Visitors who wander into the golden-domed statehouse in Montpelier this Friday, October 28, will witness an unusual debate. A group of passionate politicos plans to argue from the floor of the grand House chamber that Vermont should secede from the union. The daylong gathering, sponsored by a group called the Second Vermont Republic, will be the first statewide convention on secession in the U.S. since 1861, when North Carolina voted to leave.
This is no joke. Organizers have booked scholarly speakers, including Kirkpatrick Sale, author of Rebels Against the Future, Kevin Graffagnino, president of the Vermont Historical Society, and James Howard Kunstler, author of The Long Emergency, as well as local professors. Many of them will argue that the United States has lost its moral authority, and that the "U.S. empire" is unsustainable.
SVR has already signed up more than 100 participants. Founder Thomas Naylor says he's talked to plenty more people who haven't registered yet. He and SVR Execu-tive Director Jane Dwinell expect to attract a couple hundred additional secessionistas, packing the house to capacity.
They even invited Vermont's top elected representatives: Senators Patrick Leahy and Jim Jeffords, Congressman Bernie Sanders, Governor Jim Douglas and Lieutenant Governor Brian Dubie. None of them took the bait. Naylor has called them out in a press release: "Maybe it's high time we take back Vermont from our gutless politicians who have sold their souls to Corporate America and the U.S. Government," he writes. "The Second Vermont Republic may soon become the only escape path out of the black hole called America."
But for all their bluster, Naylor and co. refuse to take themselves too seriously. Ethan Allen -- a.k.a. actor Jim Hogue -- is one of the day's first speakers. He'll be arriving on horseback. And former Bread and Puppet puppeteer Reverend Ben O'Matchstick will offer the invocation and the benediction, which will likely include the line "in the name of the flounder, and the sunfish, and the holy mackerel." That's how he closed SVR's "funeral" for the state of Vermont, held on the Statehouse steps last February to mark the anniversary of Vermont's 1791 entry to the U.S.
Ethan Allen was at the funeral, too, in full military attire. He carried Vermont's cardboard casket up the Capitol steps, while a man wearing a bizarre homemade bird suit beat time with a bass drum, and a marching band played "When the Saints Come Marching In."
SVR's eye-catching street theater has proven irresistible to the media, as has its exponential growth in the aftermath of the 2004 elections. The combination of whimsy and chutzpah has garnered attention from local newspapers and television stations, as well as the national and international press. A lengthy article on the SVR appeared last January on Salon.com, and writers at The Nation and the biggest French daily in Quebec have given the subject serious treatment. Last Wednesday, Naylor was interviewed for a story in The Christian Science Monitor.
Still, as their independence convention approaches, it's hard to know what to make of these separatists -- whether to laugh, or to muster a rebel yell. Or, confound it, to do both.
Americans have grown so used to their 50-state republic that many might not realize there are, in fact, several secessionist movements afoot. In addition to residents of Alaska and Hawaii, who are still bitter over their annexation half a century ago, secessionist groups are also active in Texas, California and New York City, among other places. It's fair to say, though, that the idea of splitting the union is hardly mainstream. No one has really tested the idea since the Civil War, and we all know how that turned out.
Still, the notion that Vermont could exist as its own nation is hardly new, as the founders of SVR are only too happy to observe. The state was independent from 1777 to 1791, before it joined the Union -- hence the name Second Vermont Republic. Even before the SVR, the idea that Vermont should secede has been discussed half-seriously in recent years; University of Vermont professor Frank Bryan and Vermont Supreme Court Justice John Dooley held a series of debates on the subject in 1991.
The issue popped back into the public consciousness in the wake of last November's elections, when a vast majority of Vermonters chose John Kerry over George W. Bush. With disillusioned liberals already talking about leaving the country, it hardly seemed a stretch to argue for taking the rest of Vermont along for the ride.
But secession might have remained a five-minute fad if it hadn't been for Thomas Naylor. The brainy 69-year-old Jackson, Mississippi, native has both the time and the money to make plenty of noise. Now retired, he taught economics at Duke University for 30 years, and has written 30 books, ranging from formula-heavy Computer Simulation Experiments with Models of Economic Systems, to political tome The Gorbachev Strategy, to a touchy-feely handbook entitled The Search for Meaning, which he co-authored with his wife and a Methodist bishop.
From 1971 until 1980, Naylor also ran a company that sold $70,000 computer-software packages to Fortune 500 companies. "That's how I learned about their dirty tricks," he quips during an interview at his Charlotte home.
Naylor has been convinced for years that the United States is in trouble. After he sold his software firm, he worked as an international business consultant, often with companies in the USSR. He has long viewed the decline of the Soviet state as a harbinger of the U.S.'s future. He began suggesting that Vermont strike out on its own shortly after moving here in 1993. His 1997 book, Downsizing the U.S.A., called for the peaceful dissolution of the union.
A new urgency pervaded his quest after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Naylor founded the SVR in mid-2003, and self-published The Vermont Manifesto that fall. In the preface he writes, "Our nation has truly lost its way. America is no longer a sustainable nation-state economically, politically, socially, militarily or environmentally."
The "American Empire," Naylor says, spends nearly $400 billion on its military annually, exceeding "the combined military spending of the next 25 nations." And yet, "the September 11th terrorist attacks exposed the fact that big buildings, big businesses, big cities, big nations and big military don't provide near the security we once thought."
Furthermore, he says, the political system is broken. "When one contemplates the American political system," Naylor writes, "the words which come to mind are apathy, inertia and atrophy, not sustainability -- just like back in the USSR."
"How many Americans," he asks, "are prepared to die or sacrifice their children to make the world safe for McDonald's, Wal-Marts, 747s, gas-guzzling SUVs, the Internet, Bill Gates and the rest of the Forbes 400 richest Americans?" He predicts that, in the coming years, the answer will be: not many.
Since publishing his manifesto, Naylor has tirelessly promoted the SVR. He sends out frequent -- sometimes weekly -- mailings to a list of 150 media contacts and "opinion leaders," updating them on the group's progress. On a recent weekday afternoon, the surface of his long, wooden dining-room table is barely visible under the piles of press releases and envelopes. Naylor stuffs all the mailings himself, and addresses each envelope by hand using green felt pens he special-orders by the box from Staples.
His efforts have paid off. SVR now boasts about 200 members -- twice as many as before Bush got re-elected. And Naylor has managed to interest some credible people in his cause. The organization recently hired Unitarian Universalist minister Jane Dwinell as its first executive director. And this spring, SVR spawned a sister organization Naylor calls its "educational arm" -- the monthly newspaper Vermont Commons. Rob Williams, a Champlain College professor and media-literacy educator, is the paper's web editor and associate publisher. Williams is also preparing to take on a leadership role in SVR.
Vermont Commons, devoted to "exploring the idea of Vermont independence," broadens the conversation by focusing on issues tangentially related to secession, such as how an energy crisis could disrupt the nation -- something James Kunstler will talk about in his keynote address at Friday's conference -- and the importance of local agriculture.
October's "Homestead Security" issue, for example, featured a front-page article by Middlebury environmental writer Bill McKibben, entitled "Can Vermont Feed Itself?" McKibben urges Vermonters to promote local agriculture, not just because locally grown food is fresher but because trucking fruit and vegetables from California might soon become prohibitively expensive, perhaps even impossible.
McKibben also quotes Tommy Thompson, the former Health and Human Services Secretary who, when he quit his post, stated, "For the life of me I cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply, because it is so easy to do." Local control and smaller farms will make us safer, McKibben argues.
Other contributors, including Champlain College professor Craig Chevrier and organic farmer Pete Johnson, suggest ways to move Vermont agriculture in that direction.
So, does McKibben support secession? "I support the goals of strong local economies and empowered local communities," he writes in an email. "I'm not yet convinced secession is the only way to achieve it, but I'm not put off by the concept."
Though the secessionist movement has gained some traction with activists on the left, many of its natural libertarian allies remain unconvinced. John McClaughry, president of the free-market think tank the Ethan Allen Institute, dismisses the movement.
McClaughry co-authored The Vermont Papers: Recreating Democracy on a Human Scale with Frank Bryan in 1989. In it, he and Bryan cite many of the same concerns raised by Naylor and his ilk. "As the watersheds of community democracy are sucked dry," the authors write, "the rivers of citizenship that fed our great national institutions grow ever more shallow, and the American republic is withering away." They also note, "The little green-clad state of Vermont may well become the place to show America how liberty, democracy and community can be restored."
These statements sound like vintage Naylor, but McClaughry will have nothing to do with him. "The whole thing is fueled by an almost venomous anti-American-ism," he says of SVR. "It's like Amerika, with a k, from the old hippie days . . . It's all 'the big corporations and George Bush and his oil cronies and war in Iraq and I hate America.' And that's not me. I'm a patriot."
Even Frank Bryan, who will speak at the Independence Convention, and who has participated in SVR events in the past, doesn't quite embrace the group's ultimate aim. In an April 22 post on the Vermont Commons blog, the author and prof explains that although he wants Vermonters to consider secession, he still remains committed to the USA. "I, for one, still love it," he writes. "And I believe that, despite its flaws, America remains our best hope for a peaceful transition from a world of warring nation-states to one of truly united nations."
Skeptics like McClaughry raise other, practical concerns. "If everything went their way," he says, "they'd just send the divorce papers to Washington . . . and then wonder why the Social Security checks don't come in anymore to the former post office. This isn't easy, disentangling the state. Tom needs to go down to the senior center and explain why Medicare and Social Security payments are going to be cut off, because he's got a better idea about the way we should be governed."
Not surprisingly, Naylor dismisses this argument. He points out that Social Security is a contract between the government and an individual. "It doesn't matter if I live in Saudi Arabia, the U.K. or Vermont," he says. "They're required to pay me." Medicare is a different issue, he allows. An independent Vermont would have to set up its own health-care system.
Middlebury political science professor Eric Davis is also skeptical. He'll be speaking at the conference on Friday, on a secession panel that asks: "Impossible Dream, or Vision of the Future?" Davis comes down squarely on the mission-impossible side. He points out that Vermonters receive $1.14 in federal benefits for every $1 they pay in taxes; in his view, secession just doesn't make practical sense.
Besides, Davis asks, what will Vermont use as currency? Will it have its own central bank? And do secessionists really believe the federal government will just let them leave? Naylor charges that Davis "doesn't get it," but he has few concrete answers to these questions. "I don't think it makes a hell of a lot of difference," he replies to the currency question. "It would be kind of a hoot to use the euro."
Davis concludes that the debate is useful "as an intellectual exercise," but, he adds, "I think it's obviously not a realistic policy proposition."
Vermont's elected officials don't seem to take secession seriously, either. None of the five office holders Naylor invited to Friday's Independence Conven-tion was willing to make a statement to Seven Days about SVR, although David Carle, spokes-man for Senator Patrick Leahy, confirmed that the Senator declined Naylor's invitation.
Naylor pulls no punches when it comes to Vermont's elected officials, calling the three national representatives who snubbed him "enemies of the state of Vermont." He's especially critical of Bernie Sanders -- "the darling of Progressives" -- who, oddly, looks a lot like him. Naylor derides Sanders as an advocate of "big government and big social-welfare programs."
He's even more critical of Leahy, another leftie favorite. "Every time General Dynamics gets a new contract, who is it that's announcing it?" Naylor asks. "Leahy is a world-class prostitute . . . These are not good guys."
Williams, of Vermont Commons, considers Naylor's name calling "unproductive," but says he essentially agrees with him. "Leahy has played the pork-barrel game as well as any senator in D.C.," Williams says.
He is generally more diplomatic than Naylor, and states his goals in a far less colorful way: "Laying secession as a policy option on the table reframes the conversation in a really powerful way."
Williams questions the characterization of SVR as a "fringe movement." He claims he talks to Vermonters about secession all the time and says they never dismiss the idea outright. Most of them want to hear more, he reports. Williams points out that people in other states are talking about seceding as well. "You could say that each of these conversations is [made up of] a bunch of wacko fringe lunatics, but I think that people across the country are scratching their heads right now, wondering, 'What are we going to do?'"
But even the more moderate Williams keeps an open mind to 9/11 conspiracy theories -- "We have to get over the naïve notion that the U.S. government has our best interest in mind," he observes, "because a lot of times they don't." The September issue of Vermont Commons included several articles on the topic, which is not exactly embraced by a majority of Vermonters.
Not that public opinion matters much to Naylor. He isn't concerned about convincing Vermonters or anyone else of the rightness of his cause -- he's relying on George W. Bush to do that. He says SVR membership spikes "every time he opens his mouth . . . Three more years of Bush, and the Second Vermont Republic will seem like kid stuff."
Still, Naylor invites anyone looking to be convinced to come to the Statehouse on Friday and listen to the arguments with an open mind. "The empire's going down," he insists. "The question is, do you want to go with it?"