Allen West is a crackpot of sorts. But he is not just your average crackpot — those folks screaming conspiracy theories about the evils of the federal government from random street corners or congressional seats in Georgia or Colorado — he is the head of the Texas Republican Party. In the wake of the November election and the refusal of the Supreme Court to overturn the vote of the Electoral College, West decided the time has come for the State of Texas and other disgruntled red states to secede from the United States.
At first blush, it was easy to dismiss West’s comments as just more right wing lunacy. A former Army Colonel, West first came to national attention in 2010 when he was elected to Congress from Florida as a prominent member of the Tea Party movement, only to be denied a second term in large measure because he was viewed as too nasty. But that was a decade ago, and as nasty became normal within the GOP, West rose to his new position of prominence. For Republicans who have bought into Donald Trump’s Big Lie — which at this point is an overwhelming majority of the GOP — talk of secession would seem to be a logical next step.
West was not alone in musing about secession in the wake of Donald Trump’s defeat at the polls. As Trump’s loss was sinking in, conservative media icon Rush Limbaugh raised the issue. “I actually think,” Limbaugh told his followers in mid-December, “that we’re trending toward secession. I see more and more people asking what in the world do we have in common with the people who live in, say, New York?” The issue, Limbaugh stressed, was less about politics — whether Republicans would ever have a chance at winning New York — than about culture. Indeed, Republican politics are almost exclusively about culture these days.
With the GOP having walked away from its traditional core principles of fiscal conservatism, free trade, and global democratic leadership, keeping trans girls off softball teams, along with voter suppression and the Big Lie, are about the extent of what animates Republican politics anymore. And the frustration is palpable. Whatever the makeup of Congress — and however deeply rooted the advantages given by the authors of the Constitution to rural and right-wing America by the grace of the Apportionment Clause — the ability of the GOP to continue to hold power has offered little solace to Republicans who have seen the cultural move away from them along any number of vectors.
While the nation fought a bitter civil war over unilateral secession by the southern states that found themselves besieged by an increasingly hostile federal government, Abraham Lincoln fully understood that secession was an option legally available to the states. In his First Inaugural Address, he acknowledged that secession was possible should the seceding states secure the support of three-quarters of the states as the Constitution requires. And perhaps Allen West is right that the time has come, that the notion of the United States as a single nation no longer serves any overriding public purpose. There is little doubt that our politics have become incapable of addressing the political chasms that divide the country, and that the titanic role that the United States has held as a beacon of democracy in the world at large has been deeply shattered. Perhaps the fabric of our nation — the shared commitment to our founding purpose and creed that has long been presumed to bind us together — has become frayed beyond repair.
West and Limbaugh’s appeal to secession as a solution should not be dismissed out of hand. While we can hope that the pendulum will swing back, and that our politics will return to some semblance of normalcy in the near future, if one major political party has determined that accepting the results of elections is too heavy a burden to bear, then that political party has abdicated its most essential responsibility to the nation. If a majority of the supporters of that party, and a sizable minority of the nation, have similarly decided that they are only willing to participate in a game that is rigged to their advantage, then that is a reality that should be taken seriously.
Both West and Limbaugh discuss secession as though it is an act that the rest of the country — Blue State America in particular — would necessarily resist. But why should that be the case? Perhaps it is time to engage in that discussion seriously. It may well be that a smaller nation would become more politically manageable. And then there is the simple fact that blue states have and continue to pay a high price for the status quo.
I don’t mean a high price in some moral or metaphysical sense, but in strict dollar terms. Since the creation of the federal income tax following the ratification of the 16th Amendment to the Constitution a century ago, the wealthier and more economically successful states have borne a disproportionately larger share of the federal tax burden, even as those states have had disproportionately less representation in the Congress — in accordance with the Apportionment Clause — that decides how those funds are spent. This dynamic was summed up succinctly by the conservative fiscal watchdog group the Tax Foundation: “Thanks to a steeply progressive federal income tax, states with higher incomes pay vastly higher federal taxes, payments that are unlikely ever to be matched by federal spending directed to those states. Ironically, most of these high-paying states are the so-called blue states that have generally elected politicians who support a more steeply progressive tax system even though their own constituents bear a greater share of the burden as the code gets more progressive.”
The Wikipedia ranking of states by median household income illustrates the alignment of wealth and politics. Among the twenty states with the lowest levels of household income, New Mexico is the only outlier “blue” state. At the other end of the income spectrum, Alaska, Utah and North Dakota are the only “red” states among the twenty wealthiest states. The middle ten states on the list split 50–50, and, notably, include seven states that turned out to be pivotal in the 2020 election: Nevada, Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Iowa and Texas.
The cost to blue state taxpayers of the differential in tax burdens among the blue “donor” states and the red “recipient” states is significant. In 2019, the IRS collected an average of $9,708 per person in individual income taxes from all of the states. The amounts by state varied widely however, ranging from a high of $16,095 per capita in Massachusetts to a low of $3,650 in West Virginia. That is to say, the average household in Massachusetts paid more than four times as much into the federal kitty as its West Virginia counterpart. In total, thirteen states and the District of Columbia, from the Northeast, Midwest and West Coast — overwhelmingly blue states represented by 23 Democrat senators and three Republican senators — paid substantially more than the average in federal income taxes, while 34, overwhelmingly red states (Texas among them) paid less.
It is important to point out to “constitutional conservatives” like Allen West that this disproportionate sharing of the federal tax burden is not what the framers of the Constitution had in mind. The Constitution only gave states the power to levy income taxes, and required that funding from the states to support the federal government be provided equally on a per capita basis. It was the adoption of the 16th Amendment in 1913, allowing for a federal income tax, that changed the fiscal relationship among the states. Over the ensuing century, the burden of funding the federal government has fallen disproportionately on states in the Northeast and Midwest, and ultimately the west coast, where educational attainment and personal incomes across have consistently been higher than in the rest of the country.
The implications in dollar terms to the donor states are huge. In 2019, taxpayers in the State of New York, for example, paid $258 billion in federal personal income taxes, an amount that was $66 billion higher than it would have been had New York contributed on a per capita basis what the average state contributed. That $66 billion, as it turns out, was approximately equal to the entire State of New York General Fund budget that year. Given that reality, would New Yorkers rise up in anger should Texas, Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas propose to exit the Union, as West and Limbaugh seem to suggest? Perhaps, instead, New York taxpayers would eagerly show them the door.
While breaking the United States up and letting disgruntled red states go their own way might be financially attractive for Blue State America, it would not do much to ameliorate the deep partisan divisions within the country. Unlike in the early 1800s, when the division among slave and non-slave states fell along state lines, the divisions between red and blue America today are as much urban vs. rural, and within communities, as they are state-by-state. According to an analysis by University of Chicago political scientist Robert Pape, of the 377 Americans arrested or charged in the January 6th insurrection, a majority came from blue counties that voted for Joe Biden. Rather than being predominantly from deep-red America, Pape observed, “by far the most interesting characteristic common to the insurrectionists’ backgrounds has to do with changes in their local demographics: Counties with the most significant declines in the non-Hispanic White population are the most likely to produce insurrectionists who now face charges.”
Pape’s conclusions mirror those of Vanderbilt political scientist Larry Bartels, who concluded that the strongest predictor of anti-democratic attitudes among Republicans surveyed “is ethnic antagonism — especially concerns about the political power and claims on government resources of immigrants, African-Americans, and Latinos. The strong tendency of ethnocentric Republicans to countenance violence and lawlessness, even prospectively and hypothetically, underlines the significance of ethnic conflict in contemporary US politics.” Robert Pape pointed to two primary drivers of rage among those interviewed: first, the growing embrace of the white nationalist “great replacement” theory, which holds that low White birth rates, combined with mass immigration, are resulting in Whites being supplanted by minorities in the United States; and, second, extensive social media exposure. “Replacement theory,” he concluded, “might help explain why such a high percentage of the rioters hail from counties with fast-rising, non-White populations.”
While red state secession could be a boon to Democrats — consider all that money that blue states are now shipping off to red states, and the ease with which Democrats could control Congress and the Electoral College if Texas and a handful of other states were to exit — it would offer little but a temporary respite from the problems of cultural and political alienation that researchers observe among Republicans. Nor would secession insulate Republicans from the demographic trends that are at the root of their problems. Republican leaders of an independent Texas, for example, would still have to confront the growing political power of urban and suburban communities that already threaten Republican hegemony in the state.
As it turned out, Rush Limbaugh walked back his call for secession before he died. Perhaps he realized the power of his words and felt a patriotic duty as he was dying of cancer to do what he could to hold together the nation that he had done so much over the course of his career to tear apart. Or perhaps, like any half-way intelligent red state taxpayer — Limbaugh lived in Florida, ranked 39th in the Wikipedia household income ranking — he understood that the fiscal structure of the nation, whereby Red State America lives off the sweat and toil of Blue State America, was too good a deal to kick to the curb in a fit of petulance over one lost election.
Allen West is undoubtedly a crackpot, but the idea of downsizing the country through secession should not be dismissed out of hand. It may not be the solution that West imagines it to be. Indeed, it may be better for those blue states that stay behind than for the red states that leave. But few can argue that we need to do something to shake up our politics. If the price of fixing the country is letting Texas and a few other disgruntled red states move on, I am OK with that. Texas legislators who are preparing to put a secession referendum on the ballot should have at it, and others should not be shy about following their lead.
Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul. He is working on a book, with a working title of “FedExit! To Save Our Democracy, It’s Time to Let Alabama Be Alabama and Set California Free.”
Artwork by Joe Dworetzky. Follow him on Twitter @joedworetzky or Instagram at @joefaces.