Last September, about 60 Vermonters met in the chambers of the house of representatives in Montpelier to celebrate the state’s “independence spirit” and to discuss the goals of “environmental sustainability, economic justice, and Vermont self--determination.” The speaker of the house had given up the space free of charge for the one-day conference. First at the podium was a Princeton-educated yak farmer and professor of journalism named Rob Williams, one of the organizers of the event, who at 9 A.M. opened the proceedings by acknowledging what he called “some unpleasant and hard truths.” Amid the twin global crises of peak oil and climate change, the United States was “an out-of-control empire.” It was “unresponsive to the needs, concerns, and desires of ordinary citizens.”
Williams, who wore a T-shirt that said “U.S. Out of Vermont,” did not advocate revolution. He was looking for a divorce. He wanted Vermont to secede. “Nonviolent secession,” he said, “the detaching from empire and exercising our rights to independence, a deeply American right first expressed in the Declaration of Independence, is a right that demands re-exploration today.” Williams noted that Vermont is one of only three states, along with Texas and Hawaii, that ever existed as an independent republic—in Vermont’s case, from 1777 to 1791—and that as “a national leader on progressive political issues,” the state was “uniquely poised to lead this national conversation on self-determination.”
The murmuring response from the crowd suggested they’d heard it before. Williams and his fellow travelers—who constituted not quite a movement, he said, but more “a network of critical observers”—had been calling for separation from the U.S. since 2003. They had gathered in the ornate rooms of the state house to spread the word in 2005 and again in 2008 and now in 2012. Vermont had not yet separated, but the secessionists who were calling for a “Second Vermont Republic” had gained notoriety, and some small influence, across the state.
The conference’s attendees included an ecofeminist named Lierre Keith, co-author of Deep Green Resistance, who reported that “capitalism is literally insane” and urged the collapse of industrial civilization; a man in a kaffiyeh who enthused over a recent story about a rural Vermonter who, faced with police harassment over his use of marijuana, mounted his tractor, drove into town, and crushed seven sheriff’s cruisers under the treads of the behemoth machine; a musician who sang a tune called “Totalitarian Democracy”; a thespian garbed in 18th-century blouse and boots and cravat who re-enacted Ethan Allen, the farmer-soldier who led Vermont’s war of secession against New York in 1777; and a troupe of female dancers from the radical Bread and Puppet Theater, dressed all in white, who chanted a series of poems about “upriser calisthenics.”
The morning’s keynote speaker, historian and author Morris Berman, drew on his latest book, Why America Failed. As he writes, “The principal goal of North American civilization is and always has been an ever-expanding economy—affluence—and endless technological innovation—‘progress.’” That’s made us “a nation of hustlers … a people relentlessly on the make.” The hustling mentality, seeing no limits to acquisitiveness, founded on the delusion of permanent growth—otherwise known as the American Dream—produced permanent instability and crisis. A nation of hustlers, argued Berman, was bound to fail. It could do nothing else.
Williams was nodding along. “Only in Vermont,” he told me, “would a legislature allow this sort of thing on its floor.”
During the Obama years, secession has mostly been an antic folly of the political right, courtesy of Texas nationalists, Dixie nostalgists, white supremacists, “sovereign citizens,” and gun nuts. There was no small amount of hypocrisy, of course, in this conservative rebellion. When Texas Governor Rick Perry in 2009 spoke publicly about a possible Lone Star secession, he billed it as a constitutional right in the face of overreaching government—though Republicans mostly hadn’t complained when George W. Bush was demanding profligate budgets and stabbing the sacred document with pencil holes.
Yet here in granola-eating, hyper-lefty, Subaru-driving Vermont was a secession effort that had been loud during the Bush years, had not ceased its complaining under Barack Obama, did not care for party affiliation, and had welcomed into its midst gun nuts and lumberjacks and professors, socialists and libertarians and anarchists, ex--Republicans and ex-Democrats, truck drivers and schoolteachers and waitresses, students and artists and musicians and poets, farmers and hunters and wooly-haired woodsmen. The manifesto that elaborated their platform was read at the conference: a 1,400-word mouthful that echoed the Declaration of Independence in its petition of grievances. “[T]ransnational megacompanies and big government,” it proclaimed, “control us through money, markets, and media, sapping our political will, civil liberties, collective memory, traditional cultures.” The document was signed by, among others, its principal authors, a professor emeritus of economics at Duke University named Thomas Naylor and the decentralist philosopher Kirkpatrick Sale, author of Human Scale. “Citizens,” it concluded, “lend your name to this manifesto and join in the honorable task of rejecting the immoral, corrupt, decaying, dying, failing American Empire and seeking its rapid and peaceful dissolution before it takes us all down with it.”
Midway through the event, a bespectacled lawyer named Steven Howard, describing himself as a “liberty activist,” took his turn at the podium and shouted, “Free Vermont!” The response was lackluster, so Howard cried louder: “Free Vermont!” There was yipping and clapping, and when it died down, Howard asked, “How?” Answers were not forthcoming, though this was the key question. No compelling mass of Vermonters favored secession; no marchers in Burlington or Montpelier were burning the American flag. In polls taken over the previous five years, no more than 13 percent of registered Vermont voters had expressed support for the idea. In 2010, nine secessionist candidates ran for state office and were rejected by the public. Their best showing was the candidacy of a 19-year-old college student named James Merriam, who received 14 percent of the vote for a seat in the state house of representatives. Until recently, Williams had published and edited a newspaper, Vermont Commons: Voices of Independence, which at its height in 2011 had a print circulation of 12,000 but was now, for lack of funding and advertisers, only a website. His network of critical observers briefly did a brisk business in selling the “U.S. Out of Vermont” T-shirts. The group even had its own silver “independence coin” embossed with a portrait of socialist agrarian Scott Nearing, forebear of the back-to-the-land movement in Vermont.
When the proceedings broke for lunch, I asked Morris Berman, who had been invited from his home in Mexico, what he thought of the conferees and their intentions. “There’s no chance in hell that a secession is going to happen under current conditions,” he said. “I’m a historian. I look at what’s possible. If Vermont seceded, there would be troops in Burlington in two hours.” Yet Berman was also hopeful. The Vermonters were reinventing secession. It would not be a mere political revolt, not simply a regional separation, but also, and probably more important, a revolt against the economy of empire, a move toward economic independence. “These people here,” he told me, “are experimenting with a kind of monastic withdrawal that has political implications. Capitalism is eating itself alive, but as the system unravels you have all these little flowering buds appear.”
Vermont’s first modern-day proponent of secession was a professor of political science at the University of Vermont named Frank Bryan, who in 1987 published a comic account of the state’s departure from the union, titled Out! The Vermont Secession Book. The book imagined a covenant, signed in secret by Ethan Allen and George Washington, that suggested Vermont had not joined the Union; the Union had, instead, joined Vermont. Now, “after two hundred years of bureaucracy, federal mismanagement, and un-Vermont-like actions, Vermont wants out,” wrote Bryan and co-author Bill Mares, a state legislator.
In 1991, on the 200th anniversary of Vermont’s joining the empire, the legislature gave Bryan funding to travel the countryside with a state supreme court judge to debate the benefits of secession at seven town hall meetings, including one in Montpelier. “It was all in good fun,” Bryan says. The judge took the pro-Union position. All seven towns voted against remaining in the United States. “The reasons for not needing the federal government are pretty clear,” Bryan says. “The only wild card is defense. But we’re on the northern border with Canada. Who the hell is gonna bother us?”
In Vermont, Bryan says, there is “a commonality of people opposed to large distant bureaucracies telling them how to live their lives. It’s the decentralist commonality of the libertarian right and what I’d call the communitarian left. The right opposes big government, the left opposes big business. It’s really about governing on a human scale.”
As Bryan notes, Vermont has radical genes, a history rife with alternative thinking. Ethan Allen fought against the British Crown as fiercely as he would fight the Americans. Vermont under Allen produced, in 1777, the first constitution in English to outlaw slavery and allow citizens without property to vote. Nearly two centuries later, Scott Nearing chose Vermont to escape what he called “the American Oligarchy, the American Way of Life, the American Century, the American Empire.” When he published Living the Good Life in 1954, it became a touchstone for the first generation of the simple-living movement, the hippies and Luddites who in the 1960s flooded into the state to follow Nearing’s example. Vermont went almost overnight from a right-wing backwater to a leftist mecca that eventually put in office America’s only avowedly socialist senator, Bernie Sanders.
Another college professor, Thomas Naylor, who in 1993 had retired to a village near Burlington after 30 years of teaching economics at Duke University, took up Bryan’s idea of secession. In 2003, he founded a think tank and citizens’ network called Second Vermont Republic, its purpose to oppose “the tyranny of the United States government, Corporate America, and globalization.” Second Vermont Republic would soon have several hundred members. “The time has come,” Naylor wrote in his 2008 book, Secession, “for us peacefully to rebel against the American empire [by] regaining control of our lives from big government, big business, big cities, big schools, and big computer networks.”
Naylor, who died at the age of 76 last December, was a native Mississippian, raised in Jackson in a family of what he described as inveterate racists. Revolting against the South of his forefathers, he had founded in 1969, with future Tennessee Attorney General Mike Cody, the L.Q.C. Lamar Society, whose purpose was to promote, as Naylor wrote, a “humane civilization” in a new South that had shaken off slavery, racism, and segregation but perhaps would keep something of the civility, the courtoisie of the Old South—its slowness, its opposition to hurried industrialism and the quick buck. The Lamar Society found its lineage in the Southern Agrarians of the 1930s, led by poet John Crowe Ransom and novelist Robert Penn Warren. Their co-edited anthology, I’ll Take My Stand, featured some of the South’s greatest living writers denouncing the “convulsions of a predatory and decadent capitalism.” “The latter-day societies,” Ransom wrote, “have been seized—none quite so violently as our American one—with the strange idea that the human destiny is not to secure an honorable peace with nature, but to wage an unrelenting war on nature.”
At Duke, Naylor was known less as an economist than as co-creator, with theologian William Willimon, of a popular freshman course, “The Search for Meaning.” He taught Camus, Kafka, Tolstoy, Faulkner, Erich Fromm’s To Have or To Be? and Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death, among others. When he arrived in Vermont, he found in the far North what he had loved about the Old South: life “lived at a slower, more deliberate, more casual pace.” He wrote of “the classic red barns, the covered bridges, the picturesque patchwork pattern of small farms, black-and-white Holsteins, tiny villages, little rivers, ridges, hollows, and dirt roads.” There were “no cities, no big buildings, few shopping malls, no military bases, few big businesses.” Vermont, as Naylor saw it, was not only tiny and rural and beautiful. It was humane.
Naylor became the face of Vermont secession. His friends said that with his longish white hair, his bald spot at the crown, his jowls, red cheeks, and horn-rimmed glasses, he resembled Ben Franklin. On cable news and on NPR he carried the banner. During an interview with the Iranian state television network in 2009, wearing his usual forest-green suit-coat and green dress shirt to honor Vermont as the Green Mountain State, Naylor assured the Iranians, who were glad to hear an American inveigh against the Great Satan, that the U.S. was “owned and operated by corporate America and Wall Street.” He was joined on the program by the head of a Texas secessionist group called the Texas Nationalist Movement; both men agreed that they did not want to be part of the same nation. Naylor had issued similar proclamations while on Fox News with Bill O’Reilly, who offered him bus fare to Canada. Once, Naylor attempted to hold a meaningful conversation with Glenn Beck, an experience he described as “mentally debilitating.”
He wanted to lead his movement beyond the confines of the political left and right. “What liberals and conservatives have in common,” Naylor told me last fall, “is that they are both all about bigness and power—big government, big business. They are about owning, possessing, controlling and manipulating money, people, material wealth.” Barack Obama, he said, is George W. Bush with a tan and diction and without the smirk. The “socialist” senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders, is a “prostitute of empire” and a “collaborationist,” because he took no firm stand against war and defense appropriations. National security was a shared delusion in service of homicide. “Left or right,” Naylor asked, “who wants to be associated with such a shabby creature as the United States?”
In 2007, after seeing him on Fox News, a fifth-generation Vermonter named Dennis Steele, the son of working-class parents in the state’s remote Northeast Kingdom, wrote Naylor that he wanted to join the secessionist cause. Steele had served in the U.S military, was tall and burly and handsome, wore Carhartts, drove a pickup truck, drank maple syrup for breakfast, and hunted deer for his meat. A master at chess, he had founded a successful website, Chessmaniac.com. At Naylor’s urging, Steele declared his candidacy for governor in the 2010 race. “The gods of the empire,” went his campaign slogan, cribbed from Ethan Allen, “are not the gods of Vermont.” The eight other candidates on the secession ticket that year included a car salesman for Subaru, a former ACLU executive who had worked in the New York Legislature, a businessman in solar energy, and an ex-Army lieutenant who had been court-martialed for resisting the Vietnam War. “For the first time in over 150 years,” Naylor announced at a press conference for the ticket, “secession and political independence from the U.S. will be front and center in a statewide New England political campaign.”
Steele polled less than 1 percent. Naylor was embittered and exhausted. “I’ve been at this for close to seven years. Print promotion. Telephone calls. Money. I’m tired,” he told me. At the secession conference in Montpelier, Rob Williams had introduced Naylor as the “reason most of us are in this room.” But privately, Naylor wondered whether his approach to taking on the empire had been wrong all along. “I may have made a fundamental strategic error in bringing secession north,” he said. “The paradigm was what I knew growing up in the Deep South, the language of secession, the process of secession that the South championed.” Three months later, he was dead.
In the summer of 2010, I rented a room at a tiny Vermont boardinghouse called the Gather-ing Inn, in the town of Hancock at the foothills of the Green Mountains. The proprietor, a mirthful 67-year-old named Kathleen Byrne, had hosted three Vermont independence fund-raisers in recent years. “God, can’t we just leave already?” she said when I asked her about secession. “It feels so right.” On her property she kept chickens and tended fruit trees and a vegetable garden that fed the household and guests. She had a greenhouse for year-round production. It was a modest kind of independence, she said, meaningful because it was palpable.
A few days later, during the July 4 parade in Montpelier, I followed about two dozen secessionists—Thomas Naylor and Rob Williams leading the pack—as they carried a banner that said “200 Years Is Long Enough” and tossed copies of Vermont Commons into the crowd. Behind the secessionists were the Shriners in their go-karts and funny hats, and in front was a tall red, white, and blue layer-cake truck float representing the interests of Community National Bank, whose employees were dressed as Betsy Ross, Lady Liberty, and George Washington. I asked Washington, whose real name is Steve Gurin, bank vice president, what he thought about the gang of “seceshers” lurking behind him. Gurin laughed mightily, then peppered me with accusatory questions that were by now familiar: Where would revenues come from? How would we survive? “We’d be all alone,” Gurin said. “We can’t eat snow!”
I had often asked Naylor about these legitimate concerns. He wasn’t interested in sweating the details of the divorce. “I imagine a free Vermont would be very much like the old Vermont,” he said, “except that we wouldn’t be involved in murdering women and children and supporting the empire.” What kind of currency would the new republic use? “Oh, we’d stick with the dollar, or perhaps go with the euro, or the Canadian loony.” What about Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, or the infrastructure currently funded by the federal government—the bridges, the roads, the interstate highways? Free Vermont would figure it out in the fullness of time. The state would get to keep its $2 billion per capita share of the cost of imperial upkeep and war-making, Naylor said, but Vermont would owe the federal government for the takeover of U.S.–owned property. It would owe its share of the national debt. It would face as well questions about the legality of secession. Nowhere in the Constitution is secession prohibited, Naylor said, and the colonist-rebels of the 1770s did not seek permission from the Crown to leave. They just did it.
That afternoon, when the parade was over, I visited Williams at his yak farm outside the town of Waitsfield in the Mad River Valley. The yaks lowed and moaned, and Williams, who is tall and lanky and fast-moving, carried a long wooden staff to herd them along a green hillside that seemed to steam from the summer heat. The independent Vermont, as Williams described it, would not descend into autarky. It would not shut the borders, stop trade. The idea was first to practice more independence where practical. If secession from the U.S. were not possible, its proponents would find other ways to secede from the corporatocracy. “The three legs of functional independence are food, fuel, and finance,” Williams said. “Given peak oil, it might be smart to think of how to lessen dependence on energy-wasteful and socially wasteful systems. More food and more energy produced locally—which is to say independently. More local banks for local credit and capital for local food and energy production.”
We herded the yaks down the hill to the evening pasture near the barn, closed up the gates, and ate dinner: yak steaks and produce from his garden. A yak, Williams told me over our meal, consumes less grass per acre per animal than a cow and ends up producing the same amount of nutritional energy. This was independence meat at the end of my fork.
The next day, to stave off the terrible humidity, we went for a swim in the Mad River, climbing a path through pines to a series of ledges where kids were leaping into the emerald water. We got to talking about the concept of the commons, which is central to Williams’s notion of economic independence. He motioned at the water, at the sunlight, the air, the tall trees: “This is the commons.” The idea dates back to Roman civil law, codified in the Institutes of Justinian, which stated that “by the law of nature these things are common to all mankind—the air, running water, the sea.” Who owned the water we swam in, and together shared with the kids? No one and everyone.
How to measure it as a social good was the question Williams and others in the movement had been asking. Under current law, the value of the commons was not assessed to benefit Vermonters. In a 2008 study, secession advocate Gary Flomenhoft, a research associate professor of ecological economics at the University of Vermont, found that a system of fees, taxes, and other measures imposed on common resources—such as timber, spring water, and minerals—could raise $1.2 billion in state revenue. Vermont was a resource colony. Its hydroelectric energy plants, producing power for export, were controlled by Canadian shell corporations. Its timber was shipped to China so that residents could buy back shoddy furniture on credit. Most of Vermont’s milk was exported, its cheese churned and packaged out of state. Its drinking water, worth hundreds of millions of dollars but handed over to Nestlé and Coca-Cola for a fraction of its worth, was bottled in other states and sold back to Vermonters at twice the price of gasoline.
The first step toward functional independence, then, was to secure the commons for the people of Vermont. The secessionists had helped to draft legislation toward that end, House Bill 385, which would have established a Vermont common-assets trust to set limits on the use of those assets and assess user fees in the form of resource rent. The bill, introduced in 2011, defined the commons in broadest terms: “undisturbed habitats, entire ecosystems, biological diversity, waste absorption capacity, nutrient cycling, flood control, pollination, raw materials, fresh water replenishment systems, soil formation systems, and the global atmosphere.” The law stipulated that resource rent—presumably as much as $1.2 billion, a quarter of the state’s operating budget—would go toward health care, public libraries, education, “start-up grants” for Vermonters reaching the age of 18, and a citizen dividend similar to the payout Alaskans receive from oil revenues under the Alaska Permanent Fund. Rob Williams described House Bill 385 as “revolutionary stuff.”
A few months after the Montpelier conference, Williams invited me to attend a strategy meeting of the ten-member board of Vermont Commons, a nonprofit citizens cooperative. The board included a software consultant to Oracle named Robert Wagner; a marketing expert named Gaelan Brown, who was employed with the nonprofit 1% for the Planet; Flomenhoft, the principal author of the Vermont common-assets bill; and a housewife named Juliet Buck, who edited the Vermont Commons website. The subject of the meeting, which took place around a meal of string beans, feta cheese, and wine at Buck’s house, was the food-fuel-finance triad.
“My people in Addison County are in survival mode,” said Wagner, who had run for a seat in the state senate in 2010, lost badly, and was running again in 2012. “They know what’s wrong with capitalism. They’re hungry for something to do about it. What does independence mean?”
They talked about preparing for a transition society, a “Vermont lifeboat.” They talked about the portent of climate change in Hurricane Irene, which devastated wide sections of Vermont. They cited lines from a Wendell Berry poem, “The Mad Farmer, Flying the Flag of Rough Branch, Secedes from the Union”:
From the union of self-gratification and self-Annihilation
Secede into the care for one another
And for the good gifts of Heaven and Earth.
They talked about food sovereignty. Vermont imports 95 percent of its food, but the secessionists vowed they could invert that figure, producing tens of thousands of new farm and food-distribution jobs and 75 percent of all Vermont food in-state. They offered a litany of reforms: End price pressure on Vermont agriculture by removing the tax incentives and subsidies currently extended to those who speculate on agricultural land. End the federal regulations that burden small-scale raw milk and bread producers and those agrarians who survive by on-farm animal slaughter, processing, and distribution. Invest in regional centers for composting and food processing.
Vermont imports 100 percent of its fossil fuels, including $700 million a year in propane and heating oil. Gaelan Brown told me that the 250,000 homes in the state could be heated entirely with wood, using 1.2 million cords annually from a renewable supply of 117 million standing cords in Vermont’s forests. He calculated that Vermont could produce some 70 percent of its electricity by 2020 through a combination of solar, wind, biomass, and hydropower. The state, Brown said, was already positioned for local energy production: upwards of 30 percent of schoolchildren—more than any other state—attended schools heated with locally sourced wood chips, which had cut fuel costs by 50 percent. Vermont was a leader in renewable energy. It was the only state that had attempted (albeit without success) to wrest control of nuclear power plant relicensing from the federal government.
The secessionists also envision a near--interest-free banking and credit system through a state bank along the lines of the state-owned Bank of North Dakota. A state-run bank, writes Hartwick College research scholar Adrian Kuzminski in Vermont Commons, would “provide low-interest capital to citizens [while] breaking the monopoly by private usurious lenders.” Legislators floated a bill in 2011 to study the feasibility of a publicly owned bank. The bank bill awaits a committee hearing.
The urtext of the Vermont independence movement is E.F. Schumacher’s 1973 book Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered. It was the product of Schumacher’s experience in the 1950s as the chief economist at the British National Coal Board, when he came to the quite reasonable—but at the time unthinkable—conclusion that energy supply, including the coal that Great Britain was so ravenously burning up, could not satisfy unlimited growth. Growth for growth’s sake, Schumacher concluded, was a suicide pact with planet Earth. We couldn’t just keep growing. New paradigms were necessary. He offered a “Buddhist Economics,” a middle path to develop economies along Buddhist principles, with “a new direction to technological development, a direction that shall lead it back to the real needs of man, and that also means: to the actual size of man.” He wrote:
Production from local resources for local needs is the most rational way of economic life, while dependence on imports from afar and the consequent need to produce for export to unknown and distant peoples is highly uneconomic. … The Buddhist economist would hold that to satisfy human wants from faraway sources rather than from sources nearby signifies failure rather than success.
In Vermont, you can see an inchoate Buddhist economics. It is happening outside the purview of government, beyond the stamp of lawmakers. It’s there on Rob Williams’s yak farm as he wraps hay bales into his barn for feed and packs yak burgers for sale at his stall at the Waitsfield Farmers Market. It’s there in the Vermont Sustainable Exchange, a system of credit among Vermont businesses. It can be found, secessionists say, in the fact that Vermont has the most organic farmland in use per capita of any state, the most widespread locavore food movement in America, the largest “sustainability focused” association of local businesses, the most microbrews and brewpubs per capita of any state. You can see it in businesses and organizations like Vermont Family Forests, the Vermont Land Trust, and the Biomass Energy Resource Center.
I asked writer and activist Bill McKibben, a neighbor of Robert Wagner’s in Addison County—they live down the road from each other in the village of Ripton—what he thought of these Schumacherite models in practice, given the resource shocks that Vermont can expect in coming years. “Small and distributed will fare better than centralized and oversized,” he said. “Places with strong communities will fare better than others—the wake of Irene demonstrated powerfully that simple fact.”
Yet it seemed to me the secessionists were demanding a shift that went beyond mere re-localizing, and this was the historic challenge they presented. Growth for growth’s sake is a suicidal delusion, the seceshers were telling us. The solution is relative austerity, which implies a life lived within our means. The American Dream, in other words, would have to die, and Americans would have to do the killing. But this language runs against the grain of the entire Euro-American experiment. It is the language of scarcity, and by their honest speech I wondered if the seceshers would hang themselves.
Still, resource stress is not some oddball fantasy. “Historically speaking,” Morris Berman told me, “it’s the last 200 years of industrial expansion and uncontrolled fossil-fuel consumption that have been aberrant—sort of like a drunken sailor out on the town. Really, what are the choices at this point? Sustainable society or no society at all.”
Toward this end—a sustainable society that is also politically realistic—Kirkpatrick Sale, no small fan of Schumacher, suggests a middle path: Vermont, embracing the doctrine of states’ rights, might pursue nullification of federal laws that go against its interest as a transition society. States’ rights would no longer be the exclusive province of the gun nuts and anti-abortionists. “Vermont won’t secede,” Sale says. “It’s just not happening. Yet, as a decentralist, I do appreciate the move toward independence in as many spheres as you can. We’re likely to see more examples of nullification than secession. Look at what’s been nullified so far. Real-ID is virtually dead because it’s been nullified. Marijuana laws in the states have effectively nullified federal prohibition laws. With Obamacare, states are just not setting up their own statewide exchanges.
“The more serious Vermont gets about being self-sufficient, the more they might run up against federal regulations. That’s a good way to go—to see if they have power to nullify. Because ultimately when you combine all the powers to nullify, you come up with secession.”
On the day before the balloting last November 6, secessionist candidate Robert Wagner went looking for votes in the village of Hancock. When he rang at one of the homes, an old man came to the door and told the candidate that his nephew had been killed in Afghanistan. “We get sucked into these wars halfway around the world, when there’s no sense to it,” said the man. “It’s not about terrorism. It’s all about the oil. These people in D.C. are not thinking about their own people. Maybe we’d be better off as our own country.”
Wagner, being wary of the word when door-knocking, hadn’t mentioned secession. “I don’t push it,” he told me. “I’ll let them get there themselves.”
Wagner described to me what had happened when Hurricane Irene hit Hancock in 2011. The White River rose, swept away entire homes, and disinterred the corpses in nearby cemeteries. A wall of water out of the mountains shredded Route 100, leaving 20-foot canyons, isolating the village. National Guard helicopters were slow to arrive. The Federal Emergency Management Agency was nowhere to be seen. The residents held potluck dinners and planning sessions by candlelight, deputized a leadership, heaved pebbles and gravel in backhoes to begin the repair of the roads—they had no permits to do so—and sent emissaries on foot to outlier settlements, checking on the old and the infirm. Rick Gottesman, who lives with Kathleen Byrne at her inn and who told me he was a “quiet secessionist,” wrote about Irene in an e-mail: “There was palpable pride in the town and its people and a distinct we-ain’t-waitin’-for-no-gubmint attitude. With rivers bursting with water, forests full of firewood, abundant gardens and most of all each other, we could have easily continued for several more weeks and longer.”
A week after the ballots were counted, I called Wagner to get the results. He had lost for the second time. But he had snagged 18 percent of his district—more than four times his votes in 2010—and had won the village of Hancock. He vowed to run again in 2014.