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Commentary: Hold on, Colorado. It's hard to succeed at secession

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - It’s been 148 years since we’ve had a civil war so maybe we’re about due. In 2009, while gearing up for a presidential run, Texas Gov. Rick Perry hinted at a Tea Party rally that his state retained the right to leave the Union at its pleasure.

In fairness to Perry, he didn’t actually advocate secession — a development that would have left him in the awkward position of being a foreigner campaigning for the presidency of his former nation. He was merely flattering a popular misconception in the Lone Star State that because Texas was briefly an independent republic before joining the Union, it enjoys a unique status that allows it to leave whenever it wants to.

Of course, that option was exercised with dire consequences in 1861 at the start of the real Civil War. The historical verdict of that conflict was unambiguous: Along with the rest of the Confederacy, Texas was repatriated by force of arms. But dreams die hard and the notion of Texan independence is still asserted in some right-wing circles within that state.

More recently, voters in five counties of the Eastern Plains region of Colorado passed a secession petition. They don’t propose to leave the Union, but would rather take the less drastic step of withdrawing from Colorado to form a 51st state.

The sources of alienation among that disgruntled electorate are varied but include gay marriage, renewable energy standards, legalized marijuana and limitations on the capacities of ammunition magazines. In short, rural residents seem to feel they have been overwhelmed by the state’s populous urban centers.

If the effort were successful, the resultant Colorado-in-exile would consist of an area approximately the size of Vermont with a population of just under 30,000. Before designing a new flag, separatists have a few obstacles to overcome — not the least of which is Article IV, Section 3 of the United States Constitution.

That passage provides:

“New states may be admitted by the Congress into this Union; but no new State shall be formed or erected within the Jurisdiction of any other State; nor any State be formed by the Junction of two or more States, or Parts of States, without the Consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned  as well as of the Congress…”

For the petition to be more than symbolic, the Colorado legislature would thus have to agree to cede the territory and population in question, after which the U.S. Congress — where Colorado is fully represented — would have to approve the deal. Don’t look for any of this to happen any time soon.

Talk of secession is easy to dismiss as ramblings of the lunatic fringe. But I will suggest that it’s reflective of a genuine discontent that we ignore at our peril.

Though I don’t anticipate the formation of new states or a literal re-enactment of the Civil War, I would argue that deep-seated frustration is the cause of the political paralysis that afflicts the national government. The contretemps surrounding the rollout of Obamacare illustrates the point.

Inexcusable technical difficulties with the program’s website have made enrollment next to impossible and contribute to the perception that government is ponderous, inefficient and basically incapable of delivering on the grandiose promises that politicians are prone to make. 

Reneging on the guarantee that people who were satisfied with their present insurance could keep it fulfills the darkest auguries of alarmist critics who predicted that affordable health care was, in fact, a thinly veiled usurpation of personal prerogative.

People who are forced to pay more for coverage they don’t want or believe they need are like the separatist voters in eastern Colorado — their fortunes seem determined by the dictates of a remote majority. And individuals who feel powerless understandably seek to escape their oppressors. (Refer to the American Revolution for details.)

This sentiment, I think, explains much of the vitriol that has been directed at the president throughout his tenure in office. Some of the harsher criticism of Mr. Obama has been no doubt motivated by a racist minority, but most was engendered by the perception that he was forcing an alien agenda on an unwitting audience. It is difficult to imagine that an African-American like Colin Powell would have generated the same degree of vehemence.

But the president is not so much the cause of what troubles the right-wing as he is its effect. He was elected and re-elected by a changing population. Obama is as much the product of change as he is the catalyst for it. The evolving electorate is not only far more ethnically diverse, but profoundly influenced by its younger members.

The emergent generation sees the world in its own terms that often conflict with or ignore values their elders consider to be sacred. This group generally doesn’t engage in the boisterous confrontations that characterized the youth rebellion of the ’60s. Rather, its members tend to exhibit a kind of puzzled indifference to traditional concerns. Same-sex marriage, legalized pot — what’s the big deal?

Change, of course, is nothing new and neither is the discomfort it can cause. Though secessionist movements gather steam in northern California, southern Oregon and rural Maryland, I don’t look for them to succeed. But it’s probably worth the effort to understand the discontent that spawns them.

M.W. Guzy
M.W. (Michael William) Guzy began as a contributor to St. Louis media in 1997 with an article, “Everybody Loves a Dead Cop,” on the Post-Dispatch Commentary page. In addition to the St. Louis Beacon and now St. Louis Public Radio, his work has been featured in the St. Louis Journalism Review, the Arch City Chronicle, In the Line of Duty and on tompaine.com. He has appeared on the Today Show and Hannity & Combs, as well as numerous local radio and television newscasts and discussion programs.