It’s tempting these days to see a secessionist movement coming out of the sharp divide between Trump and Biden supporters. But long before Trump ran for office, back when Biden was a grandfatherly senator and later vice president, state officials began acting as if their colleagues in other states were the moral equivalent of leaders of rogue nations like Iran. The end of policy debates and the beginning of bans, restrictions on commerce, and punitive actions against American states and localities—these trends have played a major role in fueling secessionist sentiment.
A new poll from the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics finds that large portions of the American public now favor blue and red states going their own ways to form separate countries. The survey results, writes political scientist Larry Sabato, highlight the “deep, wide and dangerous divides” between Trump and Biden voters, presaging a new secession movement. But the schism was already evident in the increasing number of state and local officials enacting laws and policies that ban travel and restrict commerce with other American places with governments they object to—a trend that the Covid-19 emergency has only deepened. In everything from tax policy to travel to contracting rules, a secession movement within the states has been building for years.
California recently banned any state-sponsored travel by its employees to Ohio, based on a 2016 law that imposes penalties on states that California officials deem to be discriminating against lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender residents. At issue is Ohio’s new “conscience clause” law, which allows a medical provider to refuse to perform certain procedures, such as gender-transition surgery, if they violate a doctor’s religious or moral beliefs. The Golden State originally passed the 2016 legislation after North Carolina enacted a bill requiring people to use public bathrooms based on their birth gender. Five other states—Washington, Minnesota, New York, Vermont, and Connecticut—joined California in restricting commerce with North Carolina. Since then, the number of laws that allegedly run afoul of California’s 2016 measure have proliferated—and so have the bans. California now restricts government-financed travel in 18 other U.S. states containing 116 million people—including both Carolinas, both Dakotas, Texas, and Florida. Most recently, California applied its restrictions to states that require transgender athletes to participate in high school sports based on their birth gender—even though prominent LGBTQ athletes such as Martina Navratilova have endorsed a similar policy.
Once states and cities embark on these kinds of prohibitions, there’s nothing to stop them from spreading. And they have. A decade ago, for instance, Los Angeles restricted travel by city employees to Arizona because of its immigration policy and urged city departments not to do business with firms in the state. Among other things, city police refused to send helicopter pilots to training sessions taking place in Phoenix, and city council members refused to attend a National League of Cities conference in Arizona. A few years later, L.A. added its own restrictions on travel to North Carolina and Mississippi over their transgender bathroom laws.