The latest round of efforts to form new states out of rural counties in states like California, Colorado and Maryland cannot succeed. But that doesn’t mean these movements can't pack a political punch at the ballot box.
When I hear the word “secession,” I tend to think of the Confederacy. But today, a new secession movement is taking root, and it is not blue vs. gray but rather rural against urban.
Across the nation from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to the Maryland panhandle to northern Colorado and northern California there is growing secessionist movement in rural areas that feel a deep geographic, cultural and political disconnection from their states’ increasingly urban power centers.
These new rural rebels, inspired by what they say are a litany of grievances over issues such as gun rights, land use and environmental regulations, are pushing to carve out new states and political jurisdictions. But they face long odds and high hurdles to realize their goals.
Although the federal Constitution allows a region to break away with the approval from both a state legislature and Congress, the last time this occurred was back in 1863 when West Virginia gained statehood by jettisoning Virginia.
Rural angst directed at Washington and state capitals is nothing new. The late 1970s and early 80s saw the “Sagebrush Rebellion” take root across the mountain West as folks in the hinterlands expressed their displeasure at Uncle Sam’s decisions around use of federal land for grazing, logging, mining and military training.
Other rural secession efforts have occurred just at the county level within states. In 2005, some residents in the western portion of Loudon County, Virginia (then the third-fastest growing county in America), a bucolic landscape of upscale horse farms and hunt country, began a push to create a new county called Catocin, to insulate themselves from the sprawl of fast food, condos and strip malls encroaching from the county’s eastern flank just a short 25 miles from the nation’s capital.
Many urban liberals may be quick to dismiss this new wave of secessionist sentiment from the boondocks as just a bunch of complaining from tea party whackos. But that explanation may not be the case.
The recent recall elections of two Colorado state senators (both Democrats) who voted for tougher gun laws and the group Stop War on Rural Maryland, which has waged its own jihad against Gov. Martin O’Malley (a former mayor of Baltimore, the state’s largest city), do have partisan overtones.
But here in rural western Massachusetts (or Baja Vermont), a state completely dominated by progressive Democrats, there has long been a simmering anger at Boston for failing to fully fund critical line items in the annual state budget for regional school transportation reimbursements and payments in-lieu of taxes for massive amounts of state-owned forest and parks that are hosted by rural towns and are off the tax rolls. Add in resentment over paying off the debts from the huge cost overruns of the Big Dig (or Big Pig as we call it) in Boston, which has resulted in the short-changing of local road and bridge projects in the small towns, and you can see how the seeds of secession can easily be sown.
In fact, when South Boston’s Billy Bulger (yes, Whitey’s brother), was president of the Massachusetts Senate, he once said “when the rubes go home, we cut the cards,” meaning that the wishes and needs of his colleagues from outside of Boston would be subservient to what the urban machine dictated.
Experts say that even if legislative approvals could be won, there still is the thornier problem of generating enough revenue from a thin tax base and population to provide the range of government services that are in place now.
“There is of course no chance that these secession movements will succeed,” says Alan I. Abramowitz, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta. “And I think the leaders need to think about the fiscal implications of secession. Some of these areas are relatively poor and probably receive more in state services and benefits than they are paying in state taxes.”
But that does not mean that these rural protest movements can’t pack a punch – especially at the ballot box.
In the wake of the Colorado Senate recalls, the talk turned to gunning for the defeat of Gov. John Hickenlooper next year. Hickenlooper (another former mayor big-city mayor), is already in hot water with many rural voters in the Centennial State for signing a bill in June that will double the renewable energy requirements for rural electric co-ops, a move that opponents say will drive up utility costs for consumers and irrigation costs for farmers.
In Maryland, if Gov. O’Malley goes ahead with plans to seek the Democratic nomination for president in 2016, his rural constituents could make his life miserable in the cornfields of Iowa (the nation’s 14th most-rural state) and the woods of New Hampshire (11th most-rural), both early primary states.
Matt L. Barron is a political consultant and rural strategist based in Chesterfield, Massachusetts (pop. 1,222). Follow him on Twitter: @MrRural