- As the threat of domestic terrorism grows, experts are not ruling out a possible civil war.
- At minimum, there are concerns over violence at polls during the 2022 midterm elections.
- Republican in a few states, including Texas, have raised the prospect of secession.
SAN ANTONIO — Among the worst case scenario: Political violence escalates ahead of the 2022 midterm elections. Lawmakers in several states vote to secede from the United States. The federal government refuses to let them go. Armed conflict erupts.
The notion of political divisiveness causing a full-blown civil war might seem unlikely, even unthinkable. But some political scientists say they are not ruling it out entirely.
The heightened political tension between Democrats and Republicans ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, coupled with the rise of far-right extremism that's manifested itself in flashpoints such as the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol, could create more violence in the upcoming months and change the country as we know it.
"It is possible that there will be other instances of violence like we saw on January 6," said Carole Emberton, a history professor at the University at Buffalo who specializes in the American Civil War. "When you have politicians who are riling everyone up and law enforcement that is sort of wishy-washy or weak in its response, then I think you have a really volatile mix that emboldens these kinds of groups to continue with what they're doing."
Over the past few months, several Republican lawmakers have advocated their states seceding from the United States. Some voters also have secession on their minds.
"We should secede," Don Rhodes, a 63-year-old veteran, told Insider, referring to Texas becoming a sovereign nation — as it was before its annexation in 1845.
Rhodes, a San Antonio resident, said he did not, for example, agree with the way President Joe Biden halted the Keystone XL pipeline.
Daniel Miller, president of the Texas Nationalist Movement, an organization that advocates for Texas to become a sovereign nation, says that that idea of Texas seceding is not new.
"Let's be honest, Texas has pretty much been keeping one eye on the exit sign since we joined the union in 1845," he said.
"When people say that Texas couldn't make it as an independent nation, well look at all the natural advantages that we have, we're the ninth largest economy in the world. Our economic power globally is stronger than that of Russia," he said.
He continued: "Look at not just our economic power, but look at our natural resources. And look at the independent spirit of Texans who believe that there really is no one better to govern us than us?"
Domestic terrorism on the rise
A 2021 poll by Bright Line Watch and YouGov found that 37% of respondents expressed a "willingness to secede" from the union. People living in the South were most likely to indicate secessionist leanings, although the study's authors acknowledged that this is "an issue that they are very unlikely to have considered carefully."
Political scientists fear that secession-centric sentiment will only grow stronger as the 2022 midterm elections approach. The threat of violence is real, said Mary McCord, executive director of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown Law.
"There are dangerous individuals out there who are connected to extremist ideology and who law enforcement and the public do have to worry about committing acts of violence, either individually or in groups, particularly against the government," she said.
The Biden administration has made several public pronouncements about mitigating domestic-terrorism threats. The Homeland Security Department issued a warning in February that the country "remains in a heightened threat environment fueled by several factors, including an online environment filled with false or misleading narratives."
The department said that one of the main contributing factors creating this kind of environment is the continued "calls for violence directed at US critical infrastructure."
Some Republicans embrace extremist views
Political scientists told Insider that these extremist groups are encouraged by the mainstream Republican Party that has come to adopt rhetoric similar to that of far-right groups.
After the 2020 presidential election, some Republican lawmakers carried on with claims of election fraud.
Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Paul Gosar of Arizona have even taken it a step further and attended a fringe right-wing conference with ties to white nationalists.
Footage of the event showed attendees cheering for Russian President Vladimir Putin and applauding comparisons between Putin and Adolf Hitler.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy called the gathering "appalling and wrong" and said he would talk to both members of Congress about the issue. But later on, he said he still stood by the pledge he made last November that if Republicans were to take back control of the House, both Greene and Gosar would have "better committee assignments" than they previously had.
Jay Ulfelder, a political scientist who studies civil wars and previously served as research director of the Political Instability Task Force, said Republicans have "normalized" extremist rhetoric.
"When that gets normalized, then it's much easier to recruit people into those organizations … that would have been considered extreme or have radical views," Ulfelder said. "Those extremist groups are pulling the GOP party further right and further towards their extremist goals."
Far-right groups have become more active at the local level, with groups such as the Proud Boys participating in school board and town council meetings.
Members of militia groups and January 6 insurrectionists are even running for, and in some cases winning, local office. On March 22, for example, a judge convicted a member of the Otero County Commission in New Mexico for his role in the January 6 attack on the US Capitol.
This comes as election and school-board officials have endured harassment or threats of violence. Reuters documented 220 incidents across the country of local school officials being harassed or receiving violent threats.
The collective effect could damage public institutions: The Brennan Center for Justice released a poll that found that one in five election officials plan to leave the field before 2024.
There are real fears that election workers will be physically assaulted or even die during the 2022 general elections, said Adrian Fontes, the former recorder of Maricopa County in Arizona.
"I'm concerned that it will cost human lives just to have elections in America," he said. "Elections administration is the one piece of critical infrastructure in the United States that cannot be skipped. We cannot underfund it, we cannot understaff it. And we have to make sure that it's protected."
With more election workers leaving, there's more room for those with extremist ties to take their place, which could create more chaos, McCord said.
"It's really a threat to democracy," she said, "we could be in a situation where election deniers are now in the positions where they have responsibility for tabulating the votes and accurately reporting the results of elections."
States taking matters into their own hands
The nation's political and ideological divisions have prompted a small but vocal group of lawmakers and political activists to suggest, support, or otherwise espouse secession — an act that, in 1861, triggered perhaps the darkest period in US history: the Civil War itself.
Governor of Texas, Rick Perry flirted — not very seriously, some say — with the idea of Texas leaving the United States and recapturing its status, however brief, as an independent republic.
It never happened, of course. But the idea, though, has lived on, with one Texas state lawmaker last year introducing legislation to conduct a referendum on whether the Lone Star State should create a joint legislative committee "to develop a plan for achieving Texas independence," The Texas Tribune reported.
Other parts of the United States, including Alaska and California, have to some degree considered the idea of being independent from the country.
In 2017, Puerto Rico conducted a nonbinding referendum to determine whether to remain a territory, push for statehood, or break away completely. The vast majority of voters backed statehood, though many who preferred the status quo or independence boycotted the vote.
North of the mainland, there's a small movement in Québec to secede from Canada and become the United States' 51st state — something that could conceivably lead to hostilities on both sides of the border if it ever happened, which is most unlikely.
To be clear: There is no formal pathway to secede from the United States. States and commonwealth territories can conduct referendums or vote on legislative measures to secede, but that's about it.
The response from the federal government of a state successfully voting to secede from the US could vary depending on how the state got to the point of passing that kind of legislation, said Jay Ulfelder, a political scientist who studies civil wars and previously served as research director of the Political Instability Task Force.
"If the people pushing secession were using violence, intimidation, terrorism to get there then I think you'd get the military response from the federal government," he said. "But the chances of that are less if they really got there by what appeared to be a genuine democratic process."
Meanwhile, in New Hampshire, 13 Republicans voted earlier this month in support of a measure that would require the state to amend its constitution, declare itself independent from the United States, and become a sovereign nation. The measure did not garner enough votes to pass the state House of Representatives, failing by a 323-13 vote.
But in New Hampshire, the vote did make a statement that secession is on the minds of some residents of a state that features the official motto: "Live free or die.".
Republican State Rep. Matthew Santonastaso told Insider it was just a matter of time before states begin to secede.
"A national divorce is inevitable," Santonastaso said. "The government is nothing but an illusion we all hold in our minds. If the people decide to reject their government, then there is little the federal government can do to stop it."