On January 6, an armed mob sought to overturn an election and install a president who had lost the popular vote. But this was just a violent version of the pervasive constitutional embedment of minority rule in our country. The Confederate flags waved during the Capitol Hill riot followed planning for the insurrection in a Facebook group called Red-State Secession, amid a wave of demands for secession by red-state leaders and conservative commentators.
It is blue states, however, that have the real case for secession, because American politics systematically tilts money and power to smaller and more conservative states, undermining the interests of the majority of the population.
Twice in the past 20 years, a GOP candidate who lost the popular vote took the presidency—and 2020 came uncomfortably close to making it the third time. A minority of the population controlled the Senate for the past six years, during which, in combination with a minority-elected president, it packed the Supreme Court with a supermajority of Republican justices. Our current constitutional arrangements are not just undemocratic; they starve blue states financially, deny human rights to their residents, and repeatedly undermine local policy innovation.
Given the undemocratic power of the Senate to entrench its own minority rule, the threat of secession is the only viable route to restoring democracy and equal justice, not just for blue-state residents but for Americans in all 50 states who are hurt by our undemocratic political system.
Covid-19 has transformed an ongoing political irritant into a murderous political indifference that we can no longer ignore. Last year, these dysfunctions in our political system became fatal, with more than 400,000 Americans dead by January and the body count rising rapidly.
On April 3, Donald Trump dismissed New York’s requests for ventilators, saying, “We have other states to take care of”—something he never would have said about a state that mattered for his reelection. The venal absurdity of our institutions was reflected in the fact that while New York was devastated early on, initial congressional bills disproportionately sent money to hospitals not in New York or other hard-hit areas but to sparsely populated red states like Nebraska and Montana. And this all happened as wildfires raged up and down the West Coast without significant federal help because, according to a former top Trump aide, “California didn’t support him.”
That disparity in Covid relief reflects the broader reality that many blue states send far more in taxes to the federal government than they receive back in public services or other government funding. The Rockefeller Institute of Government found that over a period of five years, New York taxpayers sent $142.6 billion more to the federal government than they received back in federal spending. New Jersey received a similar 91 cents in federal spending for every tax dollar paid, Connecticut 89 cents, Massachusetts 90 cents, and California 99 cents. Compare that with Mississippi, which receives $2.09 in spending for every tax dollar it sends to Washington, D.C.; Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell’s Kentucky, which gets $2.89; and Senator Lindsey Graham’s South Carolina, which receives $1.71.
Our political system converts right-wing bias in political power into economic transfers that undermine blue states.
This is not accidental; it’s built into the constitutional fabric of our nation. The fact that our presidential elections are determined by the outcome of the Electoral College vote rather than the national popular vote means Trump knew he would lose nothing by alienating New Yorkers or other solidly blue-state voters: All of their electors would vote for his opponent, so increasing the popular vote against him in those states was irrelevant. Twenty-eight of the 50 states—home to 180 million people—have voted for the same party in the past seven presidential elections, meaning that their voters could largely be ignored by presidential contenders.
The Senate is an even greater affront to democracy. California has 68 times the population of Wyoming, yet it has equal voting power in the Senate. In 2018, Democratic Senate candidates won the popular vote by a margin of 54 to 46 percent, but Republicans gained two seats in the chamber. Vox analyst Ian Millhiser calculates that, after a nail-biter 2020 election resulting in parity in the Senate, Democratic senators will actually represent at least 40 million more people than their Republican counterparts.
But it gets worse. Thanks to the Senate’s bizarre filibuster rules, 41 senators—who represent as little as 11 percent of the population—can prevent any bill from even coming to a vote. Given that half of those states’ voters can elect those representatives and, especially in off-year elections, that often only half of the electorate votes, as little as 3 percent of the voting-eligible national population can block what the other 97 percent might want done.
Political math is rarely that raw, but the possibility means that small states inevitably leverage their advantage to extract federal payoffs any time their votes are needed to enact legislation. Even within the Democratic caucus, this gives smaller states disproportionate power in shaping legislation. West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, who represents one of the smallest and whitest states in the nation, could now become the deciding vote on most major issues in the country, severely limiting the scope of any progressive change.
The fact is that white supremacy is embedded in US policy, since racial minorities make up 44 percent of the population in the 10 most populous states but just 18 percent in the 10 least populous, which have disproportionate voting power in the Senate.
This combination of undemocratic elections for both the president and the Senate means that Democratic presidents have had a chance to appoint just four out of 17 justices to the Supreme Court since 1970, giving conservative justices a generation of dominance—one that was further deepened by the rushed Senate confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett last fall.
The policy results of this antidemocratic constitutional system are not just financial; 6 million undocumented blue-state residents have spent nearly two decades fearing the knock of ICE agents on their door and have been denied access to legal rights as conservative legislators filibustered to block immigration reform. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the longest-serving Republican senator in US history, said that repeatedly blocking prolabor legislation through the filibuster was one of his proudest achievements—a policy that systematically weakened unions and helped expand economic inequality to the extremes we see today. The Senate has remained the graveyard of federal gun control, voting rights, campaign finance reform, minimum wage increases, environmental protections, and every other variety of broadly popular legislation passed by the House.
But it’s not just federal legislation that’s been blocked. The creation of a right-wing Supreme Court majority by this undemocratic structure means that progressive state policy is regularly struck down as well:
§ Prolabor laws enacted by state governments have regularly been preempted by the court, while state public employees have had right-to-work rules imposed on them based on bogus constitutional arguments.
§ California and other states have been blocked in a decades-long struggle to raise local gas mileage standards above the federal level, despite the existential threat of climate change.
§ State predatory lending laws designed to stop subprime mortgage fraud were overturned by the George W. Bush administration, whose actions were backed by the courts, laying the groundwork for the meltdown of the financial system in 2008 and wiping out a generation of housing wealth in low-income and particularly minority communities.
§ The Supreme Court in 2001 used an obscure 1925 law to give corporations the right to force employees to take any dispute to a private arbitrator chosen by the employer. The result is that half of all employees have now lost their ability to sue employers in state or federal court for violations of sexual harassment, civil rights, or other employment laws. The House has voted to ban such arbitration clauses, but the bill hasn’t even gotten a hearing in the Senate, highlighting how undemocratic representation in the upper chamber reinforces the power of an undemocratic Supreme Court to undermine both state laws and state courts.
Which brings us back to the threat of secession as the only route to creating a democratic and just politics.
Despite popular conceptions, secession has never been an exclusive preserve of the former Confederacy. As Richard Kreitner details in his book Break It Up, the “first popular disunion movement in American history developed in the North, not the South.” It was the abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison who, on July 4, 1854, burned a copy of the Constitution and declared, “The only remedy in our case is A DISSOLUTION OF THE UNION,” arguing that the threat of secession by the Northern states was the only way to end the tyranny of slavery.
If secession seems extreme, it’s no more so than the millions of undocumented families fearing forcible separation by ICE. It’s no more extreme than the steadily rising economic and racial inequality we face. And it’s definitely no more extreme than the body count we face from climate change—one that, if left unaddressed due to the political malfunctions of our Constitution, will make Covid-19’s look minor by comparison.
Some argue (including in the pages of The Nation) that secession would abandon tens of millions of progressive red-state residents, including large numbers of Black and Latino voters, to the mercies of Republican abuses. Except there is little evidence that the blue states’ continued embrace of the current political system is the most effective way to support red-state allies, as the Supreme Court’s gutting of Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion illustrates. Even during the peak of recent Democratic power in the Senate, in 2009–10, it was nearly impossible to enact national legislation that significantly expanded the welfare state or raised wages in red states.
As a united sovereign nation, blue states would not just be able to immediately improve conditions for their own residents but could also send the hundreds of billions of dollars in new budget surpluses, which they would no longer forward to D.C., directly to blue cities and rural blue counties stranded in a red-state nation. Without the Senate veto, blue states could raise new revenue by increasing tax rates on the wealthy and corporations, and free up funds through lowered military spending. Those funds could bypass GOP filibusters and red-state governments, ensuring that they actually help those in need in local red-state communities.
Blue states would also be free to use trade policies to demand improved labor and environmental standards in red states as a condition for importing goods into blue ones. This would be a far stronger tool to force red states to negotiate on such policy changes than current legislative negotiations, under the Senate’s malformed rules, allow for. Strengthening labor rights in blue states would give unions greater resources to support the workers organizing in red states, as well as to negotiate companywide contracts that extend higher wages and benefits to red-state workers.
A blue-state secession would also bypass the neo-Confederate drag on US foreign policy, which has pushed for disengagement from international agreements fighting global inequality and climate change. Like Scotland’s independence movement in the United Kingdom, whose goal is not a narrow nationalism but to become part of a greater unity with the European Union, blue-state secession would be an escape from narrow American nationalism in favor of greater global alliances, which would benefit red-state residents as well by strengthening solutions to global problems.
Given that blue states have higher growth per capita and disproportionately drive the economic dynamism of the current economy, from technology to medicine to creative industries, a blue-state nation would likely attract parts of the red-state nation from which it had seceded, especially those parts that had formerly been swing states. One scenario would thus be a negotiated reconstitution of the United States along more democratic constitutional lines.
All that said, secession would be the second-best solution—but the point is to be clear that it’s better than the constitutional status quo. Antebellum abolitionists like Garrison argued for Northern secession from the federal “slave power” in all seriousness, but their campaigns were also designed to make ending slavery a key part of national politics.
Similarly, a modern campaign would use local referenda on secession to spotlight the just claims of blue states for equal political representation—arguing for secession, but with the preferred first choice being national political reform. Notably, secession campaigns in Scotland and Quebec have forced concessions to increase equity in the constitutional structures of their respective countries. A blue-state secession campaign would be designed to negotiate an end to the Electoral College and our undemocratic Senate rules.
Abolishing the Electoral College is far more straightforward. States representing a majority of the electoral votes can do so through the National Popular Vote compact, an agreement to have their delegates vote for the winner of the popular vote nationwide—and states representing 196 electoral votes have already committed to doing so. The threat from strong secession campaigns would be a powerful added incentive to get the last few states to approve the NPV compact and ensure that every vote matters to anyone running for president.
The Senate’s structure is theoretically unchangeable by constitutional amendment under Article V, but there is a solution: Just as the Senate can vote under its own rules to allow a minority of senators to block legislation using the filibuster, it could also adopt rules allowing the approval of legislation whenever senators representing a majority of the national population support it. This will only happen, however, if there is a credible threat of mass exit by multiple states.
To achieve this goal, alliances of groups that have seen their agendas die in the Senate would need to unite and do serious organizing, state by state. Through meetings, letter-writing campaigns, and public referenda, people would need to demand that state leaders either fight for equal representation for the blue states or threaten secession.
One key strategy would be pushing the House to refuse to approve any federal budget unless the right to secession is included, then using that leverage to lock in reform of minority rule in the Senate. That bill could include a proviso suspending the state secession right as long as the upper chamber changed its rules to allow approval of legislation by senators representing a majority of the population. Such legislation would have to include a clause reinstating state secession rights if the Senate itself or the Supreme Court later eliminated the Senate majority-rule provisions—what is commonly called a “severability clause,” but in this case it would sever not just the legislation but the nation itself.
This would be a potent threat to make the Senate and the Supreme Court think twice before trying to reinstate minority rule. The minority could use this constitutionally granted power at any time, of course, but only at the price of blowing up the republic.
We face a mounting constitutional crisis—one that, in turn, amplifies the crises of voter suppression, racial and economic inequality, and climate change—with a majority will that is repeatedly thwarted by minority rule in every aspect of policy. Ultimately, building a serious blue-state threat to secede is the only way to end this crisis and create a nation based on equal representation for all.