The USA Today ran a brief story the other day on recent polling that shows “Georgia Republicans are divided on an issue with roots in the Civil War: secession.” Set aside for a second the humorous historical error of believing that the ageless political act of breaking away from one political society to create another somehow originated in the American Civil War; what is more interesting is that this is even a headline.
We’ve talked about the prospects for contemporary secession on this blog before (Joe, Kelse, and yours truly have all weighed in). Personally, I hope the discussion isn’t over; this is a topic that is both timely and immensely relevant to the questions that this blog is dedicated to: the interplay between historical tradition and a conservative desire for continuity, the limitations inherent in classical liberalism, the “pre-political” societal foundations on which political success or failure depends. Secession is an irreplaceable discussion tool for any student of American politics willing to dig deeper than a superficial description of current political actors and institutions.
According to the USA Today article, Public Policy Polling took a recent poll, whereby 26% of Georgians (as opposed to 18% of Americans) and 42% of Georgia Republicans (as opposed to 25% Republicans nationwide) support their state seceding from the Union. Another 42% of Georgia Republicans say they are opposed to secession. One might be able to write a lot of this off as political posturing- many Republicans are still sore after losing the Presidential election. But what do we make of the fact that Georgia Republicans support secession at a significantly higher rate than their national counterparts? What do we make of the fact that a majority of Georgia Republicans failed to identify as explicitly anti-Secession? What does this mean for the prospects of a strident supporter of “states rights” winning the Republican nomination and being elected Governor? Georgians might not be ready to secede just yet, but the fact that a significant part of the state’s electorate (including nearly half of the state’s majority party) is toying with the idea is bound to have political consequences, good or bad.
Plus, let’s not forget that the prior American secession movements of 1775 and 1860 started as responses to practical political circumstances as well. That’s often what it takes to get the ball rolling. Also, talk of secession was going on long before Lincoln was elected (anyone remember the Hartford Convention?); so we might not be at 1860 levels yet, but how far are we from the political environment of 1814? Most Americans don’t sit around thinking about political philosophy and theories of state sovereignty and the nuanced history of state-Federal relations. As a consequence, most Americans won’t ever consider drastic political action until a traumatic political event forces them to. The real question is: how far do we have to go down this road in order to get to that point?