Texas Republicans want to secede from the United States. Could they do it?

A Donald Trump cutout stands at Patriot Mobile’s display at the Republican Party of Texas convention (AP)
A Donald Trump cutout stands at Patriot Mobile’s display at the Republican Party of Texas convention (AP)

It’s called the Lone Star state for a reason. Not for the first time in its history, some in Texas want to secede from the United States and form an independent nation.

Texas Republicans, at a state party convention this weekend, called for a referendum to determine whether the state “should reassert its status as an independent nation”.

“The federal government has impaired our right of local self-government. Therefore, federally mandated legislation that infringes upon the 10th Amendment rights of Texas should be ignored, opposed, refused, and nullified,” said a policy platform approved by delegates at the state party convention.

Calls for secession are nothing new for Texas. It is a state, after all, that prides itself on its independent streak. But in an age of heightened polarisation, could the separatists have a chance?

Darrell M West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, says that is unlikely to happen any time soon.

“There are people in Texas who don’t like the direction in which the United States is going on a wide range of issues – this would include immigration, gun control, climate change. But it’s one thing to complain about the national government and another to chart your own course,” he tells The Independent.

“Once they get into it they will discover how complicated it is. Would Texas need to develop its own currency? Would it have its own military? Would people need a passport to go from Texas to Oklahoma? And of course, there’s a question of whether the nation would actually allow Texas to secede.”

The answer to the last of those questions has already been settled by the US Supreme Court more than 150 years ago, following a rocky few decades that marked the state’s younger years.

Texas was a part of Mexico until it won independence in 1836. It was an independent nation for a sum of nine years before it joined the United States. Then in 1861, Texas seceded from the Union in solidarity with “sister slave-holding States” to form the Confederacy, which set into motion the American Civil War.

Even before the Civil War was done, the Supreme Court declared secession illegal. In the 1869 Texas v White case, the court held that states could not unilaterally secede and nullified the Texan escape effort. The state rejoined the union in 1870 at the conclusion of the Civil War.

Even so, some Texans in the Republican-dominated state have not given up hope of once again charting their own path. According to Mr West, these calls grow louder when the White House is held by a Democrat. But the national political atmosphere is also playing a role today.

“It’s the logical culmination of political polarisation. There’s just been a dramatic increase in our internal divisions, and people not trusting one another. Secession is the is basically polarisation on steroids,” he says.

“It just tells us what a risky time period we are in. Crazy ideas that used to be on the fringe that now are ending up in party platforms,” Mr West adds.

Dreams of secession are not reserved solely for Republicans. When Donald Trump was elected in 2016, the reliably Democratic state of California also flirted with the idea of secession – a so-called Caliexit.

Richard Kreitner, author of Break It Up: Secession, Division and the Secret History of America’s Imperfect Union, says that while secession by any state seems a distant prospect today, that doesn’t mean it will never happen.

“It’s fully to be expected that the party locked out of power, in their largest core state, would be thinking about secession, just as liberals in the Democrats’ largest core state (California) did under Trump,” he says. “Under each presidency, however, the flirtation, so to speak, with secession has come closer and closer to consummation.”

Mr Kreitner argues that the frequency of calls for secession from both sides should cause some soul-searching among Americans.

“My basic argument is that all Americans, instead of clutching their pearls and pretending to be outraged every time their out-of-power opponents talk about secession, only to do the same thing themselves once the tables have turned against them, perhaps it would be better for everyone to just stop and think: Are things going well with this Union? What are we giving up to see that it continues? What good are we getting from it? It’s possible that careful consideration will indeed reveal the costs of secession or disunion are far too high. Maybe not,” he says.

In any case, according to Mr West, it may soon be time again for Democrats to consider heading for the exit. The next few years are likely to herald a shift in power from Democrats to Republicans due to institutional imbalances in the Electoral College and the historical precedent of midterm elections.

“It would actually be short-sighted of Texas to try and leave now because, by all indications, Republicans are poised to do very well in 2022 and perhaps even in 2024. At which point they would not want to leave because their people may actually be in charge of the country. Other people could grow discontent with having conservatives in a dominant position,” says Mr West.

For Mr Kreitner, the call from Texas Republicans portends a bigger, underlying issue with the American political system.

“It confirms what we all already know, which is that we have an utterly dysfunctional political system wildly mismatched with the challenges our society faces, and that if there is not some kind of constitutional breakthrough that forces a more sensible reworking, top to bottom, somebody is eventually going to decide they might be better off splitting up and doing their own thing.”