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The Divided States of America?

“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.

Reader Discussion

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on March 06, 2020 at 07:32:36 am

This is an important and most interesting piece. But when you write: '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' you seem to me to hit the problem: how are such matters to be decided? One of the problems, today, is that people tend to claim what others see just as their strong subjective preferences, as 'rights'. It seems to me that the best way to go, in the face of these issues, is to take a more libertarian approach, in the sense of seeing if there is a rather minimal account of rights which are not contested, and accepting that people will differ with regard to other issues. Differing does not mean that we can't engage with them over the points in which we are in disagreement. But given that we can't *show* that our ideas are correct, it is not clear why we should think that we are entitled to use force against them.

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Jeremy Shearmur
on March 06, 2020 at 11:36:41 am

In the 20th century, and perhaps earlier, we began relying on national decision making and the federal government much more heavily. If we could devolve or dial back from national determination to more state determination on many issues, we may be able to reduce what has become interregional hostility. The divisions would remain, but they wouldn't necessarily be so grating--as one size fits all policies would no longer be required. Of course, absolutes of justice and injustice and right and wrong are obstacles to such devolution. But, even when it comes to these seeming absolutes, we could show more respect for regional differences in perspectives and allow for differences in policy.

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Stephen Brown
on March 06, 2020 at 11:56:34 am

The prospect of a new constitutional crisis, out of which will come "a new constitutional convention in which the relationship between the states and the federal government could be radically reimagined" is scary as hell. The relationship between the states and the feds is not the only thing that might be "radically reimagined."

We live under a constitutional regime that, for all its real flaws, was built *in large part* on a true (or mostly true) understanding of human nature and natural law. Starting afresh in 2020, with all our moral confusion, misunderstandings of human nature, and almost total lack of a public moral culture, is about the worst idea I can imagine.

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Nebraskan
on March 06, 2020 at 11:59:22 am

Yada Yada Yada!

With his book, Buckley couples just another academic's coach-car to the endless intellectual train of rehashing known social ailments as segue to offering up poli-sci snake oil for lasting relief.

FDA should require that an advertising disclosure of side-effects accompany such donnish social diagnoses and esoteric political prescriptions.

Despite the endemic weakness of his subject matter, Professor Berry does laudable lettered work in providing his readers the chuckle-worthy analogy of Walker Percy's "Love In The Ruins.'' Buckley book does, indeed, seem to offer up his book as an Ontological Lapsometer for diagnosing and treating the social ailments that fuel political disintegration.

Yet, Buckley's literary Lapsometer is not useful, either to determine the nature of our national disease or to treat it.

The ontology of the nation's divisive melancholia is already well-understood, that depressive condition is clearly remediable using the readily-available constitutional means of electing conservatives to Congressional and Executive power and installing constitutionally-bound judges in Article III courts, and that political relief is well underway as I write this reply.

It would seem wholly unwarranted, indeed, politically-insane, if not suicidal, to resort in needless desperation to the politically-discredited remedies of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, John C. Calhoun's Doctrine of Nullification and Interposition and the obstructionist, destabilizing tactics of Sanctuary Cities.

How silly the notion!

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Paladin
on March 06, 2020 at 14:34:10 pm

Not only that but Buckley is also the fellow who has advocated that the US should move to a "parley-mentary" form of governance on the theory that this enables the government to more readily enact the majority party's platform.
So which is it, Frank?
Subsidiarity or efficiency of big government?

Now as for "constitutionally bound" Judges, if Profs. Segall and Sprigman are correct they are as abundant as are Unicorns.

http://www.dorfonlaw.org/2020/03/teaching-constitutional-law-in-world.html

wherein the good Profs provide a sampling of "making it up on the fly" judicial determinations with an elasticity somewhat greater than that evident in common law courts.

(BTW: I am apparently banned from that locale).

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gabe
on March 06, 2020 at 15:47:21 pm

Enough banishment from the company of polite society and one enters the realm of serious men, like Machiavelli, Dante Alighieri and Bolingbroke.

I've been kicked off this site 4 times and have come to feel (to paraphrase Mark Twain) that any blog that hasn't banished a thinking man at least once is not aggravating enough to warrant reading.

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Paladin
on March 06, 2020 at 18:53:00 pm

The simple/easy solution is an amicable, peaceful divorce. All 50 states secede and start over...

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anony
on March 06, 2020 at 19:16:33 pm

A single market is part of what makes America great. It is also the case that having 50 states allows for policy variation and experimentation. Complete dissolution into 50 countries or even seven would destroy much of what makes America great.

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Stephen Brown
on March 06, 2020 at 19:32:25 pm

Uh...no, single markets are called monopolies, and they don't make ANYTHING great-including politics. everyone is trying to create an even bigger monopoly thru five mortals in black robes because of the monopoly power that the court created in 1937-42. Politics is a product that we consume-the more different suppliers, the better. Would you prefer a single market for pizza, tablets, and haircuts as well??? Accept the immutable differences in a country this age and diverse, and prevent a violent secession with a peaceful one.

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anony
on March 07, 2020 at 10:32:47 am

Anony misinterprets what I mean by a single market. I do not mean monopolized markets. A single market can have lots of buyers and sellers. America has many large markets with many buyers and sellers. A few markets, particularly in high tech, may be monopolized, but many of those markets are characterized by network externalities.

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Stephen Brown
on March 07, 2020 at 20:30:44 pm

"But people do care about what goes on in other states, because many of the issues that divide us are not merely policy preferences [...] 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.'" Yet King's logic always seems to break down in the face of *national* sovereignty. We might abhor the way Saudi Arabia treats women, or the way Russia treats LGBT individuals, but no one seriously suggests that we violate the sovereignty of these nations to impose a liberal conception of justice. Recognizing the right of separate political communities to self-govern is as much a matter of peacekeeping as it is a matter of democratic principle.

My understanding of the proper role of government is very narrow: the protection of natural rights and provision of a small number of public goods. But I recognize that many of my fellow citizens don't share my conception of the state; there is little I can do to persuade them, or they me. Short of using violence or the force of the state to impose our respective opinions on one another, the only practical solution is to allow each political community to arrive at a general consensus about what it values. Any sufficiently motivated dissenters can then migrate to a community that better suits their outlook.

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Arthur Uppiano
on March 08, 2020 at 06:06:23 am

[…] There are at least two very different visions of what America ought to be, and they increasingly appear to be mutually exclusive. Source […]

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The Divided States of America? | GOVfeasance
on March 08, 2020 at 11:48:43 am

Our fellow citizens may care less just a little less about the differences in policies if the federal government isn't used to make policies uniform across the nation. Some--but not all--policies are matters of justice and injustice, right and wrong. The others can be left to determination at the state and local level.

My own view is of limited government: protection of natural rights and provision of a small number of public goods. Of course, we have way more government than that. Our fellow citizens not only fight over what ought to be considered natural rights, they also fight over the provision of government services, and too much at the national level.

I do recognize that some of the larger states, such as California, also have secessionist movements that would like to secede from the state and form another state with different policies. Except for the effect on the US Senate, such movements seem quite reasonable to me and ought to be encouraged.

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Stephen Brown
on March 08, 2020 at 17:23:42 pm

My everyday email has been banned from this blog from before I posted the first time. Since I have an email used exclusively for this site, in my inbox it is clear that this seemingly thoughtful discussion is meant as a gateway to a different sort of communication. That, though, is no reason not to visit here.

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xkz
on March 09, 2020 at 11:27:32 am

Damn! I'm going to have to up my game.

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QET
on March 09, 2020 at 13:05:42 pm

Should the US federal government have used force to keep Southern states from seceding? to end slavery? to end lynching? to enforce black voting rights? To desegregate public schools?

Moreover, if we really favor local autonomy, we should have no faith that dissenters could move. Local autonomy would presumably include the right to control entry/exist.

It's all well and good to favor federalism/local autonomy in the abstract. Let's discuss some specifics.

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nobody.really
on March 09, 2020 at 15:48:11 pm

"It’s all well and good to favor federalism/local autonomy in the abstract."

Well as my peasant Sicilian granfather liked to say, "Mr Gabe, "meta' emeta'"

Yeah, a little bit here, a little bit there. It depends on the recipe / meal you are making.

As an example:

You say:

"Moreover, if we really favor local autonomy, we should have no faith that dissenters could move. Local autonomy would presumably include the right to control entry/exist. "

Yet, we know such local "autonomous" action is proscribed by the constitution which guarantees the free movement of US citizens among the several states.

So let us NOT overstate the problems associated (alleged?) with Federalism.
Nobody really believes that the proper epistemological stance toward Federalism is akin to that currently exemplified by the media over the Coronavirus.

But yes, Federalism in the ABSTRACT like PROGRESSIVISM in the ABSTRACT is likely to provide a somewhat incomplete / misleading picture.

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gabe
on March 09, 2020 at 17:27:25 pm

I interpret “'Mr Gabe, “meta’ emeta' Yeah, a little bit here, a little bit there" to mean that you cannot articulate any principles guiding your decisions.

And that would be my point: It's easy (especially on a libertarian blog) to talk about the virtues of federalism/subsidiarity/local control in the abstract, but hard to articulate helpful principles. Thus, once we clear away the blather, the whole discussion boils down to "People's preferences differ, and I wish people would adopt MY arbitrary preferences rather than someone else's."

And once you realize that this is the grand conclusions that we're all driving to, it kind of lets the air out of the discussion. The discussion is only interesting if someone wants to propose some guiding principle--and thus far, no one has.

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nobody.really
on March 09, 2020 at 19:38:52 pm

Nobody:

You simultaneously read both too much AND too little into my "meta' e meta'" comment.

The fact that there are some instances in which Federalism may be either good or bad does not preclude the existence of an underlying foundational principle supporting / undergirding Federalism.

I realize for a relativist Progressive such as yourself that this may be difficult or unpleasant to acknowledge. However, it is quite common in both life and politics.

simple example:

Thou shalt not kill.

Were we to view this as the foundational commandment, applicable universally in ALL circumstances, we would doom the predicate to quick extinction.
One must refine it slightly as a matter of moral principle:

Thou shalt not kill without justification.

Now Federalism:

Thou shalt not seek Federalism without justification, without recourse to a fundamental moral / societal predicate; or alternatively, thou shalt not seek autonomy if one is to betray certain moral precepts. (BTW: It is this betrayal of moral precepts that I suspect that you fear. BUT, it need not always be present in "autonomous" environments).

But you are all too ready to transform principles, both moral and political, into a mere empirical observation. to do this, one reduces oneself to a simple study of consequences.
In effect, you abandon the proper realm of observation and discourse and instead engage in opinion polling.

We observe how effective polling has been, now don't we?

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gabe
on March 09, 2020 at 20:09:33 pm

Yes, let's. Specifically has there been more injustice in centralized government authorities or decentralized political authority? The potential for abuse is other way, and the South is one example vs a ton of far worse centralized governmental abuses.

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anony
on March 11, 2020 at 09:47:32 am

I think the best way for the country to survive as a unified nation is for the federal government to return to exercising its limited powers listed in the body of the Constitution (pre-commerce clause perversion) and for the States to adopt a “you’re not the boss of me” orientation toward the Federal Govt. We could then have 50 States which operated to varying degrees as free-dom states or free-stuff states. Citizens could then move into states that either had more freedom or more “social justice”. Maybe our country could then be unified around our “diverse states”. We could return to being what we were intended to be, a Republic. (Of course, in time the economies of “free-stuff states” would collapse. ) Hopefully (but probably not) the social justice warriors would realize that what can’t endure at the state level could not endure at the federal level. Neither conservatives or socialists should be telling the other how to live. Neither more governmental control, nor anarchy are the solution. Maybe 50 social and economic experimental labrotories would help us learn and accept what works and what doesn’t.

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Bill Krut
Trackbacks
on November 03, 2020 at 06:34:56 am

[…] people are writing serious books and articles about the possibility of secession. In 1876, most Americans had personal experience […]

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