F. H. Buckley’s newest work, American Secession: The Looming Threat of National Breakup, is probably one of the most important nonfiction books of 2020. Written during the last year when Americans were more divided at any time in their national history since the Civil War, Buckley argues that neither “Blue” America nor “Red” America, to use former President Barack Obama’s postulation from 2004, can coexist. According to Buckley, that is all right. We Americans have a mechanism — nullification — for coexisting peacefully in this massive country without the need to take up arms against those with whom we disagree. Under nullification, the immense powers of the central government are distributed (or, returned, as my libertarian friends would argue) to the state and local authorities without the need for one part of America violently separating away from the other as happened during the Civil War.
Buckley’s book poses many controversial questions to the reader while engaging in some wonderful counterfactual exercises in order to prove the author’s point: that nullification is our bifurcated country’s only hope at remaining a country. In the book, Buckley ruminates on the way historians remember America’s 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, and the way they castigate the memory of Lincoln’s predecessor, James Buchanan. The former is regarded as one of the greatest men to have ever inhabited the White House; he is normally mentioned in the same breath as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Buchanan, on the other hand, is often remembered as the man who basically “lost” the Union when the issue of chattel slavery tore the Union asunder.
Yet, in Buckley’s view, without the moral issue of slavery being the dividing line in what Angelo Codevilla has described as the “cold civil war” today, the political divisions are far murkier. What’s more, many Americans might prefer to have a James Buchanan in the White House as opposed to an Abraham Lincoln. As Buckley asserts, would most Americans be willing to fight another civil war to make sure California liberals will stay part of Donald Trump’s America? People today would likely far prefer a more permissive president, such as Buchanan, to lead them through this crucible rather than the Bismarckian nation-builder, Lincoln, who vowed to fight any insurrectionist to the last man. Today, most Americans would be content to have liberal Californians just go their own way while allowing for more conservative Californians to move to Texas.
Using federalism as a guide, though, Buckley thinks we can have our constitutional cake and eat it. At its core, today’s conflict between Red and Blue America is the classic battle over centralization versus decentralization. How much power are Americans willing to cede today to Washington, D.C.?
The 20th century, particularly following the Second World War, showed how willing most Americans were to hand over large amounts of power to the federal government that were once reserved for either the private sector or for the local and state governments of the United States. Today, there is a reaction to the decisions made over the last 80 years. Increased power to Washington has created horrible imbalances in our national political, social, and economic systems. The central authorities are often slow to respond and are subject to influence-peddling that diverts national resources and laws away from where they are needed and into areas in which only the special interests benefit.
When Bill Maher and those like him in California say that Trump supporters “don’t belong” in their neighborhoods, the solution is not to take up arms against those folks. It’s to do as Charles Murray observed in his 2012 book on the matter and to self-sort: find those American communities that are most like you and join them. Vote with your feet. Meanwhile, allow for Californians to do that which works for their communities so long as they allow for you to do that which best works for your community. A live-and-let-live approach is the best solution here, and nullification offers that to the country.
The recent outbreak of the coronavirus from Wuhan, China, is another example of the argument of centralization versus decentralization. On the one hand, the natural inclination for many is to look to the federal government for a resolution to the problem. Yet the Trump administration has deftly managed to embrace a decentralized network model that is much more effective in combating the spread of the disease. The White House has given the resources and personnel needed to combat the outbreak while letting states and local authorities both respond to the outbreak in their communities and to conduct tests and mitigation procedures according to the needs of their individual communities. While it remains to be seen if this approach will work, a similar decentralized model — where the central authority merely manages rather than dictates the response — is how the South Koreans pulled their country out of the coronavirus pandemic after it spread there from neighboring China.
For a country as large and diverse as the United States, whether attempting to ameliorate internal division or respond to a pandemic, the diffusion of greater power to the local and state authorities is the best path forward. Further, it’s the most constitutional approach. What works for Los Angeles may not work best for Sevierville, Tennessee, and vice versa. Why force different people in different parts of the country to comport with standards that do not reflect their local realities? And does anyone really want to take the approach that Abraham Lincoln favored on the Blue States when a James Buchanan live-and-let-live approach would not only be the least bloody method to resolving our national division?
Buckley’s book is essential for today’s America. I’m on my second read-through of it now. I cannot recommend this book enough. It will leave you questioning many ingrained assumptions — and that’s a very good thing in today’s age of incuriosity.
Brandon J. Weichert is the author of the forthcoming book Winning Space: How America Remains a Superpower, due out this fall from Republic Book Publishers. He also publishes The Weichert Report and is a contributing editor at both American Greatness and The American Spectator. Brandon’s work also appears at Real Clear Public Affairs, Real Clear World, and Real Clear Defense. Be sure to follow him on Twitter @WeTheBrandon.