Charles Dharapak/AP
Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, speaks in Tampa, Fla. in August 2012.

Ron Paul stands with secessionists. But how many are there, really?

Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, a bastion of secessionist sentiment, issued a statement in defense of state petitions to secede from the US, citing American 'principles of self-governance.'

Rep. Ron Paul (R) of Texas may be retiring from Congress but he still knows how to stir a pot, metaphorically speaking. In the latest example of his ability to get people talking he’s issued a statement that’s supportive of state petitions to secede from the US.

You’ve heard about those petitions, right? They’re on a section of the White House website intended to allow citizens the ability to express their opinions about the direction of the US government. Disgruntled voters have now initiated petitions for each of the 50 states to withdraw from the union. The one for Texas has the most signatures – 115,751 the last time we looked.

Anyway, all this got Congressman Paul thinking. “Is it treasonous to want to secede from the United States?” he writes.

While many people might think this question was answered by the Civil War, the “principles of self-governance and voluntary association are at the core of our founding,” Paul argues. He adds that if secession is off the table, there’s nothing to stop the federal government from continuing to encroach on individual liberties.

“Consider the ballot measures that passed in Colorado and Washington State regarding marijuana laws,” Paul writes, pointing out that the residents of those states have indicated they want pot policy to be different than the federal government's.

"At what point should the people dissolve the political bands which have connected them to an increasingly tyrannical and oppressive federal government?" Paul concludes.

Well, we’ve got a couple of comments here. The first is that, yes, for all practical purposes the Civil War did settle this question. But we’ll move past that since Paul is just writing rhetorically here. He notes that he has no expectation Texas is really going to secede.

The second is that this argument appears to greatly discount the power of democracy. Without the threat of secession, there’s nothing to stop the gradual slide toward a police state? That would mean elections don’t matter. Why bother to have them?

Which brings us to pot. Yes indeed, voters in Colorado and Washington indicated a desire for a different kind of antidrug regime. But would it be churlish to note that voters in both those states delivered their electoral votes to President Obama? That means they also approved of the administration that’s supposed to enforce national antidrug laws, which were passed by duly elected members of Congress. At the least, they're sending a mixed message here. Paul is picking the result he agrees with and discounting the one he opposes.

It's the same thing with regards to Obamacare. He says the federal government doesn't appear to be respecting the wishes of states that refuse to establish the health insurance stores, or "exchanges," called for under the law. But the law makes clear that if states don't establish these, the federal government will step in and do it for them. If US voters truly wished to get rid of the Affordable Care Act, they could have elected Mitt Romney. They didn't.

Lastly, it's possible that Paul is overstating the popularity of the secession petitions in general. He wouldn't be alone in this – even the media, in reacting to them, in essence elevate them to a level they may not quite deserve.

That's because many fewer individuals may have signed them than appears at first glance. While the petitions focus on particular states, signees may be from anywhere. They can – and do – sign more than one petition.

Neal Caron, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, has, with the help of his students, analyzed the particulars of more than 900,000 of the signatures, and his conclusion is that they represent about 321,000 different people. In essence, each signee put their John Hancock down in three places.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, support for secession was strongest by far in red states Obama lost, and strongest of all in – you guessed it – Texas.

What does this mean? It means that the secession craze is narrower than it at first appeared. And maybe it also means that in the end, talk of secession is about rejecting other American voters the secessionists don't agree with, as much as the federal government. 

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