• Alyse DiNapoli

State secession movements underline long-standing divisions

Updated: Jun 1, 2020

Despite the devastating public health and economic impacts of COVID-19, many are hopeful that the Great Pause — as some have coined the quarantine — may foster an ease in rancorous political divisions seen in the U.S. While there is some albeit scant evidence that is happening, economic and public health uncertainties spurred by the pandemic are more often unmasking deep-seated divisions.

One such political movement in Illinois has only further manifested itself amidst state and city issued stay-at-home orders. Residents in central and southern counties of Illinois have started expressing the desire to secede in light of these orders. The region’s mostly Republican base claims that the shelter-in-place orders place undue mandates on small farming communities with little or no confirmed cases of COVID-19.

A call for establishing a new state in Illinois is more than a few weeks old. Last year, Republican lawmaker Brad Halbrook introduced legislation making Chicago its own state, claiming that the city’s Democratic majority in that area holds too strong of a grip over state-level decisions and policy making, particularly on hot-button issues such as immigration and gun control.

Illinois’ 51st state movement bears similar resemblance to others that have resurged over the past decade. In 2013, five rural Colorado counties in the Eastern Plains voted to break away, claiming they are overlooked in the state Legislature in favor of more populated liberal areas such as Denver.

John Straayer, professor emeritus of political science at Colorado State University, said access to critical resources remains a contentious issue between rural residents, who require vast amounts of water for agricultural purposes, and urban dwellers, whose needs increase as the population growth continues. Combined with battles over state highway funding and more recent conflicts over oil and gas regulation, the state has witnessed a growing political polarization.

“On water issues, on highway issues, on funding issues, all of this overlaps with the culture stuff,” Straayer said. “The rural areas tend to be more conservative. They tend to be losing some of their population, and the economic growth is not in the far east and the far west. It’s up and down the Denver metro area.”

The secession movement in Colorado didn’t garner enough support to propel it forward — it requires both state and U.S. Congress approval which would require approval from the state and US Congress)— but nonetheless, partisan tensions have simmered.

In California, proponents of the State of Jefferson revived their movement around 2013 when five county boards of supervisors in the northernmost region voted in support of leaving the Golden State entirely. Similar to other conservative-based secession movements, the 51st state would take an anti-tax stance and oppose additional gun control and environmental regulations favored by Democrats. Despite the lack of widespread support curtailing the group’s progress, this contingent of mostly rural counties continue to feel underrepresented in a heavily blue state.

Despite the extremely low likelihood of success, 51st state movements can still exacerbate partisan frustrations to an alarming degree. Washington state Rep. Matt Shea, R-Spokane Valley, has been an avid supporter of Liberty State, another secession movement that advocates for little to no taxes and the deregulation of various industries, such as firearms and agriculture.

A report released in late 2019 outlined how a state report alleges the controversial lawmaker engaged in domestic terrorism by actively promoting and participating in three armed conflicts against the U.S. government, including a takeover in Oregon that resulted in one death and multiple arrests. His involvement in the Patriot Movement — an organization made up of militia members that included domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh — and a manifesto entitled, “Biblical Basis for War,” motivated state lawmakers to call for Shea’s resignation. But while he was suspended from the Republican caucus, he still holds his title as a state legislator.

“I think most Republicans in the state are embarrassed by Matt Shea, but not enough that they want to expel him,” said to Cornell Clayton, professor of government and director of Thomas S. Foley Institute at Washington State University. “And I think that's because he does represent a significant portion of the Republican base, especially on the east side of the state.”

“So I think he should be taken seriously, much like the Alt-Right (movement) and others at the national level should be taken seriously, because I think they do appeal to a larger percentage of the Republican base, more so than people want to admit.”

Economic strife in many rural areas has contributed to the frustration seen among these movements. Areas like Shasta County, where part of the State of Jefferson movement has taken hold, have felt the devastating impacts of the opioid crisis in their communities.

“They’re suffering, and those have historically been the more conservative areas, maybe a little more religious areas as well, and there's a cultural thing and a sense that [they’re] being left behind,” Straayer said.

But dwindling industries and social issues cannot fully account for the renewed enthusiasm in a brand new state. While these movements may have heightened in response to state-level grievances, the culture wars that have persisted in the last few decades have only added fuel to the fire. With some exceptions, such as in Arizona and other parts of California, secession proponents tend to lean right on the political spectrum.

“Much of this doesn't really have to do with economic issues in the end,” Clayton said. “Taxes is important as a symbolic issue, but really, what a lot of this comes to, and the reasons why you’ve seen the uptick in the last two decades, is because it’s about cultural grievances and it's about a sense on the right … that they’ve lost this cultural battle.”

On a national level, much evidence shows the left has been winning the culture war in the U.S. since the latter half of the 20th century. The gradual secularization of institutions, successful liberation movements and the general acceptance of film and music once considered taboo or socially corrosive, have symbolized that progress.

The Democrats’ alignment with urban voters — who more often than rural voters support progressive social movements — began even earlier in the 1930s. Progressives have also long championed social welfare programs — something that staunch Republicans have viewed as detrimental to the family structure since at least the 1970s.

Religious conservatives, on the other hand, have expressed skepticism or outright disgust at the New Left and its heightened influence. Even after the desegregation of public schools, the increasing emphasis on a secular and multicultural educational curriculum sparked a conservative-led backlash that resulted in a 200% increase in Christian day schools between 1965 and 1979. Supreme Court cases like United States v. Seeger were interpreted by the Christian Right to mean that if secular humanism could be considered a religion, they were hence victims of religious persecution by the government.

Nevertheless, Washington and Colorado’s shift to reliably blue states only happened in the last couple of decades. Although Washington has had a Democratic governor since the mid-1980s — with the last Republican president they voted in being Ronald Reagan in 1984— the state’s legislature is more evenly split between the two parties. Since 1990, Republicans have held an average of 44% of total seats in the state House.

“People at the national level don't get this about Washington because they look at the map, and they see we're a blue state,” Clayton said. ut in fact, we're a deeply polarized state. If you look at measures of legislative voting, Washington state is one of the five most polarized states over the last 20 years in terms of how Democrats and Republicans in the state legislature vote.”

“It’s along the usual line of issues that divide urban and rural voters — things like gun control, environmental protection and economic development questions, taxation, questions about religion, and some social issues, such as gay rights and religion in our public institutions.”

Colorado’s shift from a mildly conservative state to a reliably blue state is more recent. While the state voted for Clinton and Obama in the past three presidential elections, the majorities went to Bush in both 2000 and 2004. And Colorado’s last Republican governor, who served between 2000 and 2007, is not a distant memory.

“The state has moved slowly but surely from conservative politics to more and more in the middle,” Straayer said, adding that the shift started around 2002 when the Democrats took over the state Senate.“That sort of marked a point when the state that had been comfortably conservative — not deep red, just moderately conservative — started moving into the Democratic direction … ut nothing has happened overnight. It was very, very slow.”

The growth of cities like Denver, San Francisco and Seattle is due in part to their burgeoning knowledge-economy sector, and Democrats’ alliance with this industry may help further explain their urban-rural rifts. While the party’s investment in science-based university research goes back to the New Deal era, more recent policy deals such as visas for technology workers — as well as intellectual property and patent protections for the pharmaceutical, financial and software industries — further reinforced their mutually beneficial relationship. As the party began considering itself as “urban,” these efforts among the left’s agenda isn’t too surprising.

This bundling of seemingly dissimilar issues is also found in the Republican Party. Not too long ago, the party consisted of free trade champions, but as Democrats became stronger proponents of globalization and the knowledge-sector economy, the GOP partnered more closely with rural manufacturing, agriculture and the natural resource industries. Coupled with their support from evangelicals on moral issues — particularly since the Reagan era — the geographic sorting between rural and urban voters on a wide range of issues has taken a clearer shape.

However, secession leaders frame their fight less as a national partisan battle and more as a fight for local control.

“You read on their website that ‘We want local control and local values, and our gov’t needs to reflect our communities.’ So it is about anti-taxes,” Clayton said. “It is about gun control. But it is also about the social issues. It’s about the liberty to be a Christian, or to have your values reflected in your government,” said Clayton.

Recent nationwide protests calling for a re-opening of the economy amid the coronavirus pandemic also echo a “local choice” argument. But while these secession movements are highly unlikely to succeed the mending of these local value differences — along with the tension it comes with — is increasingly harder to envision.


Full Text of HR0101, 101st General Assembly.

Liberty State.

State of Jefferson.

John Straayer, professor emeritus of political science, Colorado State University.

Cornell Clayton, professor of government and director of Thomas S. Foley Institute at Washington State University.

Washington State Legislative History Chart Book: A Selected Graphical and Tabular History of The Washington State Legislature.

Legislators, Colorado General Assembly.

Why Cities Lose, Chapter 3 & 4. Jonathan A. Rodden. 2019.

War for the Soul of the Nation, Chapters 6 &7. Andrew Hartman. 2019. "Rural Counties Consider an Alternative Type of Social Distancing-Kicking Chicago Out of Illinois". ProPublica. April 3, 2020.

Report of Investigation Regarding Representative Matt Shea. Washington State House of Representatives. December 1, 2019.

"5 Rural Colorado Counties Vote to Secede, become 51st state." Seattle Times. November 11, 2013.

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