Rick Perry’s media-friendly turn of phrase regarding Texan sovereignty has set off a sensational level of interest in the business of retrospective nation building – the art of justifying annexations, treaties, royal deposition, and marginally-legal occupation – hundreds of years after the fact. While the US media has treated the statement about possible Texas separatism with mostly amused curiosity, the truth is that secession is one of the most commonly employed political strategies around the world, including the United States.
With the world organized into sovereign Westphalian states (since 1648 and still ticking), and power centered in the national governments of these states, attaining recognized statehood is the ultimate goal for many groups. Without the mantle of statehood, many argue, you are subject to the whims of an unresponsive and oppressive government.
In the US, Hawaiian sovereignty activists are likely the most legitimate voices for an independent nation, with even the US government recognizing wrongdoing. In November 1993, then-President Clinton signed the famous “Apology Resolution,” passed by both houses of Congress, which admitted that, “the indigenous Hawaiian people never directly relinquished their claims to their inherent sovereignty as a people or over their national lands to the United States.” In short, US military forces supported an illegal overthrow of the constitutional monarchy in 1887, and a similarly extra-legal 1898 annexation.
Other movements, such as the Alaskan Independence Party, Second Vermont Republic, and Texan efforts are not strictly linked to historical wrongs, but instead a new frustration with the US. Indeed, anytime communities become alienated from the national system, often along identity and economic lines, the talk of separation tends to become louder. Particularly in a time of economic upheaval and recession, historical cleavages in society become more likely to promote separatist feelings.
Across the globe today, sub-national groups continue to clamor for recognition, some more fervently than others. Ranging from the examples of Belgium, Spain, Somalia, Canada, Morocco, Russia, Iraq/Turkey, China, Israel/OPT and so on, to the less aggressive cases like Italy, France, and Puerto Rico, nearly every nation on the planet has some level of separatist tendency, which stretches the fabric of national unity.
Some countries, such as Spain, with its complex levels of decentralization of language, culture, finance and political power, maintain national composition by providing strong autonomy to communities that might otherwise attempt to break away. Others decide that national unity is no longer possible to maintain, evidenced by the 1947 partition of the Indian sub-continent, or the 1990s break-up of the Balkans. In many places, numerous political parties represent the various regional interests in the national government, allowing for many voices to smooth over societal divides.
The US, with its incredible geographic size, diverse population, socio-cultural and identity rifts, and pre-partitioned state boundaries, would seem to be a prime candidate for regular crises of territorial and political integrity. As well, with the 1860s in mind, there is clearly a history of conflict based on these ideas.
The modern US political system, however, has found ways to mitigate the risks, inspired by the long and troubled history of state versus national sovereignty and the rights of individuals over the state, which bolsters the numerous cultural efforts to maintain national unity.
By having two ubiquitous political parties, the US as a nation retains continuity and conformity throughout the system. Two poles in political society create a commonly defined space for dialogue. But while there is continuity, there is great variability. As anyone can tell you, a Republican in New Jersey is a far cry from a Republican in Utah, and a Democrat in Mississippi shares little with her partisans in Rhode Island. Regional, and even local, variation provides enough flexibility to exercise state and individual rights and ideas, without challenging the legitimacy of the US as a nation.
In addition multiple centers of power in the parties themselves prevent one voice from dominating completely. While President Obama is by most measures the “leader” of the Democratic party, several other key power centers exist to check the party’s ideological drift, left or right. The DNC, the Senate and House leadership, and the Democratic Governors, provide far ranging ideas about what the party stands for, along with state party chairs, leadership and candidates. The exact same is true of the Republicans, where unlike the British Conservative Party led by David Cameron (in the Westminster System), many power centers provide dozens of messages about the ideas of the opposition, from diverse geographic and ideological sources.
Each of these, along with common cultural touch points and the “American” narrative that pervades all political rhetoric, serve to make national issues local, and link local issues with the national dialogue. As a result, national identity is quite strong, even in more “separatist” regions. The widely cited Rasmussen study from this month puts Texan support for independence at just 18%, and Native Hawaiians are currently seeking redress through the “Akaka Bill,” which seeks to provide recognition similar to that of continental Native American tribes, rather than territorial secession. At least for now, the mix of regional and national political identities seems to support the nation-state in the US, rather than challenge it, such that calls for secession are newsworthy only because they are far-fetched.
Renard Sexton is FiveThirtyEight's international columnist and is based in Geneva, Switzerland. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org