We Can't All Get Along: What's Driving Modern Secession Movements
Nearly a dozen counties in Oregon have voted to leave Salem behind and join Idaho. Local secession movements have sprung up in multiple states due to the urban-rural political divide.
Americans at all levels of government are casting about for more agreeable neighbors. Residents of Buckhead, a wealthy enclave with Atlanta, have temporarily shelved their plans to break off and form a separate city, due to opposition from state officials, but that effort will likely continue for years to come. In numerous other states, multiple counties are looking for ways to escape states where their residents feel like political minorities. On Tuesday, a Texas state senator introduced a bill that would allow citizens to vote next year on leaving the union entirely.
“We need a national divorce,” tweeted Georgia Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene last month. “We need to separate by red states and blue states and shrink the federal government.”
Her comment triggered a good amount of commentary and soul-searching about the question of whether the national motto of e pluribus unum — or, out of many, one — is still viable. These are, after all, the United States, or are supposed to be.
“This is a symptom of a far bigger problem facing America, which is this deep, deep polarization along ideological lines, where people feel they can’t live in a jurisdiction with those they don’t agree with anymore,” says Ilana Rubel, the Democratic leader in the Idaho House.
America has been undergoing a “big sort” for decades now, with people moving into communities where they’re surrounded by like-minded people, whether deeply conservative or highly progressive. In presidential elections, most counties are now decided by landslide margins of 20 percentage points or more. During the 2016 and 2020 elections, more than 20 percent of counties were decided by “super landslides,” giving 80 percent of more of their vote to one side or the other. That's up from just 6 percent of counties back in 2004.
The concentration of people with the same political stripes has led to an increasing interest in secession movements. “A lot of political tension happens in our states because of this urban-rural divide,” says Matt McCaw, spokesman for Greater Idaho, which is seeking to couple a majority of the land mass of Oregon with its neighbor to the east. “In Eastern Oregon, we have government that doesn’t match out culture, our values, our life.”
They’re not alone. In Illinois, more than two dozen counties have voted to break away and create a new state, including three last fall. Parts of Colorado would prefer to join Wyoming. There are officials in Western Maryland who want to be part of West Virginia. Residents in parts of Southern Oregon and Northern California have talked for decades about forming a new state of Jefferson. In 2018, the California Supreme Court blocked an initiative that would have split that state into three.
It’s possible that southwestern Oregon — along with most of the state east of the Cascade Mountains — will throw in its lot with Idaho instead. In May, residents of Wallowa County, Ore., will vote on the idea of joining Idaho. Assuming that measure passes, Wallowa would be the 12th Oregon county to approve what amounts to a secession vote, in order to get away from a state government long dominated by residents of the Portland area.
“Eastern Oregon and Western Oregon are very different places with very different cultures,” McCaw says. “And so people in Eastern Oregon find themselves as a political minority, with very little voice.”
Hey, Break It Up
Breaking up states into new units was mostly a 19th-century concern. West Virginia was split off from truly secessionist Virginia during the Civil War. Idaho itself was part of the old Oregon Territory before it became a state in 1890.
You don’t hear much about such things happening now. State borders occasionally undergo slight adjustment, but even that requires agreement from the legislature of each state involved, plus the approval of Congress. That’s why most of the contemporary secession votes are written off as symbolic efforts.
As McCaw suggests, most of the current discussions involve rural areas that feel both neglected and outvoted by metropolitan majorities that dominate their states. A decade ago, 11 rural counties in Colorado held secession votes, angered by environmental and gun-control legislation passed by legislative majorities dominated by the Denver-Boulder corridor. But residents of suburban San Bernardino County, outside Los Angeles, did approve a measure last November to explore splitting off from California.
Last month, the Idaho House passed a resolution to explore annexing much of Oregon. A majority of lawmakers saw clear advantages, including abundant natural resources and access to ocean ports. “Idaho has much more strict drug laws than Oregon, so by moving the border, we would move the Oregon drug trade farther from Idaho’s main population center,” says GOP state Rep. Judy Boyle. “We would gain enough citizens to give Idaho another congressional seat, plus bring more businesses and innovators into Idaho.”
Trading states would involve real trade-offs. The downstate Illinois separation initiative is really an effort to kick Chicago out of the state, with the goal of leaving Cook County as its own standalone entity. A 2018 study from Southern Illinois University found that Cook County and Chicago’s collar counties are net donors to the state treasury, getting back substantially less than they pay in state taxes, while Southern Illinois counties receive as much as $2.81 in state spending for every dollar they contribute.
McCaw argues that what’s at stake is a form of political freedom. People in the parts of Oregon that are routinely outvoted by the Portland area have had enough. It makes no sense to maintain borders drawn well more than a century ago that have outlived their usefulness, he says. “What we’re saying is, you deserve to have the government and the community the way you want it.” In other words, an updating and revitalization of federalism for our times, with people able to choose (or create) a more amenable political culture.
However, while there are lots of places that are either 80 percent Republican or Democratic, they aren’t all right next to each other. Maybe Greater Idaho would be a happier place for the majority of its residents, but it would leave people in Boise feeling that much more outmatched by the rural vote.
There will always be people who believe their views and priorities aren’t reflected by the state they’re in. The question is whether people can accept that while not everyone gets their way, majority rule is something to be respected, not rejected.
“Either we completely despair about being a representative democracy, or we find a way to work through this,” says Idaho Rep. Rubel. “We’re rapidly going down a path of being a totally unrecognizable nation if this becomes a norm.”