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In My Words: Laughing at ‘secession’ misses the bigger problem

In a newspaper column, Assistant Professor Jason Husser explains the discontent that compels people to push for independence from the United States.

Assistant Professor Jason Husser, assistant director of the Elon University Poll

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The following column appeared recently in the (Greensboro, N.C.) News & Record (not currently posted online), the (Durham, N.C.) Herald-Sun, the Winston-Salem Journal, the (Burlington, N.C.) Times-News and the Gaston Gazette via the Elon University Writers Syndicate.

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Laughing at ‘secession’ misses the bigger problem
By Jason Husser - jhusser@elon.edu

If the mantra after the 2008 presidential election was one of a “post-racial” America, the theme after the 2012 election would be better described as that of a “post-American” America. While the former was naïve, the latter remains ominous.

Few events illustrate this better than recent secession petitions in all 50 states, with a Texas petition alone garnering more than 100,000 “signatures.”

Most reactions to the petitions range from support to dismissal to snark. People rarely treat them for what they are: illegitimate, uniformed, harmful - yet also meaningful.

Though petitions carry no legal weight, they are more than simple political “incorrectness.” Hundreds of thousands of Americans have shed blood to protect the integrity of our nation. That same nation has provided millions more with great abundance, security and happiness.

Threats to abandon it because of political discontent are not a legitimate way to express dissatisfaction. They are a message of disrespect and thanklessness.

I’m a Southerner descended from slave holders and Confederate soldiers. I’ve often heard arguments that Confederate flags and sentiments expressed by petitions like these honor our heritage. What they actually do is glorify the worst parts of our history and neglect the best.

Southern heritage is American heritage and all Americans should honor their ancestors by valuing their achievements while recognizing their mistakes. Such recognition avoids celebrating or trivializing one of their darkest transgressions.

Outgoing Texas Rep. Ron Paul has said these petitions raise “worthwhile questions.” The congressman is correct. Why would the American people ask to abandon a country that they claim to love?

These anti-American petitions merit scorn for their callousness and sympathy for their context. Petitions are not the source of the problem. They are triggered by momentary events of political dissatisfaction, in this case President Barack Obama’s reelection. But the petitions are symptomatic of deeply seated ills within our political system.

Trust in government is abysmal. Despite once robust levels, political trust has never recovered from the Watergate and Vietnam War plunge. Americans are impatient with short-term sacrifices, ideological or material, that are part and parcel of the long-term workings of a healthy democratic system.

Too many Americans feel their voices don’t make a difference. Like political trust, political efficacy remains stagnant. When government provokes dissatisfaction, something it invariably will do, citizens who feel powerless are less likely to work to
improve it and more likely to give up hope.

Inequality between states remains another unspoken problem with the gap between rich and poor states showing little sign of improvement. Is it any wonder that the largest concentration of secessionist impulse is in the South, America’s poorest region? This geographic inequality fuels a rhetoric arguing that coastal plutocrats are moving the country in a direction away from the center.

These problems are amplified by political polarization. Republican and Democratic elites haven’t been this divided since the Civil War era. On Capitol Hill and on the street corner, many Americans perceive political differences to be irreconcilable. Polarization creates an attitude that compromise isn’t possible and makes sore losers even sorer. This fans flames of discontent that might otherwise smolder away.

So when you see headlines about petitions for states to secede, pay attention to them. Recognize the perniciousness of secession petitions. But also recognize their roots - troubling levels of political trust and efficacy, persistent geographic inequality, and seemingly endless polarization.

These weeds grow far too deeply in our soil. We should focus on remedying the problems that precipitate destructive petitions for secession. Such a focus is a better outlet for discontent than threats to abandon a nation that has given so much to so many.

Jason Husser is an assistant professor of political science and assistant director of the Elon University Poll.

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Elon University faculty with an interest in sharing their expertise with wider audiences are encouraged to contact Eric Townsend (etownsend4@elon.edu) in the Office of University Communications should they like assistance with prospective newspaper op/ed submissions.

Viewpoints shared by this syndicate are those of the author and not of Elon University.
 

Eric Townsend,
Staff
12/4/2012 9:01 AM