America's Choice: Devolve or Dissolve?

David French has written an engaging book about the threat of American secession, without satisfactorily explaining why that would be so terrible. In fact, he makes it sound rather attractive when he describes the angry passions which divide us. There is not “a single important cultural, religious, political, or social force that is pulling Americans together more than it is pushing us apart.” That was written before the Black Lives Matter protests and riots. It’s gotten worse since then. A lot worse.

There’s not much left of a common American culture. We watch different networks, read different websites, and have a different set of Facebook friends. Politics has come to shape our identities, for both left and right. Tell me who you vote for and I’ll tell you what sports you like, what music you listen to, what blogs you read, and even where you buy your groceries.

Sorting ourselves into different groups like that produces a groupthink which excludes dissenting views. It also intensifies partisan rancor and amplifies the most extreme voices on either side. It’s like a bidding war, in which people vie to voice the angriest beliefs and justify the most mean-spirited punishments. In isolation, we’ll have one reaction to the death of George Floyd, but surrounded by progressives we’ll quickly become enraged and see the police as our enemy and the riots as justified.

When the separation between political groups is complete, the other side is seen as evil. And what then? “One does not respect evil. One defeats evil. Justice demands nothing less.” Don’t be surprised at Portland, therefore. The rioters have simply embraced the logic of the “resistance.”

What would spark a secession movement is civil disorder and violence, says French, and he describes several ways in which that might happen. He couldn’t have foreseen the riots sparked by the George Floyd incident, and if he had, he might think we’ve already reached the boiling point. In a sense, it’s even worse today than in 1968, since no serious politician would have defended lawlessness 52 years ago. There was also a silent majority in 1968 that elected Richard Nixon, and I’m not sure it exists today. On the left, violence is increasingly seen as a legitimate form of political expression: It’s happening. Deal with it. You deserve it. On French’s thinking, that might make secession less likely, if more desirable.

If we’re so divided, then, what would keep us together? I should have thought it would be nationalism, love of country. If we all felt about America as we did not so long ago, there could never be a breakup. French dislikes the word nationalism, however. He prefers to speak of patriotism. That’s a semantic quibble, but there’s little enough in French’s book about either nationalism or patriotism. If someone asked me why we should stay united, I’d want to talk about glorious moments in our history, about American arts and letters, and ask “do you really want to give that up?”

Sadly, for many on the left, the answer is yes. That’s the point of the 1619 Project. So French reasonably doesn’t go there. Instead, he worries about the loss of American military might that would follow a breakup, and what this would mean for the rest of the world. That’s what one might expect from Bill Kristol’s candidate for president in 2016, and it’s not a concern to be dismissed. Pro-Trump conservatives should prepare for Trump-free politics, sooner or later, and when that happens they must seek to unite the right. They might admit that America has a stake in global stability and recall that most Republicans were on board with the invasion of Iraq in 2002, if not with the idea we could remake the Middle East in our image.

French would like everyone to be more tolerant, but conservatives don’t have to be told this. They don’t have a choice in the matter.

Still, if that’s the best French can come up with, I don’t think the desire for world domination will keep us united. So what’s the answer? Pluralism, says French, which means tolerating people with whom you disagree and giving up on the attempt to force your views on everyone. That would be a Madisonian solution to our crisis, he says.

If only. Madison thought that, in a large “extended republic,” no one group would constitute a majority and be in a position to oppress a minority. People in one state could never unite with people in other states, given the travel barriers. That’s not at all the case today, however, given the changes in transportation and communications. Interest groups can easily organize on a country-wide basis, and on the left there’s an academic-media-industrial complex that dictates what can and cannot be said and thought across the country. There are riots in several cities, and shops are boarded up in many more, but they’ve gone unreported in the mainstream media, which gaslights the violence and describes the looters as peaceful protesters.

French celebrates our “different, competing communities and sects,” but on the right they’ve never been weaker. He’d like everyone to be more tolerant, but conservatives don’t have to be told this. They don’t have a choice in the matter. They’d be satisfied if they were permitted to remain silent and keep their views to themselves. And what was conventional morality ten years ago has now become impermissible bigotry. “That’s what progressives call the ‘arc of history’. It’s what conservatives call ‘defeat’.”

So the plea for tolerance, if it has any teeth, is addressed to the left. That is, to the winners in the cultural wars. “To embrace pluralism is to abandon the dream of dominion.” But why should the left do this, if it so clearly is the winner? Why would it want to, when what it seeks more than anything is the ability to dominate the losers?

Yet French still seeks to persuade the left to tolerate conservatives. You may have won the culture war, but you’re still hamstrung by the equal representation of states which the Republicans employ in the Senate to dictate what legislation is passed and sometimes through the electoral college to elect a president. Go your own way and you can enact single payer and choose the regulatory regime that suits you. In the past that might have seemed fanciful, but key Democrats recently “war-gamed” a secession movement if Trump wins the November election, with California, Washington and Oregon threatening to leave the union.

That’s not what French wants. Instead, he proposes a weakening of Washington’s footprint through a devolution of power to the states, and his renewed federalism would indeed be welcome. What he has in mind, however, are block grants and the right to opt-out of economic legislation. Not the Bill of Rights. I wonder whether this would go far enough, however. What divides us isn’t so much health care as cultural and moral issues, and if pluralism is to have any bite states would be permitted to make their own laws concerning such matters as abortion, same-sex marriage, and pornography. If you want real pluralism, Roe v. Wade must be overturned. That won’t happen judicially, as this term of the Supreme Court has made clear. It would only happen from a reframing of the Constitution triggered by a secession crisis.

Other countries have gone this route and permitted an opt-out of some but not all civil rights. Canada does just that, and improbably is still reckoned a more or less liberal state. Opt-out rights might thus make sense, but the question is whether the left would permit it. I am not sure why the left would oppose the breakup of a country it so clearly despises, but for the loss of the power to bend the deplorables to its will.

In his plea for decentralization, French sees himself as a faithful Madisonian. Ironically, James Madison was the great centralizer at the Constitutional Convention, the person who wanted to draw power to the national government. It shows a remarkable ignorance of history to believe that his views in 1787 can be found in that selling document, the Federalist Papers.

Madison was also someone who, in 1787 at least, supported a right of secession. His Virginia Plan had proposed that the federal government be empowered to invade a state that failed to comply with federal laws. But he quickly changed his mind and said that “the use of force against a state, would look more like a declaration of war, than an infliction of punishment, and would probably be considered by the party attacked as a dissolution of all previous compacts by which it might be bound” (May 31, 1787). Which is what happened in my Alexandria, Virginia on May 24, 1861.