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Brexit, explained by an analogy to Texas leaving the United States

(Getty Images/Dave Kellam)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

In the wake of the UK’s "Brexit" vote to leave the European Union, thousands of people on social media began discussing "Texit": the idea that Texas might leave the United States. Obviously, this is not a serious movement — most of those tweets were jokes. But imagining a hypothetical Texit could be helpful for Americans confused by Brexit. Translating things into American terms might help make a decision that seems totally foreign more comprehensible.

So what follows is a brief description of a hypothetical "Texit," if it were to happen the same way and for the same reasons that Brexit did. The point is not to sketch something that could actually happen, but to understand what just happened in the UK by literally describing the events in an American context.

AUSTIN, Texas — Americans woke up in a state of complete shock on Friday morning, as Texas stunned the world by voting to leave the United States.

"I fought this campaign in the only way I know how, which is to say directly and passionately what I think and feel," Gov. Greg Abbott, the referendum’s leading opponent, said in a tearful resignation speech.

"But the Texan people have made a very clear decision to take a different path, and as such I think the country requires fresh leadership to take it in this direction."

In some sense, this vote has been a long time coming. Texas has long maintained a separate identity from the rest of the United States, celebrating its past as an independent country with its own traditions and history. Despite being America’s second-largest economy, Texas remained culturally distinct from the rest of the Union.

Until today, however, the sense was that Texans cared more about the economic benefits of integration with the rest of the United States than it did about its sense of separate national identity.

Texas benefited hugely from free trade with other states, as well as from Americans moving from other states to come work in its relatively successful economy. Now, however, Texas has jeopardized all of that in the name of state identity and sovereignty.

The key trigger appears to have been immigration.

Over the past decades, Texas had experienced unprecedentedly large waves of immigration, particularly from poorer Mexicans looking for employment in Texas’s stronger economy. Many Texans felt that the Mexican migrants were stealing their jobs and diluting "traditional" Texan culture.

This fueled a massive backlash against immigrants. The once-minor Texas Independence Party, led (ironically) by former New York businessman Donald Trump, had gained significantly in statewide polls over the past decade.

The TIP’s real genius was tying anxiety about immigrants to traditional Texan skepticism of Washington. TIP members argued, pretty fairly, that American national policy prevented Texas from closing its borders. The TIP single-mindedly made the case that Texas needed to keep out the immigrants and regain its sovereign status, and that the only way to do that was to leave the United States.

The pressure from TIP terrified the Texas Republican Party and Abbott, who stood to lose votes to their new, more stridently right-wing rival. Therefore, in 2013, Abbott committed to holding a referendum on Texas independence if he won the 2015 statewide elections. His plan was that the vote would fail and TIP would be weakened as a result.

But things didn’t go as planned. For one thing, Abbott faced a split in his own party. About half of the Texas state GOP, led by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, campaigned for leaving. Patrick appealed to Texas’s tradition of independence, arguing that "unaccountable" leaders like United States President Barack Obama were acting like petty authoritarians, without Texas’s interests at heart.

A spate of terrorist attacks elsewhere in the US made the Leave camp’s arguments against immigration far more persuasive.

Attacks in San Bernardino and Orlando convinced many Texans that Muslims migration increased the terrorist threat in the US. The Trump and Patrick factions argued that Washington’s policy of admitting thousands of Syrian refugees, and then allowing them to move freely around the States, put Texas at risk.

"There is an especial problem with some of the people who’ve come here and who are of the Muslim religion who don’t want to become part of our culture," Trump said in a recent speech. "People do see a fifth column living within our country, who hate us and want to kill us."

These sentiments — xenophobia, skepticism of Washington and Obama, and fears of terrorism — carried the day. Virtually all of rural Texas voted to leave, ultimately overwhelming pro-American sentiment in cities like Austin, the very liberal capital, as well as in heavily Latino areas.

Indeed, some of these areas are now discussing leaving Texas and forming an independent Tex-Mex that would make a bid to remain in the United States.

As for Texas itself, nobody knows what will happen. It seems like Patrick will take over as governor, and his first priority will be negotiating the terms of Texit with Washington.

Texas will want to maintain its free trade agreement and other privileges. However, Washington has a strong incentive to punish Texas. It wants to prevent other restive states, like Vermont, from following Texas’s lead, thus collapsing the entire Union.

Therefore, Washington might well deny trade and other privileges to Texas, a move that would inflict major pain on the Texan economy and force other states to leave.

One thing, however, is for sure: The United States will never be the same after Texas’s departure. We’ve truly entered unknown territory.