The Supreme Court’s doctrine of expansive federal power is much weaker than the original meaning of limited government.
“Now in these dread latter days of the old violent beloved U.S.A. and of the Christ-forgetting, Christ-haunted death-dealing Western world I came to myself in a grove of young pines and the question came to me: has it happened at last? …For our beloved old U.S.A. is in a bad way. Americans have turned against each other.” Thus muses Tom More, the protagonist of Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins, a half-serious, half-comical vision of an America on the brink of breaking apart—socially, morally, and politically. More’s reflection could serve as the epigraph to F.H. Buckley’s American Secession—a short, punchy treatise on the possibility of a national break-up. Indeed, Buckley’s depiction of America, on the whole, makes Percy’s dystopian novel seem impressively prescient: we have seen the rise of a populist right that adopts the derisive slur of the left as a badge of honor (in real life, “Deplorables”; in Percy’s novel, “Knotheads”), political sorting on a grand scale, and an interminable war in a developing country (though Percy’s fictional war has lasted only fifteen years). In general, if Buckley is to be believed, we are much closer to national disintegration than many people seem to realize. Buckley’s goal is to awaken the American people to the danger and to try to provide the outline of a possible alternative.
American Secession is divided into three sections. In the first part (“A Cure for a Divided People?”), Buckley tackles his most controversial—and, it must be said, his least persuasive—claim: that the specter of secession haunts American political life in a meaningful way. In the second part (“A Cure for Bigness?”), by far the longest and most convincing section, he marshals a host of social science evidence and political-philosophical arguments against the Madisonian vision of an extensive commercial republic and in favor of small republics. The third and shortest part (“Lesser Cures”) articulates Buckley’s less extreme alternative to secession, which he describes as an Americanized form of the British system of political devolution or “home rule” for the states. Buckley refers to this alternative as “secession lite.”
The premise of the book is at once compelling and dubious. On the one hand, there does not seem to be anything like a critical mass of political support for secession in the country. The brief surge in support for California secession following the election of Donald Trump, cited more than once by Buckley, was a blip or a show of outrage; support for “Calexit” has fallen to its lowest levels since the movement began. Indeed, according to polling done by Zogby Strategies, support for secession across the country has dropped off throughout the Trump presidency. In both the Northeast and the South, support for secession fell by almost ten points between September 2017 and July 2018 alone. Hispanic support for secession fell more than fifteen points in the same period. While there are of course outliers—African-American support for secession, for instance, has increased by around five points and support for secession in the Upper Midwest by some sixteen points—all of these wide swings in a short period of time are, I believe, better read as stand-ins for other phenomena (feelings of political impotence, perhaps, or concern about the future of the country) than as serious indications of political intention. In short, it seems very unlikely to me that millions of people in the Upper Midwest decided sometime between Thanksgiving 2018 and Independence Day 2019 that now is the time to break up the country.
Of the other modern examples of secessionist movements Buckley cites as precedents—Quebec, Scotland, Ireland, and Czechoslovakia—two failed and one succeeded. The other (Czechoslovakia) was the dissolution of a state artificially constructed and artificially held together by great powers for almost the entirety of its existence. The union survived the collapse of the USSR by a mere two years. Moreover, every one of the examples given includes a people with an ancient and distinct culture—and, importantly, with a distinct language—that preexisted the current political union in which those people found themselves. There are no real analogues to these conditions in the United States—with the possible partial exception of the American South. But while I find his argument that Southerners constitute their own people persuasive, Southern secession is irretrievably tainted in the popular imagination by its connection to Southern slavery. Finally, Buckley seems to me to be right when he argues that we lack the political will to oppose a secessionist movement, but that argument cuts both ways.
On the other hand, Buckley’s most fundamental, and most troubling, claim seems to be almost incontestable: regardless of how we got here, America is deeply divided. Split us up how you will—the educated vs. the uneducated, the Coastal elites vs. the heartland, the rich vs. poor, and so on—vast sections of the population today believe that their opponents are not just mistaken, but nigh-incomprehensibly evil. While some Americans compare the President to the biblical Cyrus, others find him indistinguishable from the fascist strongmen of the 1930s. But the president and the 2016 election did not cause this division; they merely revealed it. Are abortion, euthanasia, and transgender hormone therapy human rights or are they attacks on human dignity? Is gun-control a public health necessity or an attack on constitutional freedoms? There are at least two very different visions of what America ought to be, and they increasingly appear to be mutually exclusive.
How then can we heal our divisions? Buckley’s solution is, in a sense, that we shouldn’t try: we are a collection of different peoples and we should accept that fact. What works in Massachusetts might not work in Texas and vice versa. The central section of the book delivers an impressive series of arguments against the idea of a continental state and in favor of small, self-governing republics. Yet Buckley remains, as he puts it, a unionist. His answer is therefore not dissolution but devolution. We ought to return to the state level—devolve—a significant portion of the policy-making now done at the federal level.
But despite occasionally employing some of the same rhetoric, Buckley’s proposed “home rule” is not merely one more in a long line of calls for a return to federalism. He urges us to reconsider a more radical option: the doctrine of nullification—the doctrine that a state has the right to ignore federal law and even to pass laws contravening federal legislation. That nullification could lead to a constitutional crisis does not for Buckley constitute an objection; indeed, a constitutional crisis of this sort would pave the way for a new constitutional convention in which the relationship between the states and the federal government could be radically reimagined.
And while Buckley’s suggestion may seem outlandish, he rightly points out that a number of progressive states are right now effectively nullifying federal drug and immigration law, while many conservative states have long sought to circumvent or render impotent federal protections for abortion. In short, the country is too big, our interests too disparate, and our moral and political beliefs too different for policy to be made at the federal level. Why not then reduce the federal government to a body that deals exclusively with foreign affairs, regulating a common defense policy, and ensuring an internal zone of free trade among the confederated states? All other legislation—moral, political, and economic—would be left up to the states—including legislation regarding civil rights.
But how would this confederation work, especially when it comes to variations in civil rights? If, for instance, California could legalize polyamorous marriages, would Texas have to accept their marriage licenses? At one point, Buckley asks why a citizen of one state should “care what another state does with same-sex marriage.” But people do care about what goes on in other states, because many of the issues that divide us are not merely policy preferences, as Buckley at one point calls them, but matters of justice and injustice, right and wrong. And many people agree with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assertion that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Many supporters of same-sex marriage consider marriage to be a human right that ought to be recognized everywhere. In much the same way, opponents of abortion believe that abortion is the murder of a human being, and murder, like slavery, is not something that ought to be left up to the states.
In order to reassure those concerned about civil rights protections, Buckley insists that devolution “wouldn’t much change things” from how they are now. But if things wouldn’t really change, it is hard to understand why we ought to undergo a certainly difficult and potentially disastrous attempt to reorder our constitution in so radical a way. And when we realize that the case for home-rule presupposes that secession is suddenly and seriously on the table, as Buckley indicates toward the very end of the book, then the interesting, thought-provoking, and public-spirited case Buckley makes suddenly seems to melt into air, a mere thought-experiment or an academic musing.
At the end of Percy’s Love in the Ruins, the political crisis point comes—and then it just… goes. There is a brief, localized outbreak of confusion before things settle down. No problems are solved; no wrongs are righted. An oppressed class strikes it rich and immediately adopts all the works and ways of those they have replaced, with the head revolutionary returning to his cushy endowed chair at a major research university. The “beloved old USA,” contrary to all expectation, continues to limp along, held together by inertia and a lack of real political will in any particular direction. Perhaps here too Percy saw the future all too well.