Secessionism At Home and Abroad: Lessons for the United States

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Recent Cases Suggest Nationalism Encourages Secessionist Movements When Autonomy Is Reduced

By André Lecours, Martin Rode, and Christian Bjørnskov. If you enjoy this piece, you can read more Political Pen Pals debates here.

What Lessons Can Be Learned From International Independence Abroad for American Domestic Policy?

By André Lecours – Professor in the School of Political Studies, University of Ottawa (Canada)

Recent Trends of Secessionist Movements

In June 2021, nine Catalan politicians and civil society leaders that had been convicted on charges of sedition and misuse of public funds for their roles in the 1 October 2017 referendum on independence (considered illegal and unconstitutional by the Spanish state) were pardoned. The jailing of politicians and political activists is highly unusual in liberal democracies and speaks, among other things, to the seriousness of the conflict triggered by the Catalan self-determination process. This process resulted from a secessionist turn in Catalan nationalism that came at the expense of its traditional autonomist position. 

In Scotland, secessionism also gained strength in the last decade, as the Scottish National Party (SNP) rose to power and held a referendum on independence in 2014. That referendum was a transformative event for Scottish nationalism, as the ‘Yes Scotland’ campaign mobilized large segments of civil society in support of independence. The SNP’s strong performance at subsequent Scottish Parliament and Westminster elections confirmed how much momentum the party had gained from the referendum and how much legitimacy the independence option had acquired despite the defeat of the ‘Yes’ side. Brexit has since come with new opportunities (albeit also new challenges) for secessionist forces in Scotland as Scots voted for the United Kingdom to remain in the European Union (62%) at the 2016 Brexit referendum. 

The strengthening of secessionism in Catalonia and Scotland was an immensely surprising development that was not predicted even by the end of the 2000s, as the emphasis was then on globalization, European integration, and the general loss of importance of borders.  Moreover, it has not been a Western Europe-wide phenomenon. 

Static Autonomy vs. Dynamic Autonomy: The Differences in West European Nationalism

In Flanders, the Dutch-speaking region of Belgium, nationalism has been a major political force for over a century, but secessionism remains weak. Although the push of Flemish parties for further decentralization combined with the preference of Francophone parties for the status quo has had observers commenting on the instability of the country since at least the 1990s, the objective of Flemish nationalism is still mostly limited to the gradual decentralization of the Belgian federation. 

In South Tyrol, a predominantly German-speaking community in the North of Italy, secessionism has been marginal for some time. The weakness of contemporary secessionism in South Tyrol is all the more striking considering that the alpine region was transferred to Italy from Austria in 1919 and that it has a subsequent history of secessionist and irredentist nationalism, punctuated in the 1960s by political violence. 

Why, then, have some nationalist movements in Western Europe experienced a significant increase in the strength of secessionism over the last decade or so while others have not? In a nutshell, the strengthening of secessionism in Catalonia and Scotland was the result of static autonomy, that is, of an autonomy regime that failed to adjust to the changing circumstances of these minority nations. In contrast, autonomy for Flanders and South Tyrol has been dynamic insofar as it has been either expanded or laterally adjusted in time. The two pairs of cases suggest a theory of secessionism: static autonomy stimulates secessionism while dynamic autonomy staves it off. Static autonomy places members of a minority nation before only two self-determination options: independence and the status quo. As such, it generates incentives for supporting secessionism. Dynamic autonomy involves self-determination options other than independence and the status quo, in the form of increased or adjusted autonomy. As a result, dynamic autonomy reduces incentives for supporting secession.

Insight for the United States

The U.S. federation is not multinational in that none of the 50 states have a significant number of people who identify with another nation than the American nation. In addition, the United States lacks (if we exclude its territories, more specifically Puerto Rico) the raw material on which minority nations that seek self-determination tend to be built: a territorially concentrated historical community linguistically distinct from the rest of the country.  

Therefore, despite fears expressed by some commentators that political polarization in the United States is exposing the country to the threat of secession, the potential for the development in the short or medium-term of a secessionist movement (outside of Puerto Rico, where it already exists but is weak) is minuscule. Yet, a conclusive finding of the social sciences over the last forty years or so is that the nation is historically and politically constructed. Nations can, over the long term, be made and unmade, albeit not easily. The special sense of solidarity that makes the nation can be undermined and a new nation, searching for self-determination in the form of increased autonomy or outright independence, can emerge from such loosening of ties. Thus, there is a theoretical possibility that the American nation could slowly and over an extended period of time see its binding ties loosen just enough to create an opening for the construction of an alternative nation within the United States.

Protecting the Federalist System: The American System of Dynamic Autonomy

What does the theory of secessionism exposed above suggest for the United States avoiding this admittedly unlikely scenario?  

If secessionism strengthens when autonomy is static, it would also grow or develop if autonomy is reduced or outright eliminated. From this perspective, there is a clear incentive for the United States to not only preserve its federal system but also to ensure that the legislative, administrative, and fiscal powers of states are not curtailed. There has been a certain impatience with federalism in the United States recently, as some are increasingly viewing the federal system as a “roadblock to equality.” Indeed, federalism involves a territorially differentiated treatment of citizens in many different policy areas resulting from a constitutionally protected decentralization of political power. It does so in the name of (territorial) pluralism.   

It is important to remember that in federal countries such as the United States, constitutionally protected decentralization is a condition for national unity. The autonomy resulting from this decentralization enables territorial political communities (the states) to be different and, consequently, to fit more comfortably within the nation. In the United States, the ability of states to practice different politics and adopt different policies through the autonomy they enjoy is a bulwark against secessionism. 

Polarization, Populism, and Secession in Light of Social Trust: A Careful Reinterpretation

By Martin Rode – Associate Professor, Department of Economics, University of Navarra (Spain) and Christian Bjørnskov – Professor in the Department of Economics, Aarhus University (Denmark)

The Dispersion of the Last Decade 

Few observers would doubt that the last decade has seen the increasing levels of political polarization in most Western democracies. The polarization spans a very diverse set of issues, ranging from economic inequality, immigration, to issues over minority rights and the general orientation of foreign policy. The United States is perhaps one of the most extreme examples, but it is certainly not an exception. Think of the discussions surrounding Brexit in the United Kingdom, Catalonia’s possible independence from Spain, or the sustainability of debt levels and monetary policy across the member states of the European Union. Interestingly, these increased levels of polarization were preceded by approximately two decades of relatively low levels of political conflict in most of these same countries following the end of the Cold War. 

Undiscoverable Omnipresent 

Outside of some very general observations, the causes of this polarization wave and the ensuing phenomenon of political populism are currently not very well understood by social science. A series of very influential studies has found evidence surrounding globalization and trade, economic crisis and rising inequality, as well as immigration as determinants. Still, these studies often examine municipalities or regions, and once cross-country data is employed, the evidence regarding globalization and inequality, or non-Western immigration is actually much less clear-cut. In fact, other studies have even evoked improving external economic conditions and the ensuing possibilities for redistribution as potential causes of nationalist populism and political polarization. Something similar has been the case with another classical culprit, the rise of new forms of political communication, where some studies point towards new media contributing substantially to the rise of polarization while others find contrary indications. Despite constant claims to the contrary, the only indisputable conclusion is we still know relatively little about the ultimate causes of polarization and populism in the West. 

Are We Dwelling on the Underside?

The risk remains in search of the external causes of our tendency to polarize on political topics and search for politicians that sell us apparently easy solutions. Therefore, we might have been asking the relevant questions in the wrong way: Could these causes be comparatively internal than external? In many ways, the main questions are related to the issue of building individual and societal resilience, which has almost become a fashionable topic in social sciences during the late COVID 19 pandemic. 

Social Trust, Inevitable

One highly relevant issue to resilience building is social trust (or social capital). Several different definitions of this concept exist, but, generally speaking, social trust can be characterized as the trust that we deposit in unknown others—of whom we have no prior knowledge. At the societal level, social trust is related to economic growth, the existence and sustainability of large welfare states, and the general quality of national-level institutions. Social trust thus enables societies to engage in a peaceful change in the face of risks and enhances the capacity of communities to overcome collective action problems, even in the absence of a functioning state. It is also quite easy to see how low levels of social trust might be related to the rise of populism, polarization, or secessionism. Still, there is also an ongoing discussion, whether growing political polarization, fractionalization, and secessionism actually erode social trust, or social trust acts as a mechanism of resilience. It thereby facilitates the rise of populist politicians and makes societies less prone to any of these phenomena. 

Generally, more is currently known about the outcomes produced by social trust than of its determinants. In many ways, these are still a bit of a mystery for social sciences. A stream of psychological research has associated social trust with personality traits at the individual level, ultimately linking it to early childhood education and very stable long-term cultural norms. In this context, notable indications have also been found about the strong socialization component of trusts and their remarkable stability over the life cycle. At the social level, it is also pronounced how little the average social trust levels of countries vary over time, even if they go through phases of adversity, such as economic or political crises. 

A New Study on the Evolution of Social Trust

A recently published study of ours, in which we explored the evolution of social trust throughout the Catalan secessionist conflict, also finds support for this view. This topic has strongly polarized Catalan society along pro- and anti-secessionist lines during the last ten years—so much that it has divided innumerable families and friends. One would think that such an omnipresent conflict should also negatively influence how much one can trust unknown others. However, looking at the evolution of Catalan social trust throughout this time, we found that it has hardly changed at all. In doing so, we observe one of the very few examples where the evolution of social trust can be followed through a major political, social, and institutional conflict of a high-income democracy, which is often complicated by a lack of adequate data.

US Domestic Polarization and Civil Conflict

An important question is how all this can inform us about US domestic polarization and civil conflict? Secessionism is hardly a major issue in US politics, although there are some recent indications that secessionist sentiments may be on the rise. Still, to the extent that our results on the stability of social trust during major political conflicts generalize to broader contexts, it is implausible that political polarization is a major factor that drives social trust at the individual and societal levels. It might rather be the other way around, as societies with a high level of social trust seem to be more resilient to developing high levels of political polarization over divisive topics and falling prey to the simplistic logic of populist politicians and apparently easy solutions like secession.

Hence, if we are concerned with increasing political polarization and its consequences for our societies, we should perhaps focus our individual efforts on a less obvious goal: Our children’s education and the example we set in this matter. That is, teaching them to remain open to ideas that are different from their own and to recognize that others may also have a point, even if one disagrees. Admittedly, this is easier said than done on most occasions, but it probably is an important lesson for their future and perhaps also a vital lesson for our own.

This article is part of Divided We Fall’s “Civility Without Borders” series, covering a range of topics fundamental to U.S. foreign policy. Through this series, we ask scholars, journalists, government officials, and activists to discuss the most pressing issues in international affairs. If you want to read more pieces like this, click here.

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André Lecours
Professor in the School of Political Studies, University of Ottawa | Website

André Lecours is Professor in the School of Political Studies at the University of Ottawa. His main research interests are nationalism and federalism. He is the author of Nationalism, Secessionism, and Autonomy (Oxford University Press, 2021).


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Martin Rode
Associate Professor, Department of Economics, University of Navarra (Spain) | Website

Martin Rode is an Associate Professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Navarra in Pamplona (Spain). He received a doctoral degree in economics from a joint Ph.D. program by the Universities of Cantabria, the Basque Country, and Oviedo. He also holds two undergraduate degrees in Economics and Political Science from the University of Innsbruck (Austria). He has been a visiting researcher at Florida State University (USA), Aarhus University (Denmark), and CESifo Group Munich (Germany). Martin's research and teaching focus on the areas of Political Economy, Institutional Economics, and Public Policy. His publications have appeared in Defense and Peace Economics, Economics and Politics, the European Journal of Political Economy, the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, Political Studies, Public Choice, Publius-the Journal of Federalism, and Social Indicators Research, among others.


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Christian Bjørnskov
Professor in the Department of Economics, Aarhus University (Denmark) | Website

Christian Bjørnskov is a Professor in the Department of Economics at Aarhus University in Aarhus, Denmark. He received his Ph.D. from the Aarhus School of Business and has visiting professor at the universities of Göttingen and Heidelberg, as well as Deakin University. Christian's research and teaching focus on the areas of Political Economy and Development Economics. His publications have appeared in the American Journal of Political Science, Journal of Development Economics, Public Choice, and Journal of Conflict Resolution, among others.

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