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.

Reader Discussion

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on September 22, 2020 at 10:19:23 am

States have the right to secede. The process to do so is laid out in example of the American colonies declaring independence from Great Britain. First, state the applicable natural laws and man made laws along with facts documenting abuses and political disconnect. Present that statement to the federal government requesting redress. Allow a reasonable amount of time for the federal government to address the issues. If the feds do not address the issues adequately, give the federal government notice, and wait a reasonable amount of time again for the feds to address the issues. If the federal government still does not provide a reasonable response, the state may secede. There are caveats to this process, but they are not to difficult to figure out.

One of the core philosophies of American government is the idea that government derives its legitimacy from the consent of the governed. When the government acts beyond the consent of the government it is no longer legitimate. The citizens have a right to dissolve the government, or if the citizens are members of a state that is part of a larger government and the larger government has become illegitimate with respect to the state, that state may remove the services of the larger government. The caveat is that the citizens in general must substantively agree that their local government or the larger government is not fulfilling its purpose and operating within its limits. When small aggressive groups overtake a society and make arguments and actions for secession without the general agreement of the general population, the secession is invalid. Preceding our War Between the States many of the southern states formed state governments in a non-republican manner, and then those state governments invoked secession. They were not truly representative of the citizens. Therefore their claims for the right of secession were invalid, and the forceful involvement of the federal government was required to restore republican government.

I am watching the goings on in northern California. Some of the counties there have declared independence from California, and are trying to create a new state named Jefferson. I wish I could get involved in that because I want them to be successful but I see them making some mistakes. I think there are opportunities to clarify a number of issues of American government through their process.

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Scott Amorian
on September 22, 2020 at 11:36:10 am

Secession went out with the Civil War. Period. Pluralism in politics is the same as diversity in religious persuasion. Neither a satisfactory outcome, both conditions precedent to a better unity in the governance. Toleration does not abide well in a match between freedom and totalitarianism. Like the northern barons had to rediscover their rights accorded under Henry I to confront John at Runnymede, Americans have to rediscover the significance of their Constitutional governance, the protection of individual rights in the exercise, rights not posited but practiced since time immemorial, inductively demonstrating Divine dispensation, to NT orientation away from OT foundation, and there in the limitation to enable the practice of true virtue, leaving the tutor behind to confront the menace of secular humanism and its penchant for political restraint. The significance of religion, specifically Christianity, its step child, theology, and its handmaiden, philosophy, established from the Canon of Scripture, is the only safeguard against the triumph of evil, particularly the brand emerging today in its aspiration 'beyond good and evil', whether in the scientism, post modernism or religion of secular humanism. And, there remains an eminently workable unity out of diversity in morality, right and wrong. But, that emerges from true affection, not fear, in the assent so that we may suffer necessary restraint with our consent. Not Devolve or Dissolve, but rediscover and revive. That's the ticket to a greater America.

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on September 22, 2020 at 12:49:00 pm

One must acknowledge the influence of Christianity in the development of constitutional governance, as you suggest. If I recall correctly, Magna Carta was initiated, encouraged by the Clergy of England and they sought, successfully, to enlist the Barons of England who had a similar list of grievances against the Crown. Thus, the original charter, known as the Accord of the Barons was entrusted to the Clergy and was further edited by them.
To forget or willfully disregard such history is a necessity for the anti-religious Left. How better to "win" an argument by so sorely circumscribing the realm of debate.
Let me bastardize Dostoevsky:
For society: "Without God, nothing is possible and indeed is highly probable"

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on September 22, 2020 at 18:39:06 pm

While Stephen Langton is generally credited with reminding the barons from Westminster, Pope Innocent III supported King John, and immediately after its declaration issued an edict condemning Magna Carta, thereafter confirmed by the 4th Lateran Council which established the Inquisition, leading ultimately to Reformation and its confirming our due process requirements of written notice and presumption of innocence without guilt by association. It is no accident that our judicial heritage follows English jurisprudence which combined a learning in law with that of Christian theology. See, eg, M. Hale, Contemplations, Moral and Divine (London, 1703).

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on September 22, 2020 at 13:02:25 pm

We discuss the necessity and the methods to achieving an independent federation of red states on our website RedStateSecession.org . If we retrench to a position of strength, we can preserve traditional values and liberty. It makes no sense to try to keep all 50 states just to get outvoted again in future elections. Some argue for removing the right to vote from certain populations, but I don't think that's sustainable in the long term, or worth the effort of subjugation. And the Left has a lot of power in institutions. We need to leave some territory for them. We can use state power to eject Leftists from red-state "domestic" institutions and treat blue state "foreign" media as foreign.

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Red-State Secession
on September 22, 2020 at 13:16:12 pm

Buckley referenced Canada. Following the 1995 Quebec referendum on the question of succession from the federation, the Federal Parliament passed the Clarity Act (2000) which established the conditions under which the Government of Canada would enter into negotiations that might lead to succession if a province were to vote to succeed. Canada is not an evolutionary country; it is evolutionary.

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Rob Matthews
on September 22, 2020 at 14:22:38 pm

RDP, "Hear, hear!"
I thought that was artfully said and archeryly on target.
A show of faith and strength and we can route the bastards, outnumbered though we may be.
I think Trump, insightful, strong, resolute, forceful and faithful, has shown the way and will lead the way, with a little help from God and his (Trump's) friends. We must be his friends. Trump says, and he's half right, that he is the only thing standing between us and the mob. God is also on our side. The mob will not win, but only if we seek the victory.

I would not listen to David French's advice, though, on saving the nation or anything else.
Plurality and winners tolerating losers. Nonsense!

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on September 22, 2020 at 17:20:06 pm

The author lost me when he talks about increased violence and just mentions the riots after the killing of George Floyd. Violence in Charlottesville, the vigilante violence, the viloence directed in DC against peaceful demonstrators for Trump's photo-op and the high level of excessive police violence somehow does not figure in this, let alone the inflammatory rethoric coming from Trump. Aaaand the last sentence somehow seems to blame the Federal Government for the Civil War. This whole text is unfortunately not a reasoned argument, but yet another exhibit for the polarization and hyper-partisanship of America today. If law professors can produce nothing more than a rehashed version of GOP/Fox News "talking points", things have bocome dire indeed.

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Siegfried Herzog
on September 27, 2020 at 11:03:05 am

Some element of rationality in discourse is needed if compromise and pragmatism are to prevail in the search for a common purpose in a country. When a man who talks about grabbing the genitals of women for his pleasure is thought to be the carrier of the mantle of Christianity, there is something fundamentally wrong in the political discourse.

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on September 27, 2020 at 14:22:47 pm

Agreed. Also the inflammatory language to describe the left is honestly baffling coming from an academic. "I am not sure why the left would oppose the breakup of a country it so clearly despises" is just one example. He writes like a Fox "News" pundit rather than an objective academic. It's hard to take him seriously.

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Anna L
on September 23, 2020 at 09:33:06 am

In my memory Democrats have three times covering eight terms held filibuster proof majorities in the Senate first in the late '50s early '60s again in the mid '70s and the last only 12 years ago. Republicans have never held that large a majority in my 65 years.
Democrats can hold a major in the Senate if they are willing to compromise with themselves rather than vilify those who don't adopt the most partisan positions.

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Charles Kinsella
on September 23, 2020 at 20:50:58 pm

Frankly, I have zero interest in sharing a country with spineless, grasping, losers so lacking in self respect as to be willing to live under socialism. And I've even less interest in living in a country that would tolerate would-be socialist dictators.

If this country would return to strict observance of Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution, return to being fifty "laboratories of democracy," it might be able to remain united. But I don't see that happening and fully expect the country to fracture within a few years. With luck, the resultant countries will be willing to sign mutual defence and trade treaties with each other.

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Henry Miller
on September 27, 2020 at 10:56:22 am

Fundamentalism of any kind is not compatible with democracy as seen in many Muslim countries today and as witnessed in Europe over sectarian battles in Christianity. Like excessive focus on each word in the Quoran and the Bible, excessive focus on every word in the American constitution would only lead to quarrels that cannot resolved about the meaning of words.
Britain us a Protestant country in that Protestant succession to the Crown, who is also head of the established church, is the legal position. The word Protestant did not include Lutherans and many other sects, only the Church of England. At the time, it was the exclusion of Catholics which was the focus. However the monarch is Defender of the Faith, a title confirmed to Henry the 8th by a Pope. Yet Catholics did not initially have the vote, let alone the right to sit in parliament. There is considerable confusion about the constitutional issue which is best ignored if a common purpose is to be found. Catholics are allowed to vote and even sit in parliament. With the progress of democracy, which entails pragmatism, confusions in what it means to belong is gradually being 'resolved' in that the interpretation of the role of the church does not dwell on that which cannot be resolved: should the participation in civil society and governmental institutions be limited by religious affiliation? While the Crown is the Head of the Church, the Prime Minister recommends the Archbishop, and the PM need not even be an Anglican. He might be an agnostic or even a Catholic appointing the head of a church which was established following quarrels with Rome over supremacy. Fudge it for the sake of democracy. Moderation in the interpretation of the words of the scriptures, including the US Constitution, may well deliver a stronger America united in dedication to individual liberty and the search for a common purpose.

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Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.