Small Time Secessionists

Conservatives' backup fantasy

“Rural Oregon counties vote to discuss seceding from state to join ‘Greater Idaho,’” Fox News reported the other day. “A group called Move Oregon’s Border is leading an initiative to have Oregon’s rural counties secede from the rest of the state and join Idaho.” The group is led by a “retired plant nursery worker and lifelong Oregonian” who thinks the pointy-heads in the legislature are unresponsive to their needs:

“We’ve watched the shift take place in Oregon politics where the primary concern of the Legislature is Northwest Oregon. That’s where 78% of the state’s population is based. They tend to forget that every law that you pass in the state affects us out in the rural economies, too,” [Mike] McCarter told Fox News...

“Now you look and you say, ‘well, if you’re homeless, if you’re a hard drug user, if you're a rioter, if you’re an illegal, come to Oregon — we’re a sanctuary state and you won’t get in trouble.’ And that’s not the way conservatives feel in Oregon.”

Since the 2020 election, some of McCarter’s fellow Oregon conservatives has made some protest visits to their Statehouse in Salem; one such gathering might have been called a riot were it held by Black Lives Matter protesters instead of armed white wingnuts. On December 21 “Reopen Oregon” protestors attacked a reporter, smashed a Capitol door, and sprayed a chemical weapon at cops (sound familiar?). The new Oregon GOP chairman, State Senator Dallas Heard, by the way, was at this event and seems to be supportive of rightwing attacks on Capitols in general (“Don’t let any of these punks from that stone temple over there ever tell you they are better than any of you,” he told his crew on January 6. “Trust me. I work with these fools. None of them are half as good as any of you.”)

“Greater Idaho” is just the latest branding of rightwing secessionism in the Pacific Northwest (it’s not even that new; they’ve been pushing it all year, look it up on Google). In 2018 the Sacramento News & Review announced “The State of Jefferson’s plan for a California divided.” In that case it was Sacramento rather than Salem that was not listening to the outnumbered and disenfranchised conservatives, who demanded the authorities “fix this imbalance by adding more state legislators, especially in far-flung rural counties.”

The State of Jefferson wheeze is much longer in the tooth; the original idea, as this Oregon Historical Society monograph shows, goes back to the Gold Rush, sputtering thereafter (with an interesting divergence into a “State of Jackson” pro-slavery fantasy) through the decades:

During the early twentieth century, railroads tied [southern Oregon] ever more closely to national, and even (through steamships and the opening of the Panama Canal) international, markets. Resentments held by elites of the less-populated region grew, especially the often-voiced (but inaccurate) perception that those far-off places enjoyed far more than their fair share of tax expenditures. In 1909 and 1910, rather than float a potentially viable and realistic idea of secession, as had occurred in the early 1850s, commercial-club types and other local boosters (such as Medford newspaperman George Putnam) — people who probably were often prone to hyperbole in their writings — proposed to form the State of Siskiyou from several contiguous northern-California and southwestern-Oregon counties. Here, again, was a would-be political unit that schemed to incorporate parts of both California and Oregon.

This State of Siskiyou was not, however, a serious secession proposal. It was largely a bid for attention…

Jefferson, Siskiyou, Lincoln, Shasta et alia — these concepts persisted, mostly as toys newspaper editors dandled to beckon advertisers and subscribers, into the mid-20th Century. It was revived in 2013 “by conservative ‘Tea Party’ rhetoric,” per the monograph, “and likely encouraged by activities of the Far West’s Sagebrush Rebels” — the Bundys and their insurrectionist ilk. “Leaders hoped to obtain a grant from the conservative Heritage Foundation, in Washington, D.C., for a detailed cost analysis and study of the political feasibility of separation from California.”

On the con went, through 2014 (“‘It would reawaken the rural economy if it were unleashed from urban control,’ said Brandon Criss, a Siskiyou County supervisor who voted for secession” — Russia Today) and 2016 (“a Hail Mary pass made by folks who are sick of being underrepresented in the state legislature and ignored by California’s urban centers” — New York Daily News), to its present pass.

In recent years there have been many such small-time secessionist scenarios, nearly always proposed by hardcore movement conservatives. In 2009 Texas governor Rick Perry teased it (though Texans have been doing that pretty much since they joined the Union). In 2013, reported Reuters, “Riding a wave of anti-government sentiment across the United States, the small-town information technology consultant [Scott Strzelczyk] has launched a long-shot bid to get Maryland’s five conservative western counties to secede from the state…” In February 2020, West Virginia governor Jim Justice, joined Jerry Falwell Jr. (remember him?) in proposing a Virginia “Vexit.” “Local attorney Rick Boyer says he’s not giving up on Virginia, but he’s not happy with the changing political landscape,” WFXR obligingly reported. Boyer also said, “What I want is to go back to Virginia about 10 years ago.” (I think WFXR dropped a zero there.)

Since the 2020 election, there’s been a revival. Prominent Republicans like Wyoming’s Liz Cheney and Texas’ Allen West, and small fry like Mississippi State Rep. Price Wallace, have baited the boobs and the press with secession talk. Conservatives in Weld County, Colorado claim to be petitioning to cede their county to Wyoming because “the state of Colorado is at war with three major economic drivers for Weld County: small businesses, agriculture, and oil and gas.”

I say “claim to be” because most of the time these secession efforts are total political stunts with no viability outside the politicos’ PR offices. It’s easy to get newspapers, particularly rightwing ones, to amplify the sense of belligerent grievance by talking about each new iteration of the old routine as if it were Beatlemania. “Secession fever spikes in five states as conservatives seek to escape blue rule,” bannered the Washington Times in February 2020. “...Separation fever is sweeping the nation as quixotic but tenacious bands of frustrated rural dwellers, suburbanites and conservatives seek to break free from states with legislatures increasingly controlled by liberal big cities and metropolitan strongholds.”

Most of the coverage, and most of the secessionists’ boilerplate, is short on specific demands that might invite wider support and even productive compromise with the authorities. What their case usually boils down to is “we hate the government because we don’t run it.”

They don’t run it because they’re in the minority. And even with their gerrymanders and voter suppression they find the fact increasingly difficult to conceal.

So anti-majoritarian thinking has become very popular among conservatives, who have also been coming out strongly in defense of the Electoral College, which has gifted the Republican popular vote loser (no such thing as the popular vote! You can hear these guys yelling in the background) in three of the past six presidential elections. You see their essays in National Review and at the Heritage Foundation, and the superlobbyists of ALEC are on it. There’s a front group for the EC called Save Our States, which I found via the CPAC website. They offer educational handouts with titles like “The Three-Fifths Compromise and the Electoral College,” which refutes the popular-vote proponents’ argument that the EC was a tool of slavers by pointing out that “there is no evidence that a direct-election system would have prevented the election of pro-slavery presidents,” which is rather like saying “a carburetor would not have made a horse and wagon go any faster” and also way beside the point.

Conservatives are hitting that “Republic not a Democracy” shtick pretty hard lately for the same reason they’re sprouting so many secessionist buboes: they know the voters are not with them and want to keep power without their support. Hence the massive Republican efforts to deny access to Democratic voters (read: poor, black, historically disenfranchised ones). They may get away with it for a while, particularly if Senators Sinema and Manchin succeed in sabotaging their colleagues’ voting rights bills, but given the makeup of the electorate it can’t last long without a sudden, massive shift in government structure like secession, or an insurrection like the one some of them attempted, and of which polls show many of them approve, on January 6. This is their comforting backup fantasy, an emotional redoubt for when the levee breaks. That they’re devoting so much time and attention to it shows just how much they feel the need.