A version of this post originally appeared on AndrewGelman.com and is reproduced here with permission.
Emboldened by Brexit, Texas secessionists are already calling for an exit of their own. On Friday, the Texas Nationalist Movement issued a call for a referendum on leaving the United States. From Reuters:
The citizen-driven vote in Britain can be a model for Texas, which was an independent country from 1836 to 1845, and its $1.6 trillion a year economy would be among the 10 largest in the world, said Daniel Miller, president of the Texas Nationalist Movement.
“The Texas Nationalist Movement is formally calling on the Texas governor to support a similar vote for Texans,” the group said on Friday. The office of Texas Governor Greg Abbott was not immediately available for comment.
Of course, Quebec and Scotland have similarly been talking for a while about leaving Canada and the United Kingdom, respectively. But there’s a big difference between Brexit, on one hand, and Texit or Quexit or Scotxit on the other, and this has to do with the democratic structure, or lack thereof, of the larger political units.
Suppose the conservative voters of Texas decide that they don’t want to be part of a U.S. dominated by a liberal and interventionist government. They’re sick of Obamacare, environmental regulations, the $15 minimum wage, unisex bathrooms, and a foreign policy that sends U.S. troops all over the world on ill-defined missions. Fine. But then they realize that, by leaving the country, they’ll make the U.S. more liberal. Texiters would gain freedom within Texas but lose influence within the rest of the United States.
The idea that Texit would move U.S. politics to the left is not completely speculative. Last time Texas exited the United States, the national government enacted various left-wing ideas including the Homestead Act, the Morrill Act (land-grant colleges), and of course emancipation of the slaves.
Similarly, Quexit would leave the rest of Canada without Quebec’s representation. So, if Quebec were to go on its own in one direction, one would expect Canada to drift slowly in the other, in an equal-and-opposite sort of way.
And Scotxit would give Scotland self-government but at the cost of its influence within the United Kingdom. After the past few elections, Scots might feel this is a trade-off worth making—especially if you throw EU membership into the bargain—but it clearly is a trade-off.
As in a Texit, Quexit, or Scotxit, Brexit voters are gaining power within their country. But Brexit is different because the EU is not truly democratic, apart from the nearly powerless European Parliament. Britain is not the Texas, Quebec, or Scotland of Europe, so the analogy is not perfect,. But the point is that the individual British voter has little to no direct influence in Brussels. Or, to put it another way, this influence is so indirect that it is hard to see. It’s not like Texas’s 38 electoral votes, 38 members of the House of Representatives, and two senators. So, even if British voters are more conservative (in some sense) than the average European, it’s not clear that the departure of the U.K. will allow the rest of the EU to shift to the left—not in the same way that Texit would shift the rest of the U.S. to the left, or that Scotxit would shift the rest of Britain to the right. Voters of Texas, Scotland, or Quebec might not care so much about what happens once they leave, but they’d be affected by immigration, trade, and foreign policy from the countries they leave behind.
In a simple parliamentary or majority vote system, there’s a rough balance of influence, and if you take some voters away from one side, it will increase the relative power of the other. Thus, Texit or Scotxit is, to first order, zero sum with regard to political power. (Not zero-sum with regard to ultimate outcomes—that depends on all sorts of things that might happen—but zero sum in that you’re getting local power but giving up the corresponding number of votes at the national level.) Brexit, not so much: British voters are gaining power within their country, and it’s not so clear what power they’re losing within the E.U. This is not to say that Brexit is a good idea—what do I know about that?—but just that the political calculation is different because of the non-democratic nature of the larger structure.
In that way, the appropriate category for Brexit is not Texit or Quexit or Scotxit, but the decision to join or withdraw from a treaty agreement. This point is obvious—“Brexit” is, after all, a recommendation to withdraw from a treaty—but I feel like this point has been largely missed.