Would a Romney win prompt Cascadian secession?

Lake Washington Credit: Seth Stoll

"If you want to leave a nation you think is corrupt, inefficient, militaristic, oppressive, repressive, but you don’t want to move to Canada or France, what do you do? Well, the way is through secession, where you could stay home and be where you want to be."

— Kirkpatrick Sale, secessionist scholar and activist, New York Times, 2007

With a Romney bounce in the polls, now might be a good time to ask whether a Mitt win would give impetus to the Cascadia secession movement, for those Northwest Americans who don't take up JetBlue's offer of a free ticket out of the country.

While secession is usually the province of neo-Confederates, disgruntled Tea Partiers and those reviving nullification of Obamacare, it is not wholly a rumble on the far right.

In recent years, grassroots activists, bloggers, academics, and regional advocates have been giving voice to secession from the left. The desire is often expressed as wanting to re-divide the continent — or at least the U.S. and Canada — by bioregions. This is expressed in terms of creating an independent state that is more sustainable, sensitive to indigenous peoples, less corporate, more democratic, perhaps anti-globalist. A place where corporations aren't persons. Cascadian ideas and ideals have also been touted in terms of economic and trade cooperation.

Wisconsin, Vermont, Washington, Oregon and British Columbia all have their secession discussion groups, the latter three entities under the Cascadian umbrella. It certainly draws inspiration from Ernest Callenbach, author of the seminal eco-secessionist novel Ecoptopia (1975), who painted a picture of a region from Northern California to the BC border that had broken off the from the United States and sheltered itself behind a green wall while it re-made itself as an environmental utopia.

Bad elections often bring out a kind of secessionist urge, even if not expressed in Ecotopian terms. There's the Red-Blue political map, or concepts like "The Urban Archipelago," a classic rant in Seattle's The Stranger after the defeat of John Kerry by George W. Bush in 2004, that declared a culture war between Red (rural) and Blue (urban) America: "It's time to state something that we've felt for a long time but have been too polite to say out loud: Liberals, progressives, and Democrats do not live in a country that stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from Canada to Mexico. We live on a chain of islands. We are citizens of the Urban Archipelago, the United Cities of America."

That sense of alienation could amplify if Obama loses. As The Stranger wrote in '04, the Republicans have no urban agenda to speak of. Today's more extreme Republican party generally rejects many of the federal subsidies, earmarks and initiatives that have made our region boom: investment in infrastructure, public power, land reclamation, even defense initiatives. And, as a party, one wonders whether the GOP grassroots even believe in science anymore. The party is captive of too many climate deniers and Creationists.

Cascadians see things differently from the Urban Archipelago model in that their interests are less about cities and rural areas per se than about the whole ecosystem. Managing a bioregion is more than simply running bustling cities, though that's a key part. Frequently, it is fueled by a passion for nature and climate, not just high-rises and mixed-use developments. But there is a very urban version of Cascadianism too, as evidenced by green cities like Seattle, Vancouver, BC, and perhaps most of all, Portland.

An identity tied by the land and waters is one thing (the naming of the Salish Sea is pure Cascadianism), but our similar attitudes toward urban development are also binding us together: density, green buildings, bikes, mass transit, and economies not dependent on exploiting natural resources and despoiling the environment.

Interestingly, major league soccer has become a breeding ground for the new Cascadianism. Seattle, Portland and Vancouver soccer fans wave the Cascadian flag ("Old Doug"), wear the Cascadian colors (green, blue, white) and wrap their necks in Cascadian scarves. There is talk of creating a Cascadian Football Federation.

Much of the symbolic Northwest fits with Cascadian themes, but the reality is a bit more complicated, both ideologically and in terms of values. Where "Old Doug" might be a fitting symbol of the heart, a Boeing defense contract is a statement about the economic reality of Cascadia's ties to the federal government and subsidy, not to mention land ownership. In the novel Ecoptopia, a visitor to the isolationist new nation rides around in a high-speed monorail system built by Boeing, but would Boeing really stay if Cascadia seceded, if the connection to the flow from the federal teat was actually cut off?

Boeing might not stay anyway — threats to relocate major projects to southern states or cheaper environs are never-ending, as are the demands for special treatment. How would an independent Cascadia do without the major companies that make fantasies of independence seem feasible?

Still, strong elements on the aspirational economy seem consistent with the Cascadian dream: Jay Inslee's "Apollo Project" and the "knowledge workers" of Redmond and South Lake Union, whose presence has given us the urban amenities that will supposedly make us more sustainable. Streetcars, a private Microsoft bus system, and a redeveloped South Lake Union that makes a home for Amazon.

The tech economy in particular gives us the illusion that we can have regional prosperity that is tied to world commerce, but not tainted by it. Clean jobs that don't chew up the landscape or create visible, dirty moral dilemmas, like coal ports. It also allows us to imagine a Cascadia that is an exporter of good ideas, not an importer of bad capitalism or politics.

If the rest of the nation wants to go all Ayn Rand and Wal-Mart itself to death, well, the Cascadian firewall of regional identity and political resistance might prove a tempting battlement from which to defend the homeland. If nothing else, we could face a time when our progressive politics are challenged by a central government that's increasingly out of touch, or even hostile to Cascadian ideals, one as bad or worse than the Dubya years.

Secession or not, a recommitment to what makes us different might provide us with some comfort if there are tough times ahead.

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