How secession became America's favorite idle threat

The fears of another Civil War can’t be completely dismissed because anything that happened once can surely happen again. But untying the states from one another would be a monumental task. Just look at Britain, which has been trying for four years to extricate itself from a lesser supra-governmental body, the European Union, to which it has belonged for only four-odd decades. Neil Sedaka was right, breakin’ up is hard to do. Whatever our resentments and our jealousies, the commercial advantages alone of a uniform trade zone spanning the Atlantic to the Pacific should be enough to convince doubters that the 50 states stay right where they are.

Then why do we keep on acting like a nation of splitters but still hold it together? One explanation is that the idea of secession, especially after the Civil War, has become so politically transgressive that we love to frighten ourselves with it whenever we get bored or bothered. It’s America’s ultimate boogeyman—an even greater scare than a commie invasion—and automatically fills us with delicious dread of brother against brother, sister against sister, parents against children. It’s like a Stephen King book out loud, only it’s about our government.

The second, and maybe sounder explanation is that we invoke secession not as a genuine possibility because we know any state that attempts to break off will get the Republic of Indian Stream treatment and then some. We use the topic like a meat thermometer to broadcast our dissatisfaction with the federal government and our neighboring states. Threatening to leave the United States and go our own way provides us a way to display our fury and desperation, our hunger for change, and our unhappiness with our countrymen, without really having to do anything but shout. We’re sort of like that quarreling married couple that doesn’t want a divorce but signifies the union’s underlying frustration by one of the spousal units moving out for a weekend. Pay attention to me, the threat of secession says. Stop abusing and disrespecting me. Give me more largesse and a better tax deal. Or I’m out of here.