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Material Factors in the Success or Failure of Any Future U.S. Secessionist Movement

A dive into why culture, population, and geography may still matter more than ideas for U.S. separatists

On June 24th, 2022, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

Since that time, social media has been abuzz with talk of many liberals’ fears of (and in some cases, desire for) an impending break-up of the United States of America. Many commentators posit presumptions suggesting that such a break-up would result in separate countries bordered along present-day U.S. state borders or roughly based on recent voting maps. But this is doubtful given some critical real-world factors.

2020 Presidential Election by County

They are: Culture, Population, and Geography

I want to take a minute to unpack these as they pertain to the United States today.

Regional culture, the location of large population centers, and vital geographic features have critical impacts on political and economic outcomes. As a result, they are essential to the viability of any future new nation in a fractured United States.

Regional Culture

The idea that the United States is not one unified culture but can be broken up into various identifiable regional cultures with their histories is not new. In his 1981 book, Joel Garreau posited that Nine Nations of North America existed. Thirty years later, journalist Colin Woodard would propose eleven. The upshot of these assessments is that the different regions of the United States each have very distinct local histories that have instilled dramatically different values and community identities. Moreover, these identities cut through territory with little respect for state borders or voting districts. This challenge to would-be secessionists is that these influences wouldn’t just disappear the minute a new country was formed. Instead, a country cut along borderlines that didn’t respect divergences in values and identity would be likely only to sow the seeds of its own future social and political divisions.

Approximate map of the Nine Nations of North America

Population Centers

Large population centers tend to be where a nation’s wealth and power are. This is logical. These places didn’t become large by magic. Generation after generation of people migrated to them in search of a better life and more access to the wealth and power that tends to get absorbed in the gravity well of large clusters of people living in close proximity to one another. In 2009, the New York-based Regional Plan Association identified 11 emerging megaregions. These regions represent where the majority of economic and population growth in the United States is presently occurring and is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. As state creation relies heavily on economic productivity and people-driven power, control of these regions would be vital to any new North American state polity.

The Regional Plan Association’s 11 emerging megaregions

Geography

As Robert Kaplan says in the opening of his book, The Revenge of Geography, “A good place to understand the present, and to ask questions about the future, is on the ground, traveling as slowly as possible.” Geography rules our lives in many ways that we may not be readily familiar with. From mountains to plains, lakes, rivers, forests, and desserts, what’s on the ground says a lot about what’s possible for a country. While this is a massive subject area on its own, two key points come to mind. First, Ocean access is a requirement for efficient international trade. This is because shipping has always been (and will likely always remain) cheaper over water than by air or overland. Second, barring ocean access, one needs access to large rivers with outlets to the ocean. A landlocked nation with river access to an ocean will still be at the mercy of whoever controls the flow of commerce downstream, but at least they won’t be trapped with the economic curse of being completely landlocked.

Map of the longest rivers of the US

As you can probably see by now, some of these trends conflict a little with our heavily politicized notions of where America’s cultural rifts are. No matter how a split occurs, if one eventually does, it will likely take on borders defined by a mix of the above factors. I don’t care to speculate how precisely it might all go down, but I hope that I’ve helped you at least get a better understanding of some of the complex and interacting factors involved. America’s political crises come and go, but some truths are self-evident. The impacts of culture, population, and geography will be with us for the long haul.

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