On Thursday evening, what was touted as a nail-biter of a vote in Scotland which would determine if the country would break away from the United Kingdom turned out to not even be close. By a vote of 55 to 45 percent, Scotland decided that it would remain a member of the union of which it has been a part since 1707.
Americans were… unimpressed. First, the lack of exit polling and the methodical counting of votes ensured that those watching the coverage of the independence ballot had to wait until the late hours of the evening to get a clear picture of the results. Who doesn’t project election outcomes these days? Second, Americans clearly know how to organize secessionist movements far better than do their Scottish brethren.
While most of them end in defeat, or even blood, there has always been an undercurrent of secessionism running beneath the surface of the North American union of states. In spite of a general lack of legitimate grievances, one in four Americans are perfectly comfortable with breaking away from the Union even today.
“Almost a quarter (23.9 percent) of those surveyed said they were strongly or provisionally inclined to leave the United States, and take their states with them,” Reuters recently revealed. “Given the polling sample — about 9,000 people so far—the online survey’s credibility interval (which is digital for “margin of error”) was only 1.2 percentage points, so there is no question that that is what they said.”
Secession got more support from Republicans than Democrats, more from right- than left-leaning independents, more from younger than older people, more from lower- than higher-income brackets, more from high school than college grads. But there was a surprising amount of support in every group and region, especially the Rocky Mountain states, the Southwest and the old Confederacy, but also in places like Illinois and Kansas. And of the people who said they identified with the Tea Party, supporters of secession were actually in the majority, with 53 percent.
This should be more than disconcerting; it’s a situation that could get dangerous. As the Princeton political scientist Mark Beissinger has shown, separatist movements can take hold around contempt for incumbents and the status quo even when protesters have no ideology in common.
The United States hardly seems to be on the verge of fracture, and the small secession movements in a handful of American states today represent a tiny percentage of those polled by Reuters. But any country where 60 million people declare themselves to be sincerely aggrieved — especially one that is fractious by nature — is a country inviting either the sophistry of a demagogue or a serious movement for reform.
The press routinely underestimates the historical literacy of the American public. Cynicism is in vogue, and others – never themselves, of course – are often presumed by the lettered class to be rather dim. In the grand scheme, however, the Civil War was not so long ago that accumulated memories have faded.
The Generation X and Millennial generation had grandparents who fought in the Second World War and that generation’s grandparents fought in blue and grey uniforms. There are still people alive today may still recall hearing tales from Vicksburg, the Wilderness, Bull Run, and the Peninsula Campaign from those who fought there.
If a genuine and violent secessionist movement seems unlikely today, that’s because it is. While some might welcome a peaceful secessionist movement, they represent a fringe. Just as do, apparently, those nationalistic Scots who were devastated to learn last night that they are a minority.