Chelsea Green Publishing sat down for a Q&A session recently with author Bill Kauffman, whose latest book is Bye Bye, Miss American Empire. Here’s the result.
Q: In Bye Bye, Miss American Empire, you write that secession is the next radical idea poised to enter mainstream political discourse in the United States. What makes you think the time is ripe for breakaway movements?
A: What began as a decentralized, peaceful American republic has become a centralized American Empire, deeply in debt and forever at war. We are subjects, not citizens. People feel utterly, abjectly powerless when it comes to our national government. They—we—have no say whatsoever over matters of war and peace, liberty and justice. So all across the American political and geographic map, people are trying to reorder their lives on a human scale. They want to regain a measure of control over their lives and the lives of their communities. Politically, the means of doing this is decentralizing—that is, removing power from remote authorities and bringing it closer to persons, families, neighborhoods, small communities. Secession is one emphatic way of decentralizing power.
Q: Some U.S. secessionists want to form new nations; others simply want to divide up states. What are some of the more viable movements out there?
A: In a just world—keep dreaming, right?!—California would have divided into two or three states many decades ago. As we are seeing today, even Sacramento’s Kindergarten Cop cannot rule a state of 35 million people stretching from Yreka to San Diego. In New York State, rascals and visionaries from William Randolph Hearst to Norman Mailer and Bella Abzug have agitated for a separate State of New York City—and believe me, those of us in Upstate New York have cheered them on. California and New York are the most promising candidates for birthing new states—new stars on Old Glory. As far as breaking away from the union, the loudest independence movements are in Alaska and Hawaii—noncontiguous states that were added to the U.S. for military purposes during the Cold War. The Hawaiian movement is largely made up of native people whose country was stolen from them in the 1890s and they rather resent that theft; the Alaskans for independence, whose ranks have included Todd Palin, have a libertarian tinge. There is also an improbable and magnificent independence movement in Vermont, of all places, and there are independence movements of varying size and character in Texas, the South, and the Pacific Northwest.
Q: The motives for all these movements are surprisingly varied. Is there a common thread among the nation’s secessionist movements?
A: The best have in common a love of place, of a distinct and individuated culture, a history and lore and humor all their own. They honor the sanctity of small places—which can be city neighborhoods as well as country hamlets. They believe in local democratic self-government, and they see all too clearly that the American Empire, a centralized bureaucratic behemoth mired in perpetual war, is the enemy of their places. You can’t care about Baghdad and your own backyard—and the American Empire insists that you prize the former over the latter. (It’s no coincidence that our rulers—men like Barack Obama, John McCain, and the generals in charge of our unwinnable wars—are completely placeless men, without the roots that keep us anchored to local communities.)
Q: Your own politics are hard to pin down: you’re not stereotypically right, and you’re not stereotypically left. So, where are you, personally, coming from on the secession issue? Do you support any of the movements you write about?
A: I’m a localist and a decentralist with a strong libertarian streak. I once wrote, tongue not entirely in cheek, that I was the love child of Dorothy Day and Henry David Thoreau, conceived amidst the asters and goldenrod of an Upstate New York autumn. My wife and I moved from D.C. back to my hometown in rural New York State more than 20 years ago and I never lost a minute of sleep worryin’ ’bout the way things might have been, as the song goes. As a patriot son of rural New York, I am wholeheartedly in support of statehood for New York City.
I’m also a sentimental patriot of the old 48-state America. I’ve always thought statehood for Alaska and Hawaii smacked of imperialist overstretch so I’d gladly bid them adieu. The Vermont independence partisans have just the right blend of wit, outrage, localist patriotism, and whimsicality, so I wish them well. As for incipient movements or those waiting to be born…if they are based in love of a place and its people—all its people, of all creeds and colors, and its poetry and accent and flora and fauna and punk rock clubs, too—then I’m a sympathizer.
Q: Secession debates have been front and center during much of U.S. history, and some believe states have a constitutional right to secede. What’s your take on that?
A: The Constitution makes provision for new states to be formed out of existing states, so a state of Baja California or New York City, for instance, would be perfectly constitutional. Unfortunately, the Constitution does not provide a way for states to say farewell to the union. Once in, never out—but there is a loophole, of sorts. In the post-Civil War Supreme Court decision Texas v. White, Chief Justice Salmon Chase said that while the union is “indissoluble,” states could secede if they gain “the consent of the [other] States.” It would have to be done peacefully, amicably, fraternally—just the opposite of the Civil War.
Q: In your book you purposely don’t give a lot of ink to really fringe secession movements—like those grounded in racism and hatred. Why not?
A: Life is too short to waste time on the haters. They aren’t part of real communities anyway—they exist primarily in the fetid and disconnected precincts of the Internet. Any worthy political or social cause is grounded in love. It has to be or it wilts, it rots. The drunken scamp and great Upstate New York writer Frederick Exley once said of his hometown, “Watertown is not in my marrow; it is my marrow.” That’s the spirit behind true patriot love.
Q: With Tea Party movements on the rise and states talking about pulling out of nationally mandated healthcare reforms, do you see secession debates picking up steam?
A: Yes—though gradually. People are sick and fearful of imperial military misadventures abroad and “too big to fail” corporate welfarism at home. So some states are cautiously reasserting their rights under the 10th Amendment. Yet what happens if—when—Washington contemptuously rejects those claims? For instance, Wisconsin may try to keep its state guard from being deployed to Iraq, or Montana may want to opt out of Obamacare, but the feds will grant no such option. It’s submit—or else. I await with interest the day a state refuses to submit. To quote Walt Whitman’s poem “To the States”: “Resist much, obey little.”
Q: You make the point the Soviet Union broke apart in secession—and that the same sort of disruption could occur here in the U.S. given the right impetus. If the secessionist spirit escalates, do you think massive and possibly violent disunion is possible in the U.S.?
A: I’m not exactly Nostradamus. My heart foils my predictive powers, so I always end up betting that Ron Paul or Ralph Nader will win the presidency and the Buffalo Bills will win the Super Bowl. But I think any redrawing of the American political map will be piecemeal rather than wholesale. And any act of secession—say, of Vermont—would be peaceful. As debased as our rulers sometimes seem, and as militarized as we have become, I just can’t see bombs falling on Burlington if Vermont chooses self-rule. Whether in or out of the union, Vermont and New Hampshire would still be neighbors, rivals, trading partners; all that would change is that Vermonters would make the laws under which they live rather than cede that responsibility to strangers in Washington. What’s so scary about that?
Bill Kauffman is the author of Bye Bye, Miss American Empire: Neighborhood Patriots, Backcountry Rebels, and Their Underdog Crusades to Redraw America’s Political Map, available now.