious breakaway movement would be hampered by the memory it would resurrect of one of the most traumatic periods in American history - namely the civil war, which cost around 750,000 lives after the southern Confederate states declared independence in 1861.

Image caption,
Steven Spielberg's Lincoln explores one of the most painful eras of US history

"First of all, they had a rather big secession and that cost more lives than all the other American wars put together," says Anatol Lieven, professor of international relations at King's College London and author of America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism.

"The 1860s sent a pretty ferocious message about what would happen if you tried to secede."

In addition, Lieven argues, the civil war established a popular association between secession and support for slavery, which tarnished it for the vast majority.

Indeed, there appears to be more chance of the nation growing rather than shrinking. In November, voters in Puerto Rico, currently a US territory, supported a non-binding referendum to become a full US state.

Occasionally, however, mainstream politicians have flirted with separatist rhetoric - and, perhaps significantly, they have tended to come from Texas, which was an independent republic from 1836 to 1846.

In response to the White House petitions, Congressman Ron Paul said secession was "a deeply American principle". And in 2009, the state's governor Rick Perry said Texas was "a stand-alone nation" which was "kind of thinking about" its right to leave the union - though he subsequently disavowed support for independence.

Other minor breakaway movements have attracted fleeting attention. Sarah Palin's husband Todd was a member of the Alaskan Independence Party for some years, while a left-leaning group called the Second Vermont Republic generated some publicity during the early 2000s as it sought independence for the New England state.

There were more serious autonomist movements in times gone by. Native Americans resisted colonisation and assimilation. There were demands for New England to secede during the war of 1812. And an insurgency by pro-Mexican forces in the border areas was crushed in 1915.

For the most part, however, such sentiments have left ordinary Americans unmoved.

This, after all, is a country where children commonly begin their school day by declaring a pledge of allegiance to "one nation under God, indivisible".

Additionally, assurance in the superiority of the American system of government is instilled from an early age, Lieven says. This belief in the constitution and the nation's founding principles is one of the US's key unifying factors.

"America has an exceptionally strong sense of civic nationalism," he says. "The faith in its institutions is reinforced right from the cradle."

Another factor that may put a brake on centrifugal tendencies in the US is its federal constitution, which allows the 50 states considerable autonomy.

While the states and the federal government may have come into conflict from time to time - most notably during the civil war and the civil rights reforms of the 1960s - the constitution has helped to prevent friction between parts of the nation with different governing philosophies.

Significant, too, is the fact that America is a place where waves of incomers have aspired to settle and assimilate, believes Eric Zuelow, professor of history at the University of New England.

"That immigrant experience is built into the national mythology. It's about the mythology of the melting pot," he says.

Indeed, he adds, minority and ethnic groups tend to have spread out and intermixed sufficiently to prevent any linguistic or cultural equivalents of Quebec emerging.

"Certainly the US has different regional cultures but they are not framed as national cultures - they are all under the heading 'America'," Zuelow says.

Native American culture, meanwhile, is if anything more "American" than that of the immigrant groups. By contrast, Scots are liable to feel less "British" and Catalans and Basques less "Spanish" than other parts of the population in their countries.

Red state versus blue state, north versus south - neither divide appears even remotely significant enough to threaten the union. In fact, it's a truth Americans appear to hold self-evident.

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