- Two-thirds of Republicans in the South support the idea of secession. Support has risen over the past six months—and not only among this group, but also among Republicans and Democrats in other regions. (Bright Line Watch)
- NH: Brightline Watch (BW) is a youthful public-interest research outfit that issues frequent reports monitoring Americans' attitudes toward the democratic process. Their latest report features two surveys that are worth our attention.
- In the first survey, BW asked a large, representative panel of U.S. voters (n=2,750) to choose between three pairs of bulleted bios of imaginary candidates. In each pair, both candidates were Republican, but other attributes (race, ethnicity, gender, and how they voted on various questions) were randomly mixed. BW statistically analyzed the results to figure out the marginal effect of each attribute on the respondent's preference.
- BW asked this question in both February and June. The results are interesting.
- To begin with--contrary to mainstream mythology--race, ethnicity, and gender have practically no independent impact on voters' perceptions, no matter what party the voter belongs to. Senator Tim Scott (R-SC), who many now believe is in the running for the GOP presidential nomination in 2024, probably need not worry that his race might become a liability in the primaries.
- So what does make a difference? For Republicans, the biggest by far is the candidate's vote for impeaching Donald Trump for insurrection in February of this year. This pushes down their likelihood of preferring the candidate by over 30 percentage points. For many in the GOP, the second impeachment, like the first, was just the latest among many underhanded efforts to undermine Trump's legitimacy--starting with the "resistance"--from the moment he was elected. Any participation in those efforts confirms, so to speak, that candidate's hostile identity. It renders him or her outside the realm of consideration.
- Affirming Joe Biden's election certification, on the other hand, is a closer call. That diminishes Republican voter support by only 12 percentage points. (Needless to say, it also attracts strong approval from Democratic voters.) The good news for Trump is that the GOP tilt on this question did not narrow from February to June and that 12 pp is probably big enough to deter most anti-Trump candidates from running in GOP primaries. The bad news for Trump is that Independents are drifting in a pro-Biden direction. In February, Independents were pretty much neutral on affirming Biden's election certification. By June, it pushed them 9 pp in favor of the candidate.
- There are two ways to read these tea leaves.
- One reading is to conclude that anti-Trump candidates, by attracting strong Independent support, can indeed win in GOP primaries--at least in open primaries (which most are). So many of them may run and win. Another is to conclude that the GOP voter aversion is strong enough to prevent most anti-Trump candidates from winning GOP primaries, but also that the Independent tilt the other way is strong enough to prevent most pro-Trump candidates from winning in a general election. If I were a Democratic party leader, I would definitely prefer the second reading!
- OK, now on to the second survey (again, n-size=2,750), which I'm sure will strike many readers as at least profoundly unsettling if not outright alarming.
- Depending on where he or she resided, BW asked respondents whether they would support a decision by their state to secede from the United States to join a new regional union of states. The actual question wording was this: "Would you support or oppose [your state] seceding from the United States to join a new union with [list of states in new union]?" Five regional unions were hypothesized: Pacific, Mountain, South, Heartland, and Northeast.
- The members of each union, along with the survey results by party affiliation, are illustrated in this map.
- The most striking finding, obviously, is in the South, where 44% would support secession--including 66% of Republicans and 50% of Independents. Then comes the Pacific, at 39%, including 47% of Democrats. In all the rest of the regions, the shares are roughly one-third. Leading the seceders in the Mountain states are Republicans; in the Heartland, Independents; and in the Northeast, Democrats.
- It must seem clear to most voters that a successful secession would likely empower partisan populists (right or left) of the regional majority party to steamroll over the opposition party in subsequent policy choices. That would explain why the secession enthusiasm of the minority party shrinks as the enthusiasm of the majority party grows. Where Republicans are dominant, Democrats seem to lose most of their interest in secession. And where Democrats are dominant, Republicans get gun shy.
- The findings get a bit more worrisome when we look at trends over time. When BW first asked these questions back in January/February, its researchers supposed the pro-secession sentiment might be abnormally high due to the still-simmering passions of the recent national election and the battle over certifying state election results. They figured that the pro-sentiment would cool once a few months had passed.
- But that didn't happen. Instead, the new survey showed that approval of secession increased for nearly every party in every region. The biggest jump was among Republicans in the South. Back in the winter, 50% of them favored secession; now 66% do--a rise of 16 pp. Even approval among southern Democrats was up 8 pp. Independents registered gains of nearly 10 pp in the Pacific, Heartland, and Northeast regions.
- To be sure, we need to be cautious when interpreting such numbers. Redefining civic identity and expunging age-old constitutional ties are among the most awesome and consequential political choices a people can be called upon to make. It's difficult for us to know how seriously the respondents were weighing the full implications of their answers. Could many of them simply be venting their feelings? Perhaps.
- Then again, it would be difficult for anyone not to be aware of the seriousness of secession. The word literally means "a withdrawing apart from"--in this case, a withdrawing apart from the country which most of us have been raised to love and honor. Throughout history, tellingly, secession movements justify their goal by claiming that their members have remained true to the spirit of the original union; it's the other members who have broken their faith. All sides agree that the stakes are enormous. Get it right, you're a hero. Get it wrong, you're a traitor.
- As for passionate vents, these don't always turn out to be harmless. Sometimes they can trigger a rapid chain-reaction that culminates in national calamity.
- Consider how swiftly a wave of injured dignity transformed into irreversible action following the national election of Abraham Lincoln on November 6, 1860. Before the new president could be sworn in on March 4, 1861, all seven deep-South states had managed to organize popular conventions, vote overwhelmingly in favor of secession, and form a new government.
- Yes, there were powerful southern leaders (including Sam Houston, the aging patriarch of Texas) who opposed this move, deeming it an insane miscalculation. But such critics were swiftly outvoted or silenced. Thereafter, in order to keep the fervor boiling, the new "confederate" leadership went out of its way to provoke the Union. While Lincoln wisely or cunningly proved slow to react, the fire-eaters finally prevailed in the bombardment of Fort Sumter. And the rest, as they say, is history.
- Most Americans today understand that polarization is the dominant political trend of our era. And they're worried about it. A month before the 2020 election, we reported that 40% of voters "strongly agreed" that America could be on the verge of another civil war. (See "America on the Verge of Civil War?") Another 21% "somewhat agreed." The intensity of agreement was highest on both the "very liberal" and "very conservative" ends of the spectrum (note: these are also the voters who are typically the most engaged and informed).
- Anxiety over the outcome of the election has subsided. But anxiety over the future of the country apparently has not.
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