Conservative activists in five rural Maryland counties are fed up with what they see as the tyranny of a democratically elected state government they don’t control. They’re so frustrated that they want to secede and form their own deep red state.
Bizarre as it seems, the effort is part of a trend. In Colorado, up to 10 rural counties want to break off and form a new state called Northern Colorado. A handful of counties in Kansas and Nebraska are reportedly thinking about joining them. Several counties in Northern California are hoping to combine with a chunk of Southern Oregon to form the state of Jefferson – an old idea that apparently hasn’t gone out of fashion. And folks in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula fed up with Lansing have also been kicking around the idea of cutting loose.
The media have framed these stories as a symptom of a growing rural-urban divide, and that’s true. Gun safety laws enacted after the Sandy Hook shootings sparked the move in both Colorado and Maryland. Marriage equality for gays and lesbians, and differences over energy policy, immigration (over which state governments have little control) and taxes are often cited as “irreconcilable differences” by these secession advocates.
But it’s also another sign of the difficulty a group that dominated American politics just a generation ago – a group political scientist Alan Abramowitz narrowed down to married white people who identify as Christians – are having adapting to a country that’s becoming more diverse, and embracing a different, more liberal set of cultural values. As Michael Rosenwald noted in the Washington Post, “with secessionists, the term ‘final straw’ comes up a lot.”
An analysis of census data by Moyers & Co. found that non-Hispanic whites make up 93.5 percent of the rebellious Colorado counties, a higher share than the 87.7 percent of the rest of the state’s population. Unsurprisingly, there’s also a significant partisan gap — only around 39 percent of those living in the break-away north voted for Obama in 2012, while the rest of the state supported him by a 52-46 margin, according to an analysis of election returns.
Those divides are even more dramatic in Maryland, where a 26-point gap in presidential preferences separates the five counties considering secession from the rest of the state. Breakaway Maryland is 85 percent white, while whites make up just 51 percent of the population in the rest of the counties, according to a Washington Post analysis.
It’s certainly true that with less than 20 percent of the population now living in rural America, the policy preferences of conservatives living in the countryside or in small towns are often overshadowed by large majorities who live in cities and their suburbs. But that’s true of a lot of Americans – liberal hipsters in Austin, Texas, don’t have much say in their state’s governance either, to cite just one example among many. But as Jason Bane of the blog ColoradoPols told a local Fox affiliate in Colorado, “In a democracy, there are lots of other people who have viewpoints, and they don’t all throw a tantrum just because a vote doesn’t go their way.”
But this contempt for democracy makes sense when one considers some of the messaging conservatives in rural America are exposed to on a regular basis – messages they get from right-leaning politicians, Fox News and talk radio. At a 2008 rally in rural North Carolina, Sarah Palin famously coined the term “real America” to describe “these small towns that we get to visit.” From the same stage, Rep. Robin Hayes, R-N.C., said, “Liberals hate real Americans that work, and accomplish, and achieve, and believe in God.” Soon after, conservative talk-radio host Chris Plant asked, “Can you still be a real American if you believe that the regimes that govern in Western Europe are a better way forward than the system that we have here?” His callers were emphatic that you cannot.
It wasn’t a new narrative – it’s been a central part of conservative rhetoric at least since Richard Nixon came on the scene railing against “East Coast elites.” It’s one thing to hold a minority viewpoint among your fellow citizens, but something else entirely – something intolerable — if they’re not really Americans in the first place.
Or consider the belief, widespread on the right, that the nation’s founders would be modern conservatives were they alive today, and that the Constitution codified “small government principles.” It’s a myth – the founders agreed on very little, and during the Constitutional Convention of 1787, it was the Federalists, who favored a strong central government, who prevailed over the anti-Federalists who championed states’ rights and wanted to give only limited power to the central government.
But it’s a powerful myth, and if one believes that one’s political opponents are violating the nation’s founding principles, it’s easy to dismiss the legitimacy of their positions. Scott Strzelczyk, the Maryland activist organizing that state’s secession campaign, lamented in February that “the rules that govern government – the Constitution – are ignored and government does whatever it desires.”
Finally, there’s a narrative that has been pushed relentlessly for over a generation that these “real” Americans are competing on a sharply uneven playing field – that the game of democracy is hopelessly rigged against them by a biased media, academia and other institutions at the center of our political lives. If you believe that this is a “center-right nation,” your policy preferences are the default and you’re only losing because the deck is stacked against you, then breaking away from the majority with a small population of like-minded people seems like a perfectly rational recourse.
Unfortunately, these activists are in for a rude awakening. The movement has been roundly mocked. And it faces almost insurmountable obstacles – in order to secede, they’d need not only the approval of their state legislatures, but that of the United States Congress as well.
But as Jamie Raskin, a Democratic Maryland state senator and constitutional law expert, put it, “The rhetoric of secession today is the language of a protest movement, not a serious campaign to change political geography.”