Sarah Palin's secessionist sympathies sparked minor hysteria last week. Her crime was hailing with round praise the work of the cranky Alaskan Independence Party, which advocates a statewide plebiscite on the secession of Alaska from the United States.
"The fires of hell are frozen glaciers compared to my hatred for the American government," the party's late founder, gold miner Joe Vogler, once said. "And I won't be buried under their damn flag."
Palin's husband was a member of the AIP for seven years, and Palin has courted the AIP for more than a decade. In an address to the party convention this spring, wearing a ski parka and looking like she was about to decamp into the back country, Palin told the secessionists, "Keep up the good work."
Dexter Clark, the white-bearded vice chairman of the AIP, recently explained the motivation behind the "good work": "Through oppression, greed, corruption, incompetence and folly, the (U.S. government) is forfeiting its moral authority."
The thing is, it's not just residents of the Last Frontier who favor breaking away from the Union. According to a Zogby poll conducted in July, more than 20 percent of U.S. adults - 1 in 5, about the same number of American Colonists who supported revolt against England in 1775 - agreed that "any state or region has the right to peaceably secede from the United States and become an independent republic." Some 18 percent "would support a secessionist effort in my state."
The motivation of these quiet revolutionaries? As many as 44 percent of those polled agreed that "the United States' system is broken and cannot be fixed by traditional two-party politics and elections."
Put this in stark terms: In a scientific, random sample poll of all Americans, almost half considered the current political system to be in terminal disorder. One-fifth would countenance a dissolution of the bond. This is not a hiccup of opinion. In an October 2006 poll conducted by the Opinion Research Corp. and broadcast on CNN, 71 percent of Americans agreed that, "Our system of government is broken and cannot be fixed."
No surprise that the disquiet finds a voice in popular movements. In 2007, a small group of delegates to the second North American secessionist convention - the first was in Burlington, Vt., in 2006 - met in Chattanooga, Tenn., to discuss how to foment the collapse and destruction of the United States of America. They came representing 11 rebel groups in 36 states, under banners such as the Republic of Cascadia (wedding Oregon and Washington), Independent California (forging the world's fifth-largest economy), the United Republic of Texas (returning the Lone Star State to its aloneness), the League of the South (uniting the secessionist states of old Dixie) and the Second Vermont Republic (separating the Green Mountain State from the U.S.).
The dominant idea among the delegates was that the U.S. experiment had failed; it had become impractical, tragically ridiculous, its leaders and institutions bought off, prostituted, unaccountable and unanswerable to the needs of citizens. The United States would have to be reborn smaller - our loyalties realigned to the needs of localities - if the American dream was to survive. The convention presented, in effect, a marriage of progressives, paleo-conservatives, libertarians, Christian separatists, Southern nationalists, all united "to put an end to the American empire and re-establish freedom and democracy on the state and regional level," as organizer Kirkpatrick Sale put it.
The delegates settled on a list of principles they called the Chattanooga Declaration.
"The deepest questions of human liberty and government facing our time go beyond right and left, and in fact have made the old left-right split meaningless and dead," the declaration read. "The privileges, monopolies and powers that private corporations have won from government threaten ... health, prosperity and liberty, and have already killed American self-government by the people." The answer, it continued, was that the American states "ought to be free and self-governing."
The Declaration of Independence 250 years earlier asked for a similar dedication to self-governance: "(W)henever any form of government becomes destructive ... " wrote Thomas Jefferson, "it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government."
It could be held that secession is the primal American act, as old as the concept of the states themselves. What else did our founders accomplish in 1776 but secession from the tyranny of England? In other words, what the secessionists would claim is that although they are anti-United States, they are most certainly pro-American.
Secession worries the staid opinion gatekeepers of the major media. Sarah Palin's "flirtation" with the AIP should make us "uneasy," as columnist Rosa Brooks warned. Palin's secessionist ties raise "serious questions," averred the New York Times. A more honest assessment is that the separatism of the Alaskan Independence Party is not so weird or wacky - or out of keeping with what appears to be a sentiment rooted in that loveliest of American predilections, our crotchety contrarianism.
Christopher Ketcham contributes to GQ, Vanity Fair, Harper's and many online publications. He is writing a book on American secessionism.