Far-right fever dreams about the future of America often lead to some surreal ideas. In recent months, as the balance of power in Washington has swung back to the Democratic Party, dire musings have led some state and local officials to contemplate something that should be unthinkable: whether their states should leave the Union. I wrote earlier this year about proposals discussed by, among others, the chairman of the Wyoming Republican Party and the then chairman of the Texas GOP. Last month, an even higher-profile elected official weighed in on the prospect of Texas leaving the United States: Texas Senator Ted Cruz.
His comments on the matter came during a conservative activist gathering at Texas A&M University. Toward the end of the event, the audience was invited to ask questions. One of Cruz’s interlocutors offered up a doozy: “In a very weird what-if scenario, if Texas were to secede—or any other state, for that matter—what do you think would be the best course of action, and how do you think the federal government would respond?”
“I understand the sentiment behind the question,” Cruz replied. “I’m not there yet. And we actually had a debate last night over drinks before the show—I think Texas has a responsibility to the country, and I’m not ready to give up on America. I love this country. And I think without Texas—look, Texans, we’re brash, we’re not shy, we’re sometimes larger than life, but Texas is right now an amazing force keeping America from going off the cliff, keeping America grounded on the values that built this country, on the values of freedom. I think we have a responsibility.”
Had Cruz stopped there, it would be a fairly decent answer. But he went on. “Now, listen, if the Democrats end the filibuster, if they fundamentally destroy the country, if they pack the Supreme Court, if they make D.C. a state, if they federalize elections and massively expand voter fraud, there may come a point where it’s hopeless,” Cruz continued. “We’re not there yet. And if it comes [to] a point where it’s hopeless, then I think we take NASA, take the military, take the oil.” The audience laughed at the last part, apparently taking it in jest.
There’s a lot to cover here, so I’ll start at the beginning. I’m deeply skeptical, to say the least, that ending the filibuster would “fundamentally destroy the country” when it didn’t actually exist when this country was founded. Cruz’s threat to support secession if the District of Columbia—which is more populous than Vermont or Wyoming—becomes a state says more about his disdain for representative democracy than anything else. As for “federalizing elections,” that ship sailed with the ratification of the Reconstruction Amendments and, later, when Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
But it’s Cruz’s read of the current state of American politics that’s truly implausible. The Democrats currently hold both chambers of Congress, but only by margins so slim that they have struggled to simply pass middle-of-the-road spending bills; sweeping, radical reforms aren’t coming anytime soon. And while Joe Biden won the popular vote and the Electoral College in 2020, that result isn’t always guaranteed. Republican presidential candidates only won the popular vote in one out of the last eight presidential elections and still managed to hold the White House for 12 of the last 33 years. Cruz should be pretty familiar with how the Electoral College works: He was, after all, one of a handful of senators who tried to manipulate it to keep Trump in power earlier this year.
If American democracy were a video game, Republicans would be effectively playing it on the lowest difficulty setting. GOP state lawmakers have gerrymandered congressional districts so effectively over the past decade that the party might capture the House in next year’s midterms by redistricting alone. Even when Democrats manage to overcome Republicans’ structural advantages in the Senate to capture a thin majority, the last year has shown that it’s still not enough to overcome the filibuster outright, for both mathematical and political reasons. Cruz’s argument is essentially that Texans should stay in the Union—but only as long as the flaws that give Republicans an unearned boost in political and electoral power remain unreformed.
Oh, and there’s the Supreme Court. Remember how Democrats won the popular vote in all but one of the presidential elections since 1992? Thanks to the Electoral College and some accidents of history, Republicans were still able to install a supermajority on the nation’s highest court, one that could easily persist for the next 15 to 20 years. That conservative supermajority is now poised to deliver sweeping victories for conservatives on almost every front: abortion rights, gun rights, environmental regulations, and more. Meanwhile, Democrats can’t even get paid family leave or higher taxes for millionaires through the Senate. Cruz’s implied sense of powerlessness is starkly at odds with current political realities.
The senator’s closing quip on what Texas would gain after secession was an apparent attempt at dry humor. In the spirit of true humorlessness, though, it’s worth taking a closer look at what Texas would lose and gain if it left the U.S.
Cruz’s threat to “take the oil” is obviously real since those reserves exist under Texas itself. Similar claims about the North Sea oil reserves often come up in Scottish independence debates. But since crude oil is generally traded in a global market, it’s not like the U.S. would suddenly run out of gas if Texas left. Any market disruptions from Texas’s departure would also likely hasten the current national shift toward electric vehicles and renewable sources of energy.
The overwhelming majority of American soldiers are neither from Texas nor stationed there, so Cruz’s assumption that Texas would get “the military” in an American divorce is more about a perceived social affinity than any practical reality. And while Texas would undoubtedly get the building that houses the Johnson Space Center, NASA employees and contractors who work there would be distributed to other NASA installations around the country. Good luck to the Texas legislature as it tries to fund both a brand-new military and a space program on its current budget.
So what would Texas actually get out of the deal? If Britain’s experience with Brexit is any guide, there would be empty supermarket shelves and intractable supply chain problems as the existing trade system broke down after independence. The Lone Star Nation would experience an inevitable brain drain as young professionals and other loyal Americans resettled elsewhere in the U.S., taking jobs, skills, and capital with them. And all of this is assuming that Texit would be roughly as smooth as Britain’s departure from the European Union—a tall order if Texas’s political leadership is as “brash” as hard-liners like Cruz believe during trade negotiations.
On one hand, it’s unfortunate that Cruz’s sense of political opportunism is apparently stronger than his loyalty to the U.S. But maybe he also deserves credit for underscoring how support for secession is born from, not motivated by, an opposition to democracy and self-government. Ironically, he ended up showing support for the Union by outlining how little there is to offer those who leave it. “What about Joe Rogan, are you going to take him?” asked one of his hosts at the Texas A&M after he answered the audience member’s question. “Joe Rogan?” Cruz exclaimed. “Joe Rogan might be the president of Texas!”