Breaking Out of the Empire Box

Source: Maverick Media 

Three days after the 2008 presidential election, no matter which political party takes the White House, a convention will be held in Vermont‘s Statehouse to consider more radical solutions to the problems facing the nation. The organizing group is the Second Vermont Republic, a citizens’ network that aims to dissolve the United States and, in particular, return Vermont "to its status as an independent republic."

This may sound unlikely, if not impossible. Yet a recent Zogby poll commissioned by the Middlebury Institute, a think tank studying "separatism, secession, and self-determination," indicates that that 20 percent of Americans think "any state or region has the right to peaceably secede from the United States and become an independent republic." More than 18 percent told pollsters that they "would support a secessionist effort in my state."

Could it happen? Frank Bryan, a political scientist who co-authored a 1989 book that called for restructuring Vermont democracy along decentralist lines, has argued that "the cachet of secession would make the new republic a magnet" and "people would obviously relish coming to the Republic of Vermont, the Switzerland of North America." For Thomas Naylor, the former Duke University professor who launched the movement in 2003, the question isn’t "if" but "when."

"Lincoln persuaded the public that secession was unconstitutional and immoral," Naylor has noted. "It’s one of the few things that the left and right agree on. We say it’s constitutional – and ultimately it is a question of political will: the will of the people of Vermont versus the will of the government to stop us."

As you might guess, there’s no shortage of skeptics. According to Vermont attorney and historian Paul Gillies, "It doesn’t make economic sense, it doesn’t make political sense, it doesn’t make historical sense. Other than that, it’s a good idea." Vermont archivist Gregory Sanford even claims that some of the arguments for secession, in Vermont at least, are based on "historical facts of dubious reputation." The State Archives often gets requests for copies of an "escape claus e" in the Vermont Constitution, which supposedly allows Vermont to withdraw from the US. "The truth, drawn from documents, is less satisfying; there is no, nor has there ever been, such an escape clause," he says.

But the underlying issue isn’t whether there is legal authority, but why millions of people across the country think it’s a reasonable and attractive idea. An answer worth considering is provided by Rob Williams, editor of Vermont Commons, a newspaper that covers secession and related issues. "The argument for secession is that the US has become an empire that is essentially ungovernable – it’s too big, it’s too corrupt and it no longer serves the needs of its citizens," he explains. "Congress and the executive branch are being run by the multinationals. We have electoral fraud, rampant corporate corruption, a culture of militarism and war. If you care about democracy and self-governance and any kind of representative system, the only constitutional way to preserve what’s left of the Republic is to peaceably take apart the empire."

Vermont has been fertile ground for such "outside the box" thinking in the past. For example, the state didn’t immediately join the new United States after the War of Independence, remaining an independent state from 1 777 until 1791. Plus, half a century later it was the first state to elect an Anti-Mason governor during a period when opposition to the secret society was growing.

The Anti-Mason movement – which elected two governors and ran a candidate for president in 1832 – lasted only a decade, and most of its political leaders eventually joined either the short-lived Whig Party or the more durable Republicans. Along the way, however, it pointed out the dangers of elite groups and, on a practical level, initiated changes in the way political parties operated. The Anti-Masonic Party wasn’t only the first third party in US national politics. It introduced the concept of nominating conventions and the adoption of party platforms, reforms soon embraced by the other parties.

This wasn’t the only time a short-lived political movement produced unexpected change. In 1912, the new Progressive Party, formed by Theodore Roosevelt when he lost the Republican nomination to William Howard Taft, led to the election of Woodrow Wilson. Roosevelt soon left the Party, but its work continued under the leadership of Robert La Follette. Although La Follette’s run for president in 1924 netted only 17 percent of the vote, he won in his home state of Wisconsin, and successful reforms were implemented=2 0there.

So, what can a campaign for secession accomplish, even if the goal isn’t achieved? To answer that, consider the basic agenda underpinning the Second Vermont Republic: political independence, human scale, sustainability, economic solidarity, power sharing, equal access, tension reduction, and mutuality. Running through it all is a strong decentralist thrust. Secession advocate Kirkpatrick Sale describes decentralism as a "third way," already evident in bioregional movements, cooperative and worker-owned businesses, land trusts, farmers markets, and a wide variety of grassroots initiatives.

In a recent article assessing whether Vermont could "go it alone," Bill McKibben argues, "Functional independence would be the proper first step, and useful in its own right." He also provides a list of practical projects to help create more food self-sufficiency, energy independence, and local economic power. Although he thinks "any political independence movement is going nowhere now" – the main reasons given are the hope offered by Barack Obama and problems requiring global action – McKibben’s advice is to build some affection and trust in the meantime by sharing information and making small but effective moves in t he right direction.

Naylor aims for the fences, calling secession a rebellion against empire designed to retake control from big institutions, and help people care for themselves and others by "decentralizing, downsizing, localizing, demilitarizing, simplifying, and humanizing our lives." In some ways, the movement is reminiscent of an earlier effort in Vermont to reframe the debate.

In 1976, dissidents from the Democratic and Republican Parties attempted to create a "third way" called the Decentralist League of Vermont. The group was convened by Bob O’Brien, who had just lost the Democratic primary for governor, and John McClaughry, a Republican scornful of his Party’s leadership. Each invited allies for a series of meetings to define a joint agenda. Contrary to some accounts, left-wing leaders such as Murray Bookchin and Bernie Sanders weren’t involved, finding an alliance with people on the political Right unappealing at the time.

Although the Decentralist League lasted only a few years, ultimately disbanding when its Left wing opted for electoral politics and Right signed on for the Reagan "revolution," it pointed to what might unite people who find the current national and global order unsustainable and dangerous. Taking a im at all forms of centralized power and wealth, the League asserted that decentralism is the best way to preserve diversity, increase self-sufficiency, and satisfy human needs.

"Decentralists believe in the progressive dismantling of bureaucratic structures which stifle creativity and spontaneity, and of economic and political institutions which diminish individual and community power," said the group’s Statement of Principles. The political platform included support for local citizen alliances; widespread ownership of industry by employees; a viable and diverse agricultural base; a decent level of income for all; education that stresses self-reliance, creativity, and a combination of learning and work; technologies that increase energy self-sufficiency; and mediation of disputes rather than reliance on regulations and adversary proceedings.

On the other hand, the League’s demise underlines the fragility of a left-right alliance, which also has recently created difficulties for the Second Vermont Republic. The controversy began when the Southern Poverty Law Center accused Naylor and the group of talking to an allegedly racist group, the League of the South. Critics pounced, and Seven Days, a liberal weekly in Vermont that was distributing Vermont Commons as an insert, decided to end the arrangement. Labor groups soon demanded the removal of offensive web links on Second Vermont Republic‘s website, disassociation from certain groups or individuals, and the release of a statement clearly opposing racism, fascism, bigotry, and discrimination. Although there is no evidence that Vermont secessionists condone such things, they’ve been pressured to prove it.

Whether Vermont‘s secession movement can recover and grow, especially in the face of demands to break ties with groups that don’t embrace all progressive principles, remains to be seen. In the meantime, however, the Decentralist League and McKibben’s project list may point toward a platform with practical, short-term benefits.

 Greg Guma writes about media and politics on his website, Maverick Media ( The full text of the Decentralist League’s Statement of Principles can be found there.