Is Secession the Answer to American Disunity? - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Is Secession the Answer to American Disunity?
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene speaks to press outside the Capitol, Washington, D.C., Feb. 2, 2023 (Philip Yabut/Shutterstock)

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene cannot help but make news. Her views are controversial. More importantly, the Left — along with its establishment and media acolytes — believe her opinions to be unpopular.

The most recent kerfuffle involves her suggestion that Americans “need a national divorce.” That is, secession, presumably following the attempt by 11 Southern states to exit the union in 1861: “We need to separate by red states and blue states and shrink the federal government. Everyone I talk to says this.”

America’s history has confirmed the fear of the founders about the difficulty in retaining the values and character of a genuine republic.

“Everyone” she talks to might say this, but, so far, few on the right live it. Not many conservatives have become modern “fire-eaters” preaching secession, building bomb shelters, amassing personal arsenals, and exercising with local MAGA militia companies. The fundamental problem with her view — along with that of some pro-life secession advocates who followed their abolitionist forebears, who suggested leaving the Union to end the North’s complicity in the South’s abominable practice — is that political views rarely follow political boundaries. Even the Civil War featured secession within secession, since Appalachian residents trended toward the Union, most dramatically evidenced by the creation of West Virginia.

Kentucky State University’s Wilfred Reilly puts the problem simply:

Perhaps most importantly, there is not actually any clear red/blue divide within the continental U.S. population. We talk a lot about “red” and “blue” states, but these are election-year terms of art arising from the dirty business of political consulting: In reality, almost no American state slants more than 60 percent in either direction, and the real division is between red and blue counties within each one. In the typical state — think Illinois or Kentucky — one or several big Democratic-voting cities are surrounded by an agricultural hinterland full of yeomen, and the two rely on one another for tax subsidies, agricultural products, and so forth.

Absent mass population movements, separation is simply impossible. Yet most people don’t want to leave their homes, while past coercion gave the world mass ethnic cleansing. The most celebrated cases have been brutal and bloody, as in the partition of India and Pakistan and the post–World War II expulsion of ethnic Germans.

Perhaps over time, more likely decades than years, voluntary separation will occur as blue and red people move toward corresponding areas. After my parents died, I decided not to hold onto their house in California, a state I loved but that has gone start raving mad politically. I doubted its economic future and social stability. Still, most anyone can live, and live well, in a big city or distant rural oasis irrespective of the character of the state government. And some number of people fall uneasily between, or among, red and blue. Ideological libertarians, free speech liberals, and fiscal conservatives increasingly are politically homeless, uncomfortably stuck outside of both brightly colored hives.

Beyond geography, any national breakup, as opposed to the departure of a state or two, would be messy. Who gets the national institutions? The Southern states were willing to let the North keep most everything other than federal forts located in the new Confederacy, but, with a much smaller national government, life was simpler then. Not so today. Reilly notes:

The most basic, heart-rending questions would immediately arise: Who gets the national anthem, the eagle symbol, and most especially the former United States flag, which so many have willingly died for? For that matter, who gets the nukes: Are these simply broken up on a state-by-state basis, with Montana and North Dakota immediately becoming world-stage power players?

Although I find the thought of North Dakota becoming the world’s newest Weltmacht almost charming, I recognize that others might find the possibility disquieting. And no one would want to take over the backbreaking national debt. However, for most secession opponents, practicality is irrelevant. Their response to Greene’s comments is horror. Why? I neither support nor oppose secession in principle. There is no correct size for this or any other nation. America has varied in size throughout history.

Nevertheless, the fact that the U.S. has only grown reflects the imperialistic tendencies of most governments and aggrandizing impulses of most nationalists rather than consistent moral or practical benefits — which suggests that America almost certainly is too big rather than too small.

That presumption is backed by most measures. With 336 million people, America has the world’s third-largest population. That’s too many to have a republican government faithful to the rule of law and constitutional limits. America’s history has confirmed the fear of the founders about the difficulty in retaining the values and character of a genuine republic. Especially problematic is Washington’s promiscuous war-making abroad, by which ivory tower elites attempt to run the world using middle Americans as cannon fodder. Today, the national government operates largely outside the Constitution, with the courts having become reliable handmaidens of the imperial state, ever ready to sanctify federal power. The current Supreme Court majority might attempt to reverse course, but the likelihood of redirecting the federal behemoth remains small.

American differences run deep in many areas, but about none more so than core values.

Particularly problematic is the relationship of most Americans with the imperial center, Washington, D.C. In practice, the nation’s capital is far too distant, geographically and politically, from the heartland. Elites jokingly refer to “flyover country,” that mass of land separating the coasts, which are all that really matters to many of the wealthiest and most influential among us. The ability of most Americans to participate in the country’s nominal democratic process and thereby influence what goes on in the imperial city is practically nil. This is a perversion of the founders’ original vision of the U.S.

This results in the lack of genuine democracy. In reality, there is only one party in Washington. Virtually all of the city’s political potentates support a massive and ever-growing government. The only difference among them is the desired speed of the advance. Democrats typically want to make all their changes tomorrow. If that proves impossible, they are ready to accumulate incremental gains and eventually achieve their original ends. Republicans prefer to dispute the end while agreeing to slightly slower means — taking the first step tomorrow and phasing in the rest of the initiative over time. The endpoint, massive new federal programs, is always the same.

Moreover, once Democrats force a measure through, within a decade or two Republicans act like it was their idea. Consider America’s course since 1981, when Ronald Reagan began his presidency. Nothing — not Reagan’s eloquence, Republicans’ capture of Congress, nor succeeding GOP presidents — prevented the country from ending up where Democrats wanted to go, indeed, much further than they said they wanted to go during the 1980 election. At the most basic level, elections don’t matter much. At most, their results slow America’s descent. Those elected to keep the ship of state afloat end up merely changing the deck chairs as the vessel continues to sink.

This isn’t, however, the universal human experience. Although the United Kingdom has been rapidly heading toward the bottom of late, the 1979 election of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher led to a genuine revolution. There, at least, the electoral outcome can be really important. In contrast, despite the high-octane rhetorical battles between the Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations, the federal government has continued its inexorable growth. President Donald Trump changed individual policies, not America’s trajectory.

The essential irrelevance of the formal political opposition in the U.S. was most recently exhibited when Republicans publicly competed with Democrats to put entitlements beyond budget review, which means preemptively surrendering the country’s future, ensuring eventual fiscal disaster and likely financial crisis. Americans who earn moderately, spend wisely, and save responsibly will be expected to fund ever improvident and wastrel Uncle Sam. A few Republicans might object, but most will fall in line for whatever bailout is forged amid the resulting rubble in Washington.

However, fiscal matters are not the most important disagreement among Americans. Our differences run deep in many areas, but about none more so than core values. The latter is not like the typical Republicrat budget disagreement, in which politicos noisily bicker over a nickel — or at most a dime — on every dollar in federal spending. Rather, values entail a battle over the fundamentals upon which we organize our lives. Whether or not America is a geographic community as well as an idea, the Constitution embodies the rule of law or rule by lawyers, unborn life should be protected, religious believers should be able to live out their faith, biology or identity determines one’s nature, progressivism reflects the inexorable march of humanity, and political losers must be reeducated and transformed into a new kind of gender-fluid being. These and similar issues most determine the very meaning of our lives.

Reality requires continuing to search for a means to preserve America as a peaceful and stable home.

Matters so personal obviously should not be set by the government. However, for the Left, which has risen in influence in the Democratic Party, the very importance of our moral beliefs and actions warrants the state taking control. For a devoted social engineer, it is inconceivable to allow the uncultured and uncouth, who believe all sorts of inconvenient truths, to escape proper tutelage by the anointed elite. Sacrilege! Indeed, for political lefties who tend to rise to top of the political heap, Washington exists to mold dutiful citizens, ensuring that they become appropriately repentant for past thought crimes and wokishly submissive to avoid future political sins.

If separation as secession is impossible, then what? Reilly emphasizes serious, thorough-going federalism. Of course, Republicans as well as Democrats have at times been inconsistent in their commitment to that principle. Where is the constitutional authority for Congress to set abortion law? Should the federal government obstruct state legalization of marijuana? Nevertheless, overall, the GOP has shown greater commitment to the principle than have Democrats.

However, as politics has become more bitter and edged closer to warfare, some lefties have seen states as sanctuaries for reviving progressive paradises lost. Thus, federalism could become a new compact that enables supporters of Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, Joe Biden, and Josh Hawley to live together in the same nation by allowing them to increasingly sort themselves by state. And prudent politicians would further decentralize state governance to the extent possible, allowing urban and rural residents to largely decide their separate futures. Although this sounds like less than the historic e pluribus unum ideal that long defined America, such an approach may be the only way to save the country, maintaining political peace and stability over the long term.

As the U.S. split apart after the election of Abraham Lincoln, some Americans opposed both secession and forcibly preventing secession. As one example, the Unionist New-York Tribune editor Horace Greeley wrote, “We hope never to live in a republic whereof one section is pinned to the residue by bayonets.” Coincidentally, Robert E. Lee, who refused command of the U.S. Army in order to defend his beloved state of Virginia from that same force, shared this martial image: “[A] Union that can only be maintained by swords and bayonets, and in which strife and civil war are to take the place of brotherly love and kindness, has no charm for me.”

This is a sensible perspective for today. Whatever its theoretical merits, secession is impractical and probably could not be achieved without extraordinary difficulty and likely violent conflict. However, that reality requires continuing to search for a means to preserve America as a peaceful and stable home. Federalism, serious and far-reaching, looks to be the best option available. The right time to begin debating this issue is with a divided Congress and the presidency up for grabs — that is, right now.

Doug Bandow is a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire and The Politics of Plunder: Misgovernment in Washington.


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Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute.
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