Something strange is happening to state government. Fed up with what they see as liberal overreaching, small groups of rural, largely conservative activists have decided they’re done trying to effect political change through the usual channels of votes and bills and the seemingly endless churn of election cycles. They’re plotting something drastic: They’re going to shutdow—wait, sorry. Wrong legislative impasse. What I meant to say is: They’re going to form their own states.
“It’ll be North Colorado. Or maybe New Colorado,” says Jeffrey Hare, founder of the so-called 51st State Initiative and a resident of Weld County, currently in the northern part of regular Colorado. In November, residents of Weld and 10 other counties will vote to determine if residents are interested in seceding from the state. Hare says he knows he’s fighting an uphill battle and that forming a new state is much more complicated than just redrawing a few borders. New (or North) Colorado would have to come up with a school system, maintain its own roads, and collect taxes—the latter a tricky prospect for a state conceived by Tea Partiers. But Hare is so sick of “those people in Boulder,” as he calls them, that he’s willing to take a stab at it.
He’s not alone. Northern Californians are trying to assemble the new state of Jefferson—again. (They tried in 1941, going so far as to inaugurate a governor.) Last year, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula briefly considered independence from the downstate mitten. And in Maryland, a man named Scott Strzelczyk is leading a movement to allow the five westernmost, Republican-leaning counties to separate from the rest of the state. “Here at the state level, we’re controlled by a single party—Democrats—and we feel we have no other recourse,” he says. “We’re sick and tired of being sick and tired. We want to be our own state.”
It’s important to point out that none of these movements are attempts to secede from the United States. They’re not like the dozens of online petitions signed in the wake of President Obama’s re-election that sought to declare independence from America, and which were openly embraced by white nationalist groups. (Secession-happy Texas is keeping its petition alive; it had over 125,000 signatures before the federal shutdown took the petition temporarily offline.) And while the movements that are furthest along, those in Colorado and Maryland, are backed by Tea Partiers (you can find people urging each other to to sign up for the 51st State Initiative on the Tea Party Community website), not every proposed state would be populated with conservatives.
Last year, Arizona’s liberal-leaning Pima County, home to Tucson, tried to declare itself the state of Baja because it didn’t want to be governed by Arizona’s conservative majority. In a twist, the impetus for the Baja movement was a proposed bill that would have allowed Arizona to nullify federal laws it didn’t like; the bill was defeated. Pima was thus trying to secede from Arizona because Arizona was distancing itself from the U.S. Or, as early Baja organizer Paul Eckerstom told the Wall Street Journal at the time: “We actually want to stay in the union. It seems Arizona doesn’t.”
The movements for splinter states make for catchy news headlines and fun hypothetical what-ifs, but almost no one thinks they’ll actually pan out. The U.S. Constitution allows a new state to be formed out of an existing one only if approved by both the original state’s legislature and Congress, which almost never happens. The most recent states to form this way were Maine, which separated from Massachusetts in 1820, and West Virginia, which broke off from Virginia in 1863, when Virginia belonged to the Confederacy. Since then, the federal government has been pretty strict about adding stars from existing states to the flag.
The interesting thing about these new movements isn’t their likelihood of success, but the fact that they constitute blatant attempts at ideological gerrymandering. “In previous state secession movements, there was usually a sense of compromise in the end that often diffused these things,” says Michael Trinklein, author of Lost States, a book about past statehood movements, “but now that we’re so polarized, it’s feeling as if these are movements of last resort.”
Past campaigns also focused on specific issues. In the 1920s, parts of northern Texas and western Oklahoma were upset that their states weren’t investing in paved roads in their regions, so they tried to band together to form Texlahoma. The plan failed, but, says Trinklein, “they did get their roads.” A similar movement cropped up in Kansas in 1992. Enraged by a new state law that simultaneously raised taxes and drastically reduced the amount of school funding allotted to southwest Kansas, nine counties approved non-binding resolutions to leave Kansas. A sign proclaiming “To Hell with Topeka, Let’s Secede” was even posted along state Highway 50. The movement subsided, but Kansas compromised on the school funding issue.
Leaders of Colorado’s 51st State Initiative have said they’re modeling their efforts on the Kansas movement. Hare points to a host of issues—Colorado’s alternative energy requirements, water rights, taxes—that compelled him to try breaking away from his home state. “But when we saw the gun control bills that were happening, myself and a couple of other people thought: How can we nullify this? The concept of statehood came out of that—we could bring a proper constitution to the new state,” he explained. A problem is that local voters have already recalled two state senators who proposed the gun control legislation and are in the process of trying to recall a third. So the 51st State Initiative is addressing something that has already been resolved via Colorado’s democratic process.
That’s the difference between the new crop of state secessions and its predecessors. The United States isn’t just divided into red and blue states; it has further split into red and blue counties. Instead of celebrating that together, they reach agreements that are essentially purple, people get angrier and angrier whenever the other color bleeds into their own. In July, the Pew Center released a studythat found Americans are more politically polarized than ever. With districts in the U.S. House of Representatives drawn to keep seats “safe” for either Republicans or Democrats, only a small portion of the 435 seats switch parties in any election. If voters with political opinions continue to separate from those they disagree with—watching separate news channels and living in rival political districts— the stalemate is likely to worsen.
“If people want to live in ideologically homogenous communities, they’re better off if you let that happen,” says Jason Sorens, a lecturer of government at Dartmouth College and the founder of the Free State Project, which is working to get 20,000 Libertarians to move to New Hampshire to swing the state’s political makeup. But if we divide our states into smaller and smaller units, won’t we eventually have communities too diminutive to take care of themselves? After all, a city block doesn’t have the resources to care for its citizens the way an entire city can, and a handful of rural counties is rarely able to make up a whole state, unless it’s Wyoming. “Yes, but you don’t want people to live in a political environment they don’t believe in,” Sorens says. “The best we can do is give the most people the kind of government they want.” There’s a name for that idea: democracy.