Secession Fever?

Although the idea is hardly “sweeping the nation,” there are probably more efforts underway right now to form new, breakaway states, and even new republics, within the United States than at any other time since the Civil War.  According to a recent article in The Daily Beast:

Five counties in Maryland want to form their own state.  So do eight in Colorado and one in Northern California.  And the Lone Star State is on its way to becoming an independent ‘island nation,’ according to an influential Texas Republican.

Current secession efforts in the U.S. are located predominantly in rural areas where citizens feel ignored by, or out of sync with, their state and/or national governments.  But this is not just a red-state movement: the trend includes initiatives in places like California and Vermont, too.

My long-standing interest in local communities, place-based education, and participatory democracy might seem to make me sympathetic to any movement that seeks to devolve political power to local groups.  After all, my first book, City of Rhetoric: Revitalizing the Public Sphere in Metropolitan America (SUNY Press, 2008), had a chapter in which I imagined a rich realm of sub-national political units for citizens to participate in, including ones more accessible and responsible than those we have now.  But the units I imagined there were defined largely in environmental, not partisan, terms.

The idea, as I saw it, was not to divide people up based on shared ideology but to bring people together based on natural interdependence – based, that is, on their literal common ground.  That’s why I was especially interested in such geopolitical units as the metropolitan region – an area spanning multiple, semi-autonomous communities that nonetheless share such things as a water supply, a transportation system, a climate, a radio signal, a natural history, etc.  I argued that such concrete mutuality, given political form, could be the basis, paradoxically, for a flourishing biodiversity.

The secession efforts noted above, on the other hand, seem to go at politics the other way around – not to bring people together who are affected by common problems and situations, and help them govern that shared world responsibly and fairly, but to set people off who think alike and let them break away from those who think differently.  In addition, the goal I was envisioning in City of Rhetoric was not a new master political unit, sovereign and autonomous, but a richer set of layered political units, each with some autonomy but also intricately dependent on the rest.

A_Pattern_LanguageAt the time I wrote that book, I was reading urban design theorists and political scientists from the 1960s and ‘70s, especially those who were searching for the sociospatial contexts of human flourishing and who realized that people needed something more, or other, than the extensive, variegated nation-state of millions, on the one hand, and the intimate, homogeneous neighborhood or village of hundreds, on the other.  One model was provided by Christopher Alexander and his colleagues in A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction (Oxford, 1977).  Alexander imagined a comprehensive planning process for human communities composed of a hierarchy of social and political groups, each group making decisions about its own environment but also intimately tied to the other groups in the process.

The largest group in Alexander’s model was the independent region with between 2 and 10 million people, its own natural and geographic boundaries, its own economy, its own government, etc.  Within each region were further subdivisions: major cities of 500,000 people; communities and small towns of 5-10,000 people; neighborhoods of 500-1,000 people; house clusters and work communities of 30-50 people each; and families and work groups of 1-15 people each.


The geopolitical model I imagined in chapter 3 of City of Rhetoric. N = neighborhood; S = suburb. The key civic unit is between neighborhood and city: the urban district.

But Alexander’s model, I realized, left out some important political spaces within the region, most notably, something between the city of 500,000 and the community of 5,000-10,000.  I found this missing link in the work of urbanist Jane Jacobs and political theorist Robert Dahl, who, in the 1960s, independent of each other, both proposed the urban district of 50,000-100,000 as an important mediating space between the diverse, faceless city, on the one hand, and the homogenous, face-to-face neighborhood or small town, on the other.  Such a unit affords the power, autonomy, and diversity that makes politics matter in the first place but is still small enough that ordinary citizens can participate directly in shaping their lives in common.

If you add the district to the other major divisions outlined above – the neighborhood, the city as a whole, the overall metropolitan region – you get a surprisingly rich menu of political units, one capable of organizing a comprehensive set of social, economic, cultural, even educational projects.  Although I didn’t include it in my book, I sketched a diagram of how these different units, from neighborhood to metropolis, might nest inside one another (see above).

But what all this left out, I came to realize later, was ecology, the natural world with which our human designs must be in balance.  I increasingly see, therefore, the bioregion, not the independent metropolitan area, as the overarching sociospatial unit of an ideal political system.  This is a geographical unit defined in both human and natural terms – cognizant of sociocultural imprint but aware of environmental features as well: climate, natural resources, vegetation, water supply, etc.  From this point of view, the so-called 100-mile diet, for example, is both a target for re-imagining our eating habits in more sustainable ways and an example of how we might re-draw our political boundaries around more diverse, inclusive, complex human groupings which nonetheless share common ground – literally – and need therefore to learn to render and resolve their differences without violence or alienation.

The Pioneer Valley from space:

So, for example, a politically-relevant bioregion today might be drawn inside the boundaries of the Pioneer Valley, a large area of western Massachusetts containing nearly one million people and roughly centered on the Connecticut River from Greenfield to Springfield.  It is an area with a rich human history, an identifiable but porous human culture, and linked socioeconomic, political, and administrative systems; but it’s also an area with shared environmental resources and challenges.  In fact, it could be argued that the very future of this area depends on effective stewardship of those resources.  As a writing teacher, I’ve often wondered: what difference would it make to posit this backdrop as the key context for my students’ work?  What would it matter if the bioregion were featured in their menu of publics, if their reading, writing, talking, arguing, and thinking took place primarily there?

Looking south from Mt. Sugarloaf, Deerfield, with the University of Massachusetts Amherst visible in the far distance:

The fact is that sometimes, in imagining their civic lives, we want our students to think very locally – in the context of their school, campus, or even dormitory, for example.  Other times we want them to engage with typically “political” – that is, national – issues: presidential elections, congressional budget debates, Supreme Court decisions.  And sometimes, of course, we want to help them think and act more globally.  But in laying out these different contexts for our students’ collectivity, we shouldn’t neglect the natural environment that is right around them and that depends on them even as they depend on it.

Thinking regionally, in other words, might be a way to bring us together rather than to separate us, to help us learn to be responsible to others and the world we share.  Perhaps it’s the antidote to thinking secessionally, in which politics is the process by which one gets one’s way and protects one’s own.

For the Daily Beast article on current secession efforts in the U.S., click here.

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