Alex Garland’s Civil War, a film that premiered at South by Southwest this month, imagines a near-future where the collective “Western Forces” of Texas and California are engaged in a second American Civil War with a United States government led by a three-term president, placing viewers with three journalists chronicling what appears to be a climactic end to the union. 

Critics assume the premise exploits the boiling tensions months ahead of a round-two election with an autocratic-minded insurrectionist, but writers such as Peter Debruge at Variety say it’s actually questioning the futility of sides altogether. Regardless of that message, critics also predict the provocative Civil War will be controversial. The Hollywood Reporter is anticipating production company A24’s biggest-ever opening weekend at about $20 million dollars. 

On a panel following Civil War’s premiere, Garland, who directed another apocalypse in 28 Days Later, said he felt compelled to write the film because its topics have encompassed growing parts of public debate for years now.

A film examining the political divides in this country and what they mean for our collective destiny obviously isn’t coming from nowhere. But do Americans really foresee this dark future for themselves, or even dream of it? 

This February, YouGov released a poll that asked more than 35,000 Americans if, but not why, they supported secession. Analysts found that 23% supported their state withdrawing from the US, 28% would support another state seceding, 51% said they opposed secession, and 27% weren’t sure. Republicans were more open to the idea than Democrats, but only by eight points. 

Support varied between states, with California (29%), Texas (31%), and Alaska (36%) topping the list. In Connecticut, only 9% of respondents supported secession. 

Washington state ranked slightly above the national average. Nearly a quarter (24%) supported the idea, which amounted to more than our neighbors in Idaho (20%) and Oregon (17%). 

Is the union screwed? 

At least one prominent Texas Nationalist believes Gov. Greg Abbott is taking initial steps to extricate the state during his power struggle with the feds over border policy. Ahead of Super Tuesday, an opinion piece in the Dallas Morning News warned readers against voting for the rising number of far-right, state-level GOP candidates signing the “Take Texas Back” pledge, a promise to advance secession legislation while in office. The story notes that Tim Dunn, a West Texas oil billionaire, backs many of the candidates. So far, Texas Republicans have kept a so-called Texit off the ballot, even after the Texas Nationalist Movement said it turned in a petition with 140,000 signatures.

The poll results and Texas buffoonery aren’t encouraging, but extremism experts who talked with The Stranger said that these surveys should not be interpreted as evidence of an imminent national schism. They reflect the anger that people feel toward a political divide that seems unworkable. An internet-based poll is not the ballot box, and it is a lot easier to support a dramatic proposition like secession if nothing hangs in the balance. 

Nicholas F. Jacobs, an assistant professor of government at Colby College in Maine, said that in his own research on secessionist attitudes, people most likely to support secession were more likely to see division not between their state and the federal government but between their state and other states. In his paper, he argues that political divisions taking on a “territorial dimension” challenges attitudes about maintaining our federal relationship.

Jacobs pointed out that there is no major party candidate running on a secession platform, and that the US has no organized political party that stands for territorial secession. The data points are meaningful, but they’re not votes for a secessionist politician or donations to a secessionist group. He sees the response more as a manifestation of frustration with political institutions than a hard-nosed desire to form a separate government. 

“Their answers might be different if you say, ‘Hey, would you support this if it meant that you lose the entire protection of this thing we call the US nuclear arsenal?”’ Jacobs said. 

Travis McAdam, a senior policy analyst with the Southern Poverty Law Center, said that while it is concerning that, for example, nearly one in four Washingtonians said they supported secession, that data doesn’t mean they’ll be lining up to join militias and anti-government movements.

McAdam said that in recent years, there’s been more space in the public square to venture far beyond disagreements about policy and to take sweeping positions on government in general. Seeing politicians at the local, state, and national levels advocating for things like a “national divorce,” in the case of US Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, or signing a pledge to push secession legislation in Texas, reinforces their willingness to express profound unhappiness with the direction of the country.

Through his organizing work in the Mountain West, McAdam said he has confronted people making statements about secession by asking them what would happen to all the people in their area who did not agree with them. Often, they’ll say they hadn’t considered the next steps. 

Kate Bitz, a program manager with the pro-democracy civil rights organization Western States Center, said that when she talks to people in divided communities the idea of secession comes out as an expression of frustration from people who feel disempowered and unable to participate in conversations about improving their communities. We can be too quick to throw in the towel when it comes to resolving disagreements with our neighbors, Bitz said.

Yet, right-wing extremist groups view this general dissatisfaction as an opportunity to convert people to their hardcore set of beliefs, which range from expressly secessionist ethno-states to more abstract ideas of separation. 

The most explicitly racist vision comes from white nationalists. Convinced the US would fall apart after the Civil Rights movement, they have long imagined the Pacific and Inland Northwest as possible sites for a white homeland separate from the US in a region historically built on exclusion and the genocide of Indigeous people. In Montana and Idaho, a small industry of paramilitary training and selling real estate for compounds has sprung up as part of the American Redoubt, a political migration of conservatives preparing for a societal collapse they believe inevitable. 

The movement to create a new state of Liberty from 20 Eastern Washington counties was publicly presented as a proposal for a new state, but the investigation into former Washington State House Rep. Matt Shea revealed documents that posited more of a breakaway state, Bitz said. 

Further east, the Greater Idaho movement seeks to bisect Oregon and stitch its eastern counties to Idaho. At least 12 counties have approved ballot referendums to join Idaho, which they can’t do without action from State Legislatures and Congress. In Wallowa County, OR, the referendum won by eight votes. As Leah Sottile reported for High Country News, what’s been presented as a gift to rural people wishing to join their conservative neighbors is “actually a front for far-right culture war talking points, including racist ones” that echo the state’s long history of racism and exclusion. The leaders of Greater Idaho have been quick to denounce white supremacy, but white nationalists still applaud their efforts. 

The bitterness of this divide goes both ways. Some on the left gleefully express their desire to let the South or conservative regions of their own states secede in order to protect their own progressive bubbles from popping. This has always chafed me as a former Texan because it implies that rural communities and Republican-controlled states are unilaterally backwards places with no diversity. 

Allowing conservatives in power to hold sole dominion over them ignores the many vulnerable people who would no longer benefit from federal nondiscrimination laws, or their progressive allies in their state houses. As Bitz put it, “my idea of a more inclusive democracy is not a gated community where everyone agrees with each other.” 

In Washington, Cascadia can mean different things to different people–a cultural identity, a desire for bioregional self-determination, or a bonafide separatist movement to create a sustainable nation spanning as far as Alaska and California. Favored by lefties, its borders are not reinforcing political boundaries but rather defined by the natural environment, including watersheds. While not ideologically motivated by exclusion, it is no closer to reality than movements that are.

No state, or region, would be able to secede quietly.

The YouGov poll also asked respondents if, to their knowledge, states had a Constitutional right to secede from the United States.

Legal scholars would say both the Union victory during the Civil War and the US Supreme Court case Texas v. White set firm precedents that secession is not legal, but nearly a quarter of respondents thought it was (35% said it wasn’t, and 39% had no clue).

The hope is that nobody tests this one out.