The talk around Chuck’s Firearms Inc., a strip-mall gun shop in Atlanta, Ga., usually revolves around subjects like Georgia State football or quail hunting. But in this traditionally red state, a new online wave of anti-Obama protest is stoking secession mania — 150 years after the Deep South’s original crusade for “states’ rights” gave way to a bloody Civil War.
“People want their voices to be heard, and this is how they decided they’re going to do it,” gun seller Jack Lesher said, describing the viral activism that began flooding the WhiteHouse.gov website this month with petitions for states to split from the Union.
The movement began a week after President Barack Obama’s Nov. 6 re-election, picking up steam in Texas and eventually drawing in all 50 states with calls for the right to form new, independent governments.
As of today, more than 52,000 electronic signatures, on four related petitions, have since backed a call for Georgia to “peacefully” secede from the U.S.
As of Sunday, the Peach State is among seven in the South leading the push with enough signatories to possibly compel the White House to issue a formal response. The other states are Texas (115,212 signatories), Louisiana (36,533), Alabama (29,845), Tennessee(30,614), Florida (34,219) and North Carolina (29,932).
According to the White House website’s “We the People” program, the administration addresses any petition that logs more than 25,000 signatures within a month.
The secession ones, while among the most popular, are still only a relative handful on a constantly growing list of 212 we-the-people petitions that are asking the U.S. government to do everything from legalizing marijuana to redressing international wrongs and nationalizing the Twinkie industry.
Still, given Georgia’s violent history with secession pacts, this current one has given some local voters pause in the capital, Atlanta, which, after all, was burned to the ground during the Civil War.
Lesher, who owns Chuck’s Firearms in the tony Buckhead district, believes in small government and understands the political right’s frustrations with Obama’s leadership. He just doesn’t believe asking to break up the Union is the right way to deal with all that.
“Ain’t going to happen,” the 62-year-old Libertarian said, disassembling a Smith & Wesson revolver for appraisal.
“That’s just people with daydreams. People running their mouths and just sabre-rattling, and I wouldn’t support that.”
Even so, the momentum from the online push to withdraw from the Union is fuelling Joy McGraw’s dream for an independent Georgia, free from what she perceives as big government’s regulatory grip.
The 42-year-old Tea Party activist and real-estate agent is serious about this movement. Secession has been a conversational chestnut among her friends since Obama took office and reformed health insurance.
“It’s not the same country anymore,” she says. “We’re really unhappy, and it may be disrespectful to say this, but he is not my president.”
“We want people to remember the Constitution, and if you want to follow another set of rules or laws, in my feeling, you should be in another country.”
McGraw, who signed the online Georgia petition on Saturday, said she’s discussed the practical realities of secession with best-selling conservative author Jerome Corsi, a key player behind the widely discredited ‘birther’ movement questioning the president’s birthplace.
“If [secession] happened, I would want to start a new currency,” McGraw said. “It’s not unrealistic. The dollar value is going down, and we all know what the economics are about in this country.”
As for whether Obama should be expected to address the signatories for Georgia and the other states that surpass the 25,000-signature threshold, McGraw said ignoring the petitions would just affirm that the president “doesn’t take 50 per cent of the country seriously.”
While academics doubt that half of America’s population actually supports carving up the Union, Lamonte Watson’s eyes roll at the very mention of secession.
An IT specialist, he likened the petitions to a far-right tantrum over the election outcome.
Even so, it’s not something the 40-year-old Democrat is ready to dismiss outright.
“The Republicans got a big whooping, and so this is their response,” Watson said. “I don’t agree, but I do take it seriously. Do I think [secession] will happen? Hopefully not, but you never know what will happen if you can get enough votes.”
The legal pathways to secession under the U.S. Constitution are dubious. But the possibility is still tantalizing for many in the South to muse about, said John Tures, an associate professor of political science at Lagrange College, a private university affiliated with the United Methodist Church in southern Georgia.
“For my colleagues, students, neighbours, this secession thing is the first thing they bring up here. It’s a big deal for people in the South. It’s not so much that people have opinions, it’s about ‘What does it mean?'” Tures said.
As he sees it, though, this is more about a small fraction of the electorate that is likely more interested in “getting publicity and just embarrassing the president.”
However, Jack Staver, an unemployed father from the northern suburb of Woodstock who signed the online petition, balks at the suggestion he’s part of fringe movement.
“The thousands who have signed already is just a sampling. This is not by any stretch of the imagination the whole game,” the 59-year-old said.
“Our government has disregarded the Constitution as an old document, as outdated,” said Staver, the chair of the Northwest Georgia chapter’s 9-12 Project, the brainchild of former Fox News commentator Glenn Beck. The project aims to rekindle the feeling of unity in America that brought the country together following the 9-11 terrorist attacks.
The Founding Fathers were prophetic, Staver said, “and we’re showing America now that’s the way it’s got to go.”
Asked about criticisms that the secession petitions have a racist subtext, Staver said such claims were hooey.
If the petitions were about people rejecting the idea of having a black commander-in-chief, Staver asked, “then why didn’t this happen four years ago?”
The race card distracts from the main issue, which is upholding the Constitution, he argued.
One way or another, the online secession petitions now put before the White House won’t hold any water, said Charles Bullock, a political science professor with the University of Georgia.
For one thing, a scan of the names listed on several petitions for states reveal that many of the signatures aren’t originating from the places demanding secession.
Also, it’s just not really an option, Bullock said.
“Once you join the Union, you’re in the Union whether you like it or not. It’s not like you try it out for several decades and just decide to leave,” he said.
Nor is it conceivable that some states could break off and walk away without paying off their share of the national debt.
“I would assume they would also have problems with trying to pay for federal facilities if their state were to take over,” Bullock added.
Anyone expecting the president to address the petitions exceeding 25,000 signatures also shouldn’t hold their breath, according to Ruthann Robson, a constitutional law expert at the City University of New York.
“There may be political reasons for Obama to address them if you get X amount of signatures,” Robson said. “But I don’t think the website is supported by any legal regulatory process.”
In the meantime, there are more pressing matters to be dealt with in the state, said retired Republican senator Jim Tysinger, who served Georgia for 30 years until 1999.
“It’s not a factor in Georgia. People are frustrated with things taking place in Washington, the financial mess. But I spoke with the lieutenant-governor about it, and this is budget time at state government,” he said.
Besides, the senator noted, “We did try that a long time ago in 1860. It didn’t work then either.”