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Alabama and Scotland

Why Alabama isn't Scotland

Despite hype, secession deeply unpopular in the Deep South

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  • This week voters in Scotland go to the polls to vote on breaking away from the United Kingdom. While Southerners know a thing or two about secession, it’s difficult to find popular support for doing what the Scots will contemplate this week.

WETUMPKA — If Scottish voters decide Thursday to break away from the United Kingdom, northern Europe will gain another oil-rich, left-of-center nation.

Mike Whorton, a socially conservative real estate agent from Wetumpka, will be cheering them on.

"It's going to give us hope," Whorton said. "If they can do it, we can do it as well."

Whorton is chairman of the Alabama chapter of the League of the South, a group that advocates secession by some or all of the states of the old Confederacy.

On Thursday, Whorton and other secessionists plan to gather at the League's convention center in Wetumpka — a 200-seat, church-like building with Confederate and Alabama flags posted out front — to watch the vote from across the Atlantic.

Poll numbers suggest a statistical dead heat in Scotland's upcoming referendum on independence from the U.K. Over the decades, Scots have gone to the polls repeatedly to grant Edinburgh increasing amounts of self-rule. If voters say "yes" on Thursday, Scotland would become an independent nation.

The vote is being closely watched by separatists on this side of the pond, and not just in the South.

"If Scotland is successful, it will provide a clear pathway that is both peaceful and democratic," wrote Brandon Letsinger in an email to The Star. Letsinger is a spokesman for Cascadia Now, a group that seeks "the peaceful, democratic and eventual independence of Washington, Oregon and British Columbia."

Separatist movements seem to have increased in visibility across America in recent years. "Secede" billboards have sprung up in several cities in the Deep South. More than 31,000 people signed an online White House petition seeking permission for Alabama to leave the Union, and similar petitions popped up for other states.

But American secessionists have one major hurdle to overcome before they can follow Scotland's example. Even in Alabama, where Confederate flags and states' rights rhetoric are common, there's no evidence of anything like popular support for leaving the Union.

Liberty vs. unity

Describing his political beliefs, Whorton, 65, sounds like a lot of other white baby boomers from Alabama.

"When I was growing up, I think Americans had a lot more liberty," he said.

A half-century ago, Whorton said, the government was much less likely to tell people what to do with their own property. The South, he said, is the last bastion of the Christian faith in a country with a corrupted culture. Federal courts will soon force same-sex marriage on Alabama, though 80 percent of the state opposed it, he claims.

Then comes the twist. Secession from the U.S. is the only way out. And secession starts at home.

"If we're going to secede, we'll have to secede first in our homes, from the corruption of this country," he said.

If polls are any indication, Southerners have almost no inclination to follow Whorton into nationhood.

Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-leaning polling company with a penchant for quirky questions, is one of the few institutions that have asked voters the secession question outright. They found 15 percent of Mississippians in favor of secession this year. Last year, the group found 20 percent of Texans supporting independence there. The numbers were highest in Georgia, where a full 24 percent said in 2012 that they'd vote to leave the Union.

If anyone has polled Alabamians on the issue, they're not sharing the results.

For non-secessionists, those polls are either alarming or reassuring, depending on how they're interpreted. The blogosphere has made much of the fact that nearly one in four Georgians would secede if given a chance.

Historian Wayne Flynt says too little attention is paid to the large majority who are just fine with being American.

“There’s a tradition of polling in the South, and especially Alabama, and saying ‘Look how many crazy people they have,’” said Flynt, a professor emeritus at Auburn University.

Anniston Star reporters posed the secession question to dozens of Calhoun County residents last week. Only a handful expressed support for an independent state. Many found the question ridiculous.

"That's the dumbest idea I heard all day," said Anniston resident Terry Grizzard. "You have a broader base of resources if you stay with a national base."

Some said secession would kill small businesses by shutting off easy commerce with other states. Others said the state government would collapse financially without federal aid. One noted, in colorful terms, that the state got its behind kicked after its last secession attempt.

Even critics of President Obama were reluctant to give up their status as Americans.

"I want America to be one and on the same page and get this Muslim president out of his seat," said Anniston resident Timothy Baxter. (Obama self-identifies as a Christian, but many of his critics claim he's a Muslim.)

Alabama just isn’t the same place it was when it seceded last time, Flynt said. In 1860, he said, cotton made up roughly half of U.S. exports, and Alabama was one of the biggest cotton producers — something that made independence seem plausible.

Now, he said, the state is propped up by federal social programs and military spending, making secession unthinkable for most.

“There are a lot of conservative people who would laugh at that idea,” said Flynt, an emeritus professor at Auburn University. “And that’s because they profit off the taxes my son is paying in Seattle.”

Imaginary nations

The poll numbers aren't entirely comforting to Ed Sebesta, a writer who has studied — and criticized — the neo-Confederate movement for years.

"Ultimately, nations are all imaginary," Sebesta said. "People think they're made of mortar and brick, but they're really made of gossamer threads and connections."

The League of the South, Sebesta said, got its start just after the breakup of the Soviet Union, when partitions of seemingly mighty countries became thinkable. The breakup of a wealthy, stable English-speaking country, he said, could give American secessionists another boost.

Sebesta claims the League is waiting for a major catastrophe that would make the idea of a split seem more plausible to average Americans. The recession of 2008 didn't win their case for them, Sebesta said, but it did help secessionist rhetoric move more into the mainstream.

Confederate overtones have long been a part of Southern politics, and the rhetoric certainly hasn't decreased in recent years. Gov. Robert Bentley, in his State of the State address this year, referred to the U.S. as "50 sovereign states." House Speaker Mike Hubbard once formed a Commission on Alabama Values and States Rights. Lawmakers this year proposed, but didn't pass, "nullification" of federal gun laws, and they routinely pass other bills, couched in less 19th-century wording, that claim to make the state immune from federal orders.

But if it's easy to find a politician doing a secessionist strip-tease, it's much harder to find one who will go the full monty. When secessionist petitions dominated the news two years ago, Bentley was quick to shoot down the idea of an independent Alabama. A Bentley spokeswoman told the press that the governor "believes in one nation under God."

Flynt, the historian, said states’ rights rhetoric has indeed increased in recent years, but is largely bluster.

“I don’t think it means anything in the world,” he said. “It’s largely for domestic consumption. Republicans are not nearly as silly as the 2014 primaries made them seem.”

Cultural weight

A "yes" vote in Scotland would provide a boost for secession movements everywhere, said Jenna Bednar, a University of Michigan political science professor who has studied federalism and secessionist movements.

Still, Bednar said in an email to The Star, a lot depends on how those movements define themselves. Separatist movements based on cultural differences tend to gain more traction that movements with purely political goals.

"Is Alabama viable on its own, and does it have a distinct, unique culture that is suppressed within its current relationship with the U.S.?" she wrote.

Sebesta said the League of the South has often tried to play up the notion of ethnic differences between white Southerners and the rest of the country.

“They have this whole concept that Southerners are a Celtic people,” Sebesta said. Southern nationalists have been known to wear tartans and use Gaelic phrases, he said — even though earlier generations of “lost cause” commemorators considered themselves the descendants of English Cavaliers.

In a conversation with The Star last week League of the South national president Michael Hill seemed more concerned with American culture’s effect on Southern notions of manhood and chivalry.

"We've become an effeminate, emasculated society," Hill said.

Hill said that despite Scotland's political leanings — well to the left of Alabama's — he is rooting for Scottish independence.

"It's been a very vibrant, youthful campaign that was very positive," he said. "The 'no' side was all doom and gloom."

Hill said he hopes for a similar popular movement one day in the South, with a peaceful transition to independence.

Recent postings to the League's website tell a different story. With titles such as "When Politics Fail," Hill's recent postings mention "extrapolitical solutions" and muse on the use of "fourth generation warfare" — essentially, guerilla war.

"To oversimplify," Hill wrote, "The primary targets will not be enemy soldiers; instead, they will be political leaders, members of the hostile media, cultural icons, bureaucrats, and other of the managerial elite without whom the engines of tyranny don’t run."

By other means

Citing leaked internal documents, the nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center claimed earlier this month that Hill was setting up a paramilitary group called the Indomitables, some of whose members have ties to white supremacist groups.

Hill said the SPLC report was inaccurate. The Indomitables, he said, are a group of loyal protesters who show up at League rallies. Talk of fourth-generation warfare was all speculative, he said.

"I'm talking to you here as a military historian, in theory," said Hill, a former history professor. He said he wanted the group's followers to begin thinking about how they'd fight if federal intrusion became intolerable.

War plans, even theoretical ones, are notably absent from the websites of some other secessionist groups, such as Cascadia Now or the Second Vermont Republic. The Cascadians seemed to take offense when The Star asked about war planning.

"If that's the direction your article is taking I'll ask you to please exclude us from it," Letsinger wrote in an email.

Asked what it would take to spark fourth-generation warfare, Hill said a foreign occupation would suffice. A Star reporter later asked Hill if he considered Alabama an occupied territory.

"For 150 years," he said.

In Scotland, independence supporters have been fielding questions about the details of secession, from monetary policy to European Union membership. Hill can't even begin to plan in that kind of detail. He doesn't know whether a successful secessionist movement means nationhood for one state, or several, or the entire South as a single nation.

But if all 50 backed out, bringing the United States to an end, he said he wouldn't mind.

"No, not at all," he said. "Nations have a lifespan, just like living things do. Maybe its usefulness has run out."

University of Alabama graduate students Ramsey Archibald, Alexis Barton, Kirsten Fiscus, Chris Kowalski and Alex Woolbright contributed reporting.


Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.