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We Regret to Inform You That Republicans Are Talking About Secession Again

The lessons of Brexit remind us that being part of these United States is a really great deal.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Texas GOP Chair Allen West seems to be in a secessionist mood lately.

A Democratic president just entered the White House, so it’s time for Republican state officials to start discussing secession once again. After Barack Obama’s reelection in 2012, disaffected conservatives flooded the White House petition site with calls to leave the Union. (They were predictably denied.) Now a smattering of state party leaders and lawmakers are once again raising the question: Should we stay or should we go?

“We need to focus on the fundamentals,” Wyoming GOP chairman Frank Eathorne said in an interview with Steve Bannon last week, according to The Casper Star-Tribune. “We are straight talking, focused on the global scene, but we’re also focused at home. Many of these Western states have the ability to be self-reliant, and we’re keeping eyes on Texas too, and their consideration of possible secession. They have a different state constitution than we do as far as wording, but it’s something we’re all paying attention to.”

Kyle Biedermann, a Republican state lawmaker in Texas, recently claimed that he plans to introduce a bill to hold a referendum on leaving the United States. “The federal government is out of control & doesn’t represent the values of Texans,” he wrote on Twitter last month. “That is why I am committing to file legislation that will allow a referendum to give Texans a vote for the State of Texas to reassert its status as an independent nation.” Allen West, the Texas GOP chair, said after the Supreme Court refused to overturn Biden’s lawful victory that “law-abiding states should bond together and form a Union of states that will abide by the Constitution.” Many took this as a reference to secession.

I’ve previously tried to make a moral and democratic case for the Union. Balkanizing ourselves over transitory political differences is short-sighted and anti-democratic. But as this feeble specter rears its head once more, it’s also worth also considering the practical and economic case for the Union. And to truly understand that, we need look no further than those responsible for the Union’s existence in the first place: the British.

Four and a half years ago, Britons narrowly voted to leave the European Union, the economic and political bloc that tore down borders and barriers across the continent. Brexiteers sold the country’s departure as a way for the U.K. to take back control of those borders and build new trade relationships outside Europe. It was a fantastical exercise in populism that spent little time grappling with the hard reality of how Britain would extract itself from a 40-year governance relationship, let alone with the rocky roads that a United Kingdom would traverse once it was disunited from the continent. Four years of bargaining and two toppled governments later, Prime Minister Boris Johnson finally signed an exit deal with EU leaders last month.

How have Britain’s first few weeks of “independence” gone? Not great. Goods and services used to flow nearly frictionlessly across British soil and the rest of the continent. Now they’re ensnared in a complex system of border controls and customs checks. Perishable goods are hardest hit. Scottish seafood is struggling to get into continental Europe; Northern Ireland is experiencing food shortages because goods can’t easily cross over from the south. The Bank of England warned that the country’s gross domestic product could drop by 2 to 4 percent because of Britain’s withdrawal, largely as a result of the added paperwork and regulation.

And then there’s the long-term damage. Nostalgic Brexiteers sold the referendum as a potential boon for Britain’s once-dominant manufacturing sector. But roughly four-fifths of the modern British economy is actually driven by its service industries, which were largely left uncovered by the exit agreement with the EU. London is unlikely to lose its status as a world financial hub any time soon, but firms are already relocating jobs and accounts to Paris, Amsterdam, Dublin, and other European capitals—the better to retain smooth access to the EU financial sector. Britain is also forsaking its role in the EU’s Erasmus program, cutting off British students from study opportunities across Europe—and blocking European students from easily studying at British universities. That sort of lost potential is hard to quantify but easy to mourn.

But in many ways, the U.K. leaving the European Union is easy compared to Texas Texiting the U.S. Britain was already an independent country, despite what the pro-Brexit enthusiasts liked to suggest, with a highly skilled civil service and a world-class diplomatic corps. It already possessed all the trappings and organs of a modern developed country. The economic tumult it’s experienced over the past few weeks—and negotiated over the past four years—largely comes down to a mismatch of paperwork between two different regulatory systems.

Extracting oneself from the U.S. would be far more complicated. For starters, Texas would have to fund and staff something resembling a modern regulatory state. Some of this framework already exists at the state level, but not all of it. There would need to be a Texas Food and Drug Administration, a Texas Environmental Protection Agency, a Texas Securities and Exchange Commission, and much more. Texas would have to buy property to build embassies in foreign capitals and hire diplomats to staff them. It would have to build its own army, navy, air force, intelligence service, and postal system. That costs a lot of money. Texas doesn’t even have a state income tax; one-third of its budget comes from the federal government.

Would Texas use its own currency? It would have to create its own central bank and monetary policy if it did. Since Britain never adopted the euro, this is one major complication of leaving the EU that never came up. When Scotland weighed leaving the rest of the U.K. in 2014, Scottish independence leaders proposed that they would keep the pound sterling and maintain some sort of currency union with the rest of their former country. But London itself wasn’t keen on the idea, and the Scottish National Party now favors adopting the euro in a post-Brexit world. Texas could always take the route adopted by El Salvador and adopt the U.S. dollar outright as its currency. So much for national sovereignty if it did, though.

Free movement would be another issue. It’s virtually impossible to denaturalize a U.S. citizen against their will, so most Texans would retain their American citizenship unless they voluntarily renounce it. And even though birthright citizenship would obviously not apply within a foreign country, the children of those U.S. citizens could still be eligible for citizenship under existing federal laws. Texas’s Republican leaders often brag about how its growth is fueled by businesses and residents leaving other states for lower taxes and lighter regulations. But that formula would invert itself after independence: Most of Texas’s population would easily be able to decamp back to the U.S., while residents of the other 49 states would have to go through some sort of immigration process to live in Texas.

And then there’s the problem of trade barriers. The Constitution forbids one state from imposing tariffs or taxes on goods from another state. It’s also virtually impossible for states to lawfully block Americans from entering or exiting them. (The current system of “travel restrictions” due to the pandemic is one of the only exceptions to that rule.) Indeed, the entire American economy is built around the free flow of goods and most services between California, Texas, New York, Florida, and everywhere in between. Without that freedom, Texas would have to negotiate some sort of Nafta-like deal between itself and the rest of the U.S. to carry out basic economic functions without significant difficulty.

That’s where the #Texit dreams really fall apart. Why would Texas and the U.S. need to create some sort of trade deal? Again, look no further than Brexit. If Britain had not reached an accord with the EU before the legal deadline of December 31, 2020, it would have crashed out of the union in what was called a hard, no-deal Brexit. Trade between the U.K. and the EU would have defaulted to World Trade Organization rules, raising all manner of tariffs and duties on everyday goods. The resulting economic fallout spurred leaders on both sides to strike a bargain. While Europe is not as dependent on British trade as Britain is on EU trade, enough of its businesses would have been affected that few leaders truly wanted to see a no-deal break happen.

So, in addition to funding and creating all of the features of modern nationhood, Texas would have to negotiate some sort of trade agreement with the U.S. to actually survive. Like Britain, it would be somewhat at the mercy of the much larger trading partner. But the U.S. also has no interest in making it easier for states to leave the Union, so it would have no incentive to play as nicely as the Europeans did with the British. At minimum, Texas would almost certainly have to compensate the U.S. for the loss of all sorts of federal property: Fort Hood and other military bases, Johnson Space Center and other NASA facilities, various post offices, courthouses, prisons, and so on. It would likely also have to play by rules set by U.S. regulatory agencies and conduct most of its business on terms set by U.S. trade negotiators. Texas, like Britain, could easily end up in a much worse position than the status quo it enjoys now.

All of this assumes that Texas peacefully leaves the Union with Congress’s assent. That’s the only constitutionally valid scenario suggested by the Supreme Court’s ruling in, ironically, Texas v. White in 1869, in which the justices held that states can’t unilaterally secede and the so-called Confederacy never lawfully existed. We’ll set aside the unlikelihood of a peaceful departure for now, and instead ponder its alternative. Secession was a gambit at best in 1860 when almost a dozen rebel-led states tried to withdraw by force. It took the U.S. five years and 600,000 dead to force the Confederate armies to surrender in the Civil War. The asymmetry between the modern U.S. military and whatever state militia Texas could muster is so great that putting down a rebellion this time might only take five weeks.

But let’s go back to the peaceful option once again. If the Texas legislature voted to secede tomorrow, there is zero chance that a Democratic Congress and a Democratic president would support its departure. And if a Republican president and a Republican Congress held power—as they did not but two years ago—Texas, Wyoming, or any other Republican-led state wouldn’t want to secede in the first place. Why would Donald Trump or any future Republican president want to let their biggest batch of electoral votes walk out the door? Secession’s greatest challenge isn’t that it’s a bad idea but that the incentives make it all but impossible to carry out.

Finally, notice that I used Texas as the example here instead of Wyoming. That’s because Texas stands a better chance of actually surviving as an independent country than any other state, except perhaps California. It would be among the largest economies in the world if it became a sovereign country tomorrow—and it would immediately struggle to maintain anything resembling its current standard of living. Wyoming, despite the dreams of its state GOP chair, would be doomed to failure if it seceded. That’s one reason why the Union is so great in the first place, of course. Everything may be bigger in Texas, but everything is ultimately better in the U.S.