Magazine article Common Cause Magazine

We're Outta Here!

Magazine article Common Cause Magazine

We're Outta Here!

Article excerpt

From the redwood forests to Staten Islands, America suffers from separation anxiety.

Ulysses, Kan., population 4,800, is no hotbed of radical politics. Its civic center, a fluorescent-lit, folding-chair kind of place, isn't Independence Hall. But there stood Don Concannon, a craggy lawyer-politician, speaking to 200 rebellious Kansans last September and comparing himself to colonial firebrands like Patrick Henry, who uttered the immortal phrase, "Give me liberty or give me death!"

Concannon isn't taking a do-or-die pledge - his plea is "Give us equality or set us free." But he yearns for liberty from oppressive government, in this case the one in Topeka. This year, the onetime gubernatorial hopeful is stirring up the ultimate protest: secession.

Riled by a new state law that will boost real estate taxes and shift funds from rural to urban school districts, nine counties in southwest Kansas floated the idea of secession in straw polls. Voters eagerly embraced it. After Concannon's speech, at what was billed as a constitutional convention, the would-be secessionists even picked out the new state's name (West Kansas), flower (yucca) and bird (pheasant).

West Kansas, as Concannon happily concedes, is "the last place on Mother Earth where the political pundits envisioned demand for political equality and fair taxation." But it has helped inspire a surge of secession talk in cities and counties scattered from coast to coast.

Separatists are at work in Staten Island and Queens, N.Y. - by no coincidence, the wealthiest and most suburban of New York City's five boroughs. Staten Island is the size of Pittsburgh, and no major American city has ever lost an area that large. Queens is even bigger; as an independent city, it would be the nation's fourth largest, behind Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City itself.

Further north in Boston, secessionists have pushed referenda onto the ballots in South Boston, an Irish working-class enclave, and Roxbury, its poorest minority community (see "The Roxbury Rebellion," page 25).

Concannon's West Kansans get calls from disgruntled neighbors in Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas and Nebraska. Some Californians have concluded that their state is unmanageable, and are considering ways to split it into two - or three. And visionaries in the Northwest talk about a nation of Cascadia spanning northern California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia.

Secession movements are the new extreme in middle-class American political discontent, which already expresses itself in the clamor for term limits, Proposition 13-style tax revolts and caps on municipal and state spending. Although the secession movements face uphill fights, they appeal to voters who are angry at insoluble problems, politicians they don't trust and a sense of powerlessness. And the separatists say they won't be going away.

But secession leads down a dead-end alley, falsely promising escape from a world plagued by lousy schools, higher taxes, rising crime and racial tensions. Such problems are rarely stopped by political borders. Meanwhile secession rejects the motto of the United States: E Pluribus Unum - from many, one.

"I think it's misguided," says Ester Fuchs, who directs the urban affairs program at Barnard College in New York. The movements are fueled by "some subtle notion that we'll leave other people who aren't like us," she says.

Secession advocates like to equate their causes with breakaway movements in Europe and the former Soviet Union (even though those movements have uncorked long-suppressed ethnic hatreds). In Western Europe, they note, Danish voters tripped up a proposal for continental unification. And Canada's October referendum brought that nation one step closer to unraveling.

Why should the United States be immune?

While nobody would mistake southwest Kansas for Ukraine, or New York City for Yugoslavia, the movements are more similar than many Americans would like to admit, says Amitai Etzioni, a George Washington University professor and editor of the Responsive Community, a publication promoting greater collective responsibility. …

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