But all this secession talk misses a key point that every troubled couple knows. Just as there are ways to withdraw from a marriage before any formal divorce, there are also ways to exit a nation before officially seceding.
This scale begins with smaller, targeted exits, like a person getting out of jury duty, and progresses to include the larger ways that communities refuse to comply with state and federal authorities.
Such refusals could involve legal maneuvers like interposition, in which a community delays or constrains the enforcement of a law it opposes, or nullification, in which a community explicitly declares a law to be null and void within its borders. At the end of the scale, there’s secession.
From this wider perspective, it is clear that many acts of departure – call them secession lite, de facto secession or soft separatism – are occurring right now. Americans have responded to increasing polarization by exploring the gradations between soft separatism and hard secession.
These escalating exits make sense in a polarized nation whose citizens are sorting themselves into like-minded neighbhorhoods. When compromise is elusive and coexistence is unpleasant, citizens have three options to get their way: Defeat the other side, eliminate the other side or get away from the other side.
Imagine a national law; it could be a mandate that citizens brush their teeth twice a day or a statute criminalizing texting while driving. Then imagine that a special group of people did not have to obey that law.
This quasi-secession can be achieved in several ways. Maybe this special group moves “off the grid” into the boondocks where they could text and drive without fear of oversight. Maybe this special group wields political power and can buy, bribe or lawyer their way out of any legal jam. Maybe this special group has persuaded a powerful authority, say Congress or the Supreme Court, to grant them unique legal exemptions.
These are hypothetical scenarios, but not imaginary ones. When groups exit public life and its civic duties and burdens, when they live under their own sets of rules, when they do not have to live with fellow citizens they have not chosen or listen to authorities they do not like, they have already seceded.
Schools to taxes
Present-day America offers numerous hard examples of soft separatism.
Over the past two decades, scores of wealthy white communities have separated from more diverse school districts. Advocates cite local control to justify these acts of school secession. But the result is the creation of parallel school districts, both relatively homogeneous but vastly different in racial makeup and economic background.
As one reporter wrote, “If you didn’t want to attend school with certain people in your district, you just needed to find a way to put a district line between you and them.”
Many other examples of legalized separatism revolve around taxes. Disney World, for example, was classified as a “special tax district” in Florida in 1967. These special districts are functionally separate local governments and can provide public services and build and maintain their own infrastructure.
The company has saved millions by avoiding typical zoning, permitting and inspection processes for decades, although Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has recently challenged Disney’s special designation. Disney was only one of 1,800 special tax districts in Florida; there are over 35,000 in the nation.
Jeff Bezos paid no federal income taxes in 2011. Elon Musk paid almost none in 2018. Tales of wealthy individuals avoiding taxes are as common as stories of rich Americans buying their way out of jail. “Wealthier Americans,” Robert Reich lamented as far back as the early 1990s, “have been withdrawing into their own neighborhoods and clubs for generations.” Reich worried that a “new secession” allowed the rich to “inhabit a different economy from other Americans.”
Hoping to become a separate state independent of Chicago’s political influence, over two dozen rural Illinois counties have passed pro-secession referendums. Some Texas Republicans back “Texit,” where the state becomes an independent nation.
Estimates vary, but some Americans are increasingly opting out of hypermodern, hyperpolarized life entirely. “Intentional communities,” rural, sustainable, cooperative communes like East Wind in the Ozarks, are, as The New York Times reported in 2020, proliferating “across the country.”
In many ways, America is already broken apart. When secession is portrayed in its strictest sense, as a group of people declaring independence and taking a portion of a nation as they depart, the discussion is myopic, and current acts of exit hide in plain sight. When it comes to secession, the question is not just “What if?” but “What now?”