Localism with Teeth

by Katherine Dalton on November 5, 2009 · 37 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Politics & Power

lion

“I never saw an instance of one of two disputants convincing one another by argument.  I have seen many, on their getting warm, becoming rude, and shooting one another.” –Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to Thomas Jefferson Randolph

“Anyone who observed us would conclude the purpose of all academic discussion was to provide the grounds for becoming further entrenched in our original positions.”  –Richard Russo, Straight Man

Somewhere south of Hell for Certain Creek, Lee County, Kentucky. Whew, my friends, it’s an unseasonably warm November afternoon down here in the woods, and warm weather always lends itself to plain English and other incendiaries.  And so it is that I want to talk about secession, or least to talk about talking about secession.

Which is funny, because unlike other contributors here I’ve never been greatly occupied by the topic, other than as a matter of painful historical interest.  Though I wish a general “good luck” to groups such as the Second Vermont Republic and the Southern National Congress, I’d be surprised to find North or South that they have much of a constituency, and I know they don’t have a prayer.  We live in an Age of Iron, though we ourselves are as soft and heavy as lead.  And North or South we are too strongly latched onto the federal teat to have any lip left with which to argue full-strength local independence.

Better to spend my time on something small but possible, like reforming health regulations so Kentucky farmers can better make a living.  That’s less inspiring or less infuriating, depending on your point of view, and will elicit a gargantuan yawn at many desks, but it’s the sort of thing you can lobby your state legislature for and maybe get.  Maybe.

And yet–because secession has proved to be a sore tooth here at FPR, I find myself unable to stop probing the place with my tongue.  I’m unlikely to relieve the soreness, and I don’t expect to change anybody’s mind, but I can at least clarify matters in my own.

On this site we talk a lot about subsidiarity and localism.  Those are the terms we prefer to use when discussing the idea that the federal government shouldn’t do what a state, county, city or town can and ought to do.  “Localism” is a fuzzy term, and it can have non-political meanings—the “Buy Local” bumper stickers argue for stronger community life outside of any regulation—but as this is a site heavy on political theory, “localism” often means local political sovereignty here.

The word the founders used, “federalism,” is largely out of favor at FPR for reasons I don’t know, but that’s the old American term for what we are talking about.  “States’ rights” is another, but few people find it palatable anymore, not because of its original meaning of federalism at the state level, but because they read it as code for slavery and segregation.  Even the Southern National Congress mentioned above, willing as they were to call for the withdrawal from the federal government by Southern states at a meeting held in Alabama, carefully avoided both the terms “states’ rights” and “secession.”

Nevertheless, when some good people at this site read that Alabama compact, in an FPR post by Kirkpatrick Sale that went up and then down in September, what they heard was the language of states’ rights and secession—which, in the context of a piece on a Southern group, would likely be read as code words for racial peonage and prejudice.  They were right about all of that:  secession and states’ rights are precisely what that compact is about, and flak in the responses section, from readers who either hate black people or hate white Southerners, was likely.

But I disagree that the rock-throwing that passes for much of public discourse these days means secession and states’ rights—even in the South—are subjects we can’t honorably and (with some editorial effort) peaceably discuss.  As many readers know, Mr. Sale had discussed secession before on this site, and Bill Kauffman is writing a book on the subject.  The principles underlying states’ rights and secession are ideas many writers here sympathize with.  And as “localists,” we can’t separate ourselves from association with these terms.  This is particularly true of “states’ rights.”  What else do we mean when we talk about greater local autonomy and power, but states’ rights?  What is subsidiarity, but the moral argument for the devolved power of states’ rights?  What is federalism?  We can avoid certain terms, in preference for others with less baggage, but we can’t avoid their meaning when their meaning is our own.

All talk of local autonomy, all calls for devolution of power from a central government, must in the end be calls for the rights of states to oppose and if necessary nullify federal overreaching.  Otherwise those calls are just hot air.  That is because politics is first and last about power, not highway beautification or universal health coverage.  Anyone who has tried to argue with representatives of a federal agency—with, say, the U.S. Forest Service about the illogic of cutting down the woods the agency exists to manage—should know that earnest requests for an obvious good can have little effect on a large bureaucracy which exists to protect not woodlands but itself.  The people who work for the Forest Service will follow a logic in making their decisions, but it will be the logic of their budget, not of the forest or the forest’s neighbors or the Indiana bat.

Of course we all want power to give way to what is right, and sometimes it does.  But even in better times than ours, right argument generally gets further when backed by a power of its own, especially when there is a great distance between the Affected and the Decider.  If there is going to be any naysaying to Washington, it must come from entities large enough to have the clout to say no.  Since even our biggest cities are legally subsidiary to states, and since our federal government was created by the states, opposition should come from the states—or from some confederation thereof.

Does this sound like rebels’ talk from 1860?  Perhaps New Englanders will be comforted by the reminder that Massachusetts was the first state seriously to discuss secession, a half-century before the war, and that John C. Calhoun learned the doctrine of nullification while at college in Connecticut.  Unionists can take heart that two of the men most closely associated with secession—Calhoun and Robert E. Lee—both hated it. They were driven to it by the necessity of opposing power with power.

And I believe, friends, that so are we:  secession is localism with teeth.  It is localism taken to its logical end, once all petitions have been stamped Rejected.  It has always been a desperate and dangerous action to take, because all divorces are ugly and some are violent.  But it is nevertheless well worth discussing, in all parts of the country, because without the rights of states as understood by the theory of secession we are left with only two options.  We can make earnest requests to the interns who open the mail in Washington, or we can leave public politics to others and concentrate on moral arguments for reforming ourselves.

The second is the route some of us have taken here, and speaking personally I would rather act the physician and heal myself if I can, as I am in need of much reform.  But I likewise believe that political reform is something we should be able to debate civilly on a political website, and if a contributor wants to talk about secession and states’ rights, in Alabama or Vermont or any other state, he should be able to.  These words have some painful associations, but they also have intrinsic meanings.  We do not have to be bullied by the Internet’s trawling haters, and pull a post because of their ugliness, and we do not have to succumb to reader response theory either, that every word we use means only what other people interpret it to mean, rather than what our explained intention for its meaning is.

Finally, I believe we must find room for these two terms in our own self-interest, because the interpretive leap some of us made with the Alabama group is a leap others will make with us.  However scrupulously we avoid the “S” words, however strongly we declare our localist intentions to be racially benign, anyone arguing for greater local autonomy will soon have the racial baggage of states’ rights thrust upon him.  We have seen it already in some readers’ comments on this site:  that local control leaves the door open to local oppression, and how is the small-is-beautiful crowd to escape the taint?

The only answers I can give to that objection are these:  first, that there are many examples of centralized injustice and we will live to see more, and second, that we are going to have to tolerate local mistakes and injustices, at least in communities that are not ours (we can holler like anything at home), if we are going to trust people to govern themselves rather than be ruled from afar.  Will children ever grow up if not given the leeway to fail?

Those who choose to interpret these words as meaning I hope for the return of slavery or Jim Crow need to read this piece again.  And if you think I am naïve to trust my neighbors so far, then from what superior pool of humanity are you drawing your congressmen and federal judges? Let us argue clearly and charitably with one another, and with whatever hope we can muster in this empire our federal republic has become.

{ 36 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Bob Cheeks November 5, 2009 at 6:11 am

Bravo, a singularly important essay, delightfully rendered.
And yes, the only way to restore those liberties lost and those threatened by Leviathan is through the means provided by the founders and reiterated by the author: federalism, states rights, nullification and secession!
We might note the rise, politically, of certain ‘conservatives’ seeking to either run as independents or derail the neocon component of the GOP. It remains to be seen if we can rally some succor in that quarter.
Also, there is one reality that should be addressed: we seem to have few racial minorities among our clan.
I don’t know why that is. The FPR happily welcomes all Americans.
Perhaps, one of our academics might address that phenomenon.
In closing, this is the finest essay of its kind to appear here. Ms. Dalton has the courage and skill to take the most difficult proposition facing the FPR and provide a straight forward explication that will only serve to improve the tone and depth of the conversation.

avatar Russell Arben Fox November 5, 2009 at 7:55 am

A fine and poignant essay, Kathryn; thanks very much for writing it and sharing it with us here.

I can’t speak for anyone besides myself, but believe my own reluctance to speak of “states’ rights,” and my preference for speaking of “subsidiarity” rather than “federalism,” is not especially derived from a fear of being associated with the racist and segregationist legacy of the American South. (As hopefully my writings demonstrate, I’m quite willing to defend the South, with its tobbacco farms and dry counties and all the rest.) Indeed, I don’t just like states, I want there to be more of them. No, my problem is with the quasi-libertarian, wholly oppositional flavor of those ideas is contemporary discourse. Many people who rail against the national government appear–often, anyway–to be doing so not because they believe the responsibilities of government could be carried forward more ethically and democratically on the level of the states or counties or towns, but because they actually don’t want to see those responsibilities carried forward at all; they want to be left alone, period. And that is not where I find myself. I’m a believer in positive liberty. It don’t think real freedom is entirely, or even mostly, a natural possession of the self-sustaining individual–I think it is a collective construction, an empowerment that comes from communities addressing themselves to public goods and the commonweal of all. Which means, well, government: sometimes a local one, to be sure, but sometimes a powerful central one as well.

“Subsidiarity” has not lost, at least to my ears, that positive appreciation of the need to act, collectively, on behalf of the liberty and justice of all in the community. I think much of the talk of “federalism,” by contrast, has. If I am wrong about this, I’d be happy to be corrected. But as I look at the arguments currently being conducted across the nation, that’s how it often sounds to me.

avatar Bill Kauffman November 5, 2009 at 8:49 am

Amen, Kate.

avatar Caleb Stegall November 5, 2009 at 8:55 am

All talk of local autonomy, all calls for devolution of power from a central government, must in the end be calls for the rights of states to oppose and if necessary nullify federal overreaching. Otherwise those calls are just hot air. That is because politics is first and last about power, not highway beautification or universal health coverage.

Absolutely! Very well said Kate, and another hearty “Amen!”

avatar Empedocles November 5, 2009 at 9:27 am

It is silly that changing the name of something changes people’s opinions of it, but it is true and effective. Just look at how liberals became progressives. I think that localism and subsidiarity is a good way of renaming Federalism and states’ rights. And be sure to use the phrase “empowering local communities.” “Empowering” and “community” are all the rage these days; no one could be against empowering communities.

avatar Bob Cheeks November 5, 2009 at 9:50 am

Empedocles, you are brilliant. However, I am going to miss my ‘states rights’ and federalism!

avatar Marchmaine November 5, 2009 at 10:18 am

Well said; at some point success will necessitate a review of the relationships between that which is over and that which is under… even in the most benign devolution.

If there should arise a real localist/subsidiary movement that goes beyond the grocery store, it would be wise to have some clear thoughts on the direction forward… lest they be dictated to us by the opposition.

avatar Tim Lacy November 5, 2009 at 10:29 am

The term “states’ rights” is so absolutely polluted with negative connotations that it will never be useful in our lifetime. Never. Repeat that to yourself over and over.

Indeed, the fact that it appears in this essay taints the positive discussion the author intends to start: namely, localism must involve some devolution of power and, moreover, this involves trusting the mature ability of adults, or what Dalton called the “leeway to fail” (although this essay doesn’t discuss a barrier to this that has been brought up by Patrick Deneen in other essays—the systemic small-to-large community brain drain problem).

Anyway, I find myself sympathizing with R.A. Fox’s comment. Those who hope to reframe subsidiarity in more attractive terms might consider other, more contemporary phrases: “empowered pluralism,” “power plurality,” “nested autonomy,” etc. FPR folks (if I may use that broad generalization) need to show the “cosmopolitans” that they “get” the positives of pluralism and multiculturalism and direct democracy—the positive legacy of the 60s and 70s. But they also have to prove to others that they understand what Fox called centralized “positive liberty.” You have to emphasize that you’re looking for a better balance.

The next step is to identify particular policies and situations that would benefit from this reframing. In so doing, all discussion of abortion must be absent. This is not because of the rightness of the cause, but because you need to forward you’re agenda on less divisive issues. You need to think ag coops and TVA style positive subsidiarity to get old school liberals and Democrats involved. – TL

avatar Russell Arben Fox November 5, 2009 at 10:55 am

Empedocles and Tim Lacy are both thinking practically and wisely, I believe. I think everyone at all cognizant of the argument for localism, however circumscribed or defined, is aware of the need, in the American context, to be able to speak sometimes of the rights of states, even the rights of states to nullify broader, national, initiatives. Katharine is absolutely right about the need for some teeth here. But when those teeth have an often ugly legacy, and/or when said teeth are often used to support perspectives that are ultimately individualistic today, then you need to find…not different teeth, but a different way of talking about the teeth, so as to not find yourself dragged into causes you do not necessarily support and fights you can’t possibly win. “Strengthening state governments,” “empowering communities,” “promoting local democracy”…stuff like this might be the most likely way of expressing the route back to the front porch today.

avatar Thomas G. November 5, 2009 at 12:05 pm

Katherine,

Wonderful Essay. Argued clearly, concisely, and politely. You really raise the bar around here. Which leads me to ask, if you have a few minutes, can you go over to Peters’ post, and teach the boys there some manners?

avatar D.W. Sabin November 5, 2009 at 12:17 pm

Katherine once again delivers with an elegant hand. Like it or not, the process of setting the last 100 years right will get far uglier before something pretty might happen…if, in fact, it does happen. A discussion of and use of the terms “States Rights” and “Nullification” may have become freighted with all manner of incendiary accelerants since the Civil War but so be it. The confusion and distemper, properly cleared and confronted will help reveal the truth of the matter. The simple issue of the perception of the term “Federalism” is a case in point. Today, it is generally and popularly used to describe Federal Hegemony when in fact, it originally meant something quite the opposite, as Katherine cogently points out. Granting new definitions for a “new age” in order that the discussion might be made more palatable …or “political” is simply falling for the blandishments of our age of affable confusion and polite consensus. This era constantly deforms and remolds perceptions and uses the language to both sanctify the deformation and to further the historicidal compulsions of modernism.

We should exhibit the discipline of avoiding new terminology if we have not properly resolved the tensions and anxieties that caused our urge to re-define in the first place. To not do this is to continue the current farrago while sanctioning illusion and escapism…the central motif of this inchoate yet mechanistic age.

Above all, in carrying the banner of States Rights as delineated by the Framers, it is imperative that we do so with the same kind of respect for the Union that the Framers held. They are not exclusive pursuits, despite the way this current government would have us perceive them. A better Union would be precisely that type extolled by Washington in his farewell address…..a Union of distinctive separates and equals (heaven forfend, but another Dixiecentric no-no-phrase) who come together when the common purpose of liberty is threatened or national purpose demands it. We do not have to atomize in the manner of the conventional wisdoms that easily direct and distract our passions today.

avatar Russell Arben Fox November 5, 2009 at 12:46 pm

I just realized that I spelled Katherine’s name wrong not once, but twice. Ack. My apologies, Katherine.

avatar Albert November 5, 2009 at 3:40 pm

I think the increasingly noticeable, bipartisan excesses of the federal government in recent years are creating an opportunity for a different perspective to gain influence. This elegant, careful and yet forceful post is precisely the kind of writing that may catch the ears of those growing suspicious of where the excesses of national politics may be taking us.

Here’s to wise teachers who take seriously the responsibility of training younger folks, however little we deserve such blessings. I only fear that the wiser elders will have grown too weary over battles with their peers to have the patience and hope to invest in those that will inherit these places.

avatar Matthew Gerken November 5, 2009 at 7:21 pm

It seems like most Porchers are quick to criticize the uses of rights language and the dreaded word “autonomy” in almost every other context. I fail to see why this situation is different. Sure, decision-making on a local level is something we need to work towards, but it’s discomforting to me that we appear to be using quintessentially enlightenment terms to justify it all. The language of “states’ rights” seems like it could devolve into a Rousseauian “general will” type of thing, and use of “local autonomy” suggests that small communities are good simply because they are small, without regard to the higher (or lower) moral or religious ideals to which they subscribe. I’m sure there’s a really tight-knit group of cannibals somewhere that has a more robust culture than ours, and governs itself on a very local level, but I’m not quite ready to celebrate that sort of group.

avatar Nathanael Blake November 6, 2009 at 12:06 am

My objection to talk of secession as it generally appears on this site is that it is unconservative. Sometimes secession may be justified, many other times it may not, and there’s an end to the theoretical discussion. After that, we must attend to the particulars. And in the American context, any talk of secession is overshadowed by by the monstrous tomb of the one real attempt at secession in our nation’s history — an attempt carried out for the cause of slavery, an infirmity that had long since festered into a crime. Secession and much of federalism were destroyed by the South’s folly, it behooves conservatives to recognize this reality and maneuver within it.

So please, more on empowering communities and less on secession.

avatar David November 6, 2009 at 2:03 am

I was one that reacted very negatively to the Sale article. I follow with Tim and Nathanael, and say that on the language of this issue, the enemy of my enemy can never become my friend. No matter how one tries to think through, carefully or not, when the rubber hits the road and leaves the interwebs – the enemy of my enemy will be drawn to the light and it will be nip any incipient change in the bud for fear of giving undue support to the darkest nature of the American character.

avatar Justin November 6, 2009 at 12:40 pm

I suppose we can all assume that our name is now on a list somewhere?

By the way, as a native Texan and no stranger to these discussions…where do I sign up?

Perhaps now my name has a little colored flag next to it now…better stop while I’m ahead

Thanks for the post.

avatar Albert November 6, 2009 at 1:19 pm

It is a distinct lack of charity that prevents one from disassociating an honorable idea from the mistakes and sins done in its name, and instead imputes evil from those actually guilty of it onto those who are not.

National government-provided universal health care and public education were both ideas the German national socialists invoked and enacted in their attempts to cleanse their “race” of the Jewish taint. Is it charitable then to impute those sins onto those progressives who desire universal health care today? Is not the shadow of Fascism tomb long?

And is charity too much to ask for?

Perhaps it is for those who do not know that the history of every honorable and cherished idea, even the ones they hold dear, contains the scars and marks of fallen man hidden behind the complacent veil of purity.

avatar Nathanael Blake November 6, 2009 at 5:30 pm

Albert, reality is frequently uncharitable. Talk of secession will nearly always summon the specter of slavery in America. This may be unfair, unjust, and uncharitable, but politics is rarely otherwise.

avatar Jeremy Rich November 6, 2009 at 6:59 pm

Hello everyone -

I have been reading FPR for a brief amount of time, and this is the first post I’ve ever made. Part of me is strongly attracted to “localism,” however it is defined, but I also am as a historian very concerned about the strong legacy of racist discrimination linked to states rights rhetoric and realities. There’s no way to divorce the two in the minds of many people, especially since it is hardly a coincidence that some secession groups attract the support of white nationalists now – not just in 1860 or 1955. That may not seem particularly fair to some, but that’s just how it is. Blame James Vardaman and Ben Tillman, not me.

Case in point – the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and federal discrimination laws on housing and employment. I’d assume a fair number of people in favor of states rights would be opposed to these laws. How then can one try to convince those would be fearful of the results that it would be better for them if these laws no longer existed?

In the rural Tennessee county where I live – halfway between Huntsville and Nashville – a localist movement would do fairly well among US-born voters, even though a Constitutionalist Party candidate was crushed recently in a state assembly election. One of the main reasons why there’s potential here is the tremendous antipathy many people born and raised in this area have towards immigrants from Somalia, Mexico, and other Central American countries who work at a giant Tyson slaughterhouse – the biggest employer in the county. In a new relationship between a smaller federal government and the states, would counties or states have the right to limit or ban immigrants (regardless if their legal status)? If someone ran on a clearly anti-immigrant platform and linked it to a states rights argument, they could do fairly well around here. I’m surprised it has not happened already. This wouldn’t be bringing in the growing number of Latino voters, and it would alienate other voters as well.

If people are going to try to gain the trust of voters to the cause of a limited federal government, they are going to have to reach out to different minority communities and persuade them that there would be benefits for their lives with the coming of a much smaller federal government.

avatar Pete Peterson November 6, 2009 at 8:26 pm

Great piece, Katherine. Not just the “oppressive” implications, but also the sheer lack of “efficiency” in decentralized, and devolved decision-making must be lived with.

“One must therefore not seek in the United States uniformity and permanence of views, minute care of details, perfection of administrative procedures; what one finds there is the image of force, a little wild it is true, but full of power; [the image] of life accompanied by accidents, but also by movement and efforts.” – Tocqueville

One wonders if we are prepared for a “life accompanied by accidents”…

avatar D.W. Sabin November 7, 2009 at 5:45 pm

Jeremy Rich,
Good to have you posting. Your comments are precisely why we need a discussion that does not simply speak of pure localism and States Rights…but headlines those two with the powers and potentials of The Union, made all the more stronger by a fundamentally stronger local.

Perhaps it is a life “accompanied by accidents” rather than ruled by a prevailing accident: the abandonment of the ideals of the Republic and an embrace of the cosseted spectator.

Hierarchies by nature rank their constituent parts but a right and proper hierarchy does not accrue strength at the expense of its many important roots.

avatar Daniel November 8, 2009 at 11:07 am

I have seen the topic raised by Katherine Dalton discussed in forums elsewhere online, but mostly by irrational or half-informed and very angry individuals. As I noted in a comment at another blog this is the best I’ve read and it really made me think twice about the subject. Katherine Dalton’s explication is dispassionate, clear and well-reasoned. And I fail to see an argument against the “necessity of opposing power with power.”

avatar John Willson November 9, 2009 at 9:01 pm

Katherine (my 96 year old sweetheart aunt spells it “Catherine”), this is a fine, fine essay and you hit every point right. In going through the thread for the first time, it’s unfortunate, I think, that we have something of a generational problem going on. One of my good friends calls me an “antifederalist,” which I take to be a proud thing; Robert Frost called himself a “states’ rights Democrat” to the end of his long life, and didn’t find it necessary to apologize for stuff that had never been a part of his country, which was New England and America (read “The Gift Outright”). I gag when I hear the word “empower,” and do worse when somebody says “pluralism” or “diversity.” D.W. Sabin is right to caution against changing terms quickly and without sufficient thought.

As to the nonsense about being linked up with segregationists and noose-makers, here’s a small case in point. The first thing I ever published was what we now call an “op-ed,” in the Rochester (NY) Democrat & Chronicle in 1957. I was seventeen and the piece couldn’t have been worth a darn, but they printed it because I was defending MLK, Jr. The SCLC had just won in Montgomery, and I was trying to make a point that they could win in other places, too. The problem was that MLK was a megalomaniac (and several other things, good and bad) and gave in to the commies and progressives around him and “went national.” The progressives used him just as they are using “climate change” now–to increase central power. Centralizers play hardball.

Don’t give away the language, and don’t give away serious localism. Katherine has it right.

avatar Albert November 10, 2009 at 10:41 am

Nathanael, to spell it out for you, my point is not to deny the reality of uncharity, but to say that going forward we need to be clear and forceful about what our language means and what it doesn’t mean, since it is impossible to move forward when we are flagellating ourselves over the bad faith absurdity of uncharitable enemies. If you really think we can do without the language of secession, I suggest it’s you who needs to take another look at reality.

avatar Talbot Buxomly November 10, 2009 at 10:48 am

“…states’ rights and secession—which, in the context of a piece on a Southern group, would likely be read as code words for racial peonage and prejudice.”

A great article about an important topic, but why continue to repeat the misleading residue of the northern victory? Racial peonage and prejudice was common in New England in antebellum (and later) times; why not tag New England federalism with this label?

I attended the SNC as a delegate and knew of no avoidance of secession and States’ Rights—the former we are not yet ready for, and the latter we are upholding in the name of the Founders. The American Confederacy did not invent the term, it was only upholding the intended limited government of the Founders.

avatar Carl Scott November 10, 2009 at 5:03 pm

So, Berryville, U.S.A., located on the most authoritative maps in Kentucky but smack dab on its border with W. Virginia, secedes from the Union on July 4th, 2076. In 2077, W. Virginia also secedes, and so does Shelbyville, also located in Kentucky on its border with W. Virginia, and right next to Berryville. In 2078, Shelbyville, long known as a town with bullying tendencies, attacks Berryville, and siezes 30% of its territory. This provokes a plea by Berryville for military aide from the independent republic of W. Virginia, which arrives in the form of state-of-the-art guns, bought via Berryville’s massive loan secured from a British bank. Shelbyville’s governing council, driven by Berryville’s now well-armed militia to hide within the stone walls of its stately courthouse, places a call to the U.S. President, and negociates a Treaty whereby they will become a territory of the U.S., be guaranteed U.S. citizenship again, and in the meantime be protected by U.S. armed forces. Shortly after the first black helicopters are spottted over the ridge, the Berryville town council grants a gruff-talkin’ retired Col. Stablen emergency dictatorial powers, and his secret negociations with the West Virginians begin. Meanwhile an anti-Stablen faction of Berryvilleans, concentrated on the South side of town, begins to darkly mutter of their intention to secede.

Ms. Dalton, you’ve read the first 20 or so Federalist Papers, right? Enjoyed some evenings with Livy’s history, yes? Reflected upon the fact that Adam and Eve’s first son was named Cain? (And he was a farmer!)

Or let’s try another scenario: in 2032, an FBI agent delivers a report to President Jack Andrews. The rumors are true: 10 municipal councils and one Indian reservation have been confirmed to be conspiring, with perhaps up to 40 other localities involved, to simultaneously declare on this rapidly approaching July 4th the nullification of over 12% of the laws in Federal Register, along the lines of the basic pattern suggested some years ago by the (now-banned) Original Front Porch Legal Fund. Obviously, no longer will this strategy be attempted by lone municipalties–the Draconian sentences given the “Berryville Fifteen” has ensured that. It is confirmed that at least half of the said municipalties have citizens ready to arrest federal agents trying to enforce said regulations at gunpoint. Scenes reminiscient of the citizens’ arrests of forest dept. officials by Tijerina and his hispano activists in late 60s New Mexico could repeat all over the U.S.A. Five other towns have been covertly training themselves nonviolent resistance techniques. The growing ability of the Porch party to swing elections in six of the states will undoubtedly embolden some of their leaders to demand partial recognition of these nullifications if they go forward, which could lead to further internationally embarrassing arrests and trials. The FBI chief explains that it would only take the arrest of 30 or so key organizers to shut down the whole thing, but action must be taken immediately. The president’s chief political adviser lays out why there is no good option for simply allowing the protests to occur, and why ramping down the growth of federal regulations as a conciliatory response will only provoke more such attempts. In fact, legislation expanding the internal surveillance powers of the FBI should be pushed through Congress at the earliest possible date. President Andrews sighs heavily, and says to the FBI chief, “So be it. You may commence the Operation.”

avatar John Willson November 10, 2009 at 5:52 pm

Nicely imagined, Mr. Scott. “Imagined” is the operative word for the “Operation.” One imagines that you have also read the letters of “Brutus” and other antifederalists, and therefore know something about the real debates of that time. Now, try this: A legislator who is convinced that deaths in car accidents can be cut by X% when people use seatbelts, introduces a bill in the state legislature to “require” their use, but of course with no penalties for noncompliance because otherwise he couldn’t get his bill considered. Once passed, the seatbelt law escalates, and four legislative sessions later their use is not only required, but noncompliance is its own reason to stop a driver, the fines are heavy, and there is no longer any debate about whether seatbelts save lives or cost lives or are neutral. The state has won.
Now, the only difference between your scenarios and mine is that mine is true.

avatar D.W. Sabin November 10, 2009 at 6:17 pm

Mr. Scott,
While you’re at your historical references, might you also read about Quinctius Cincinnatus who performed his duties to the nation and then went quietly and quickly back home to farm, quite unlike the bagmen of Empire that have the nation in a debt fever today. We can always dream up excesses all around…the issue before us is whether or not we can dream up something a wee bit more chaste for a change. Something that does not make Washington D.C. the only place with a job prospect. Something that does not tell the local it is immaterial….something that does not cause a generation of Americans to wonder if the bloom is off the rose for good. Something, of course, that does not always involve armed conflict.

avatar Carl Scott November 10, 2009 at 6:25 pm

So while I admire your essay, Ms. Dalton, I really do not see why a defense of vigorous American federalism cannot be conducted simply along the lines of “states rights” (which by no means should remain a dirty word–some of the commenters above need to understand that it’s 2009). I do not see why we have to mention the Secession word or the Nullification word to take the great American tradition of federalism seriously. There really is no FPR contributer or FPR sympathizer (yours truly) who arrives at favoring states rights via a pure contract theory of state sovereignty and how it is passed down and altered, i.e., arrives there AS a Kentuckian or a Virginian concerned about the illegitimate surrenders of our state power back in the years 1789, 1865, etc., etc.,…rather all of us get there by the basic subsidiarity logic, and by the logic that in many ways regards the locality as more fundamental (a la Berry) than the state. And some of us are helped to get there also by, er…what a whole hell of a lot of conservative Republicans have been saying for years about federalism questions. All of us get there via our American questions about American things, however informed by exp. w/ local problems…I picked up a Berry’s nationallly published book in a CA beach bookstore. I don’t seem to remember his argument being addressed to Kentuckians.

The teeth Porcher theory needs are legal and are within the system set up by the mostly Federalist founders of 1787, and by its Republican defenders of 1858-65. (And maybe you can add a dollop of the 1798 Jeffersonianism into the mix, but things fall apart when you go to Calhoun.) Every sharp tooth you need is there, although you have to win a daunting number of electoral victories local and national to get them in fighting shape again. You have to get a Supreme Court that is basically originalist on federalism issues, or perhaps pass an amendment or two. You do not need a theory that grounds the rights of the states in a more fundamental right to nullify or to secede. Your job, I submit, will be to explain what non-secessionist states rights are, given our particular constitutional history, and why they can be revitalized and serve a larger localist agenda(one that will require defending localities from states also–talk to any environmentalist in VA) I.e., your talk of secession will be to establish a limit point. You are right to say the word is not verbotten to Porcher theory, but it must remain verbotten to its politics, except as a footnote relating to extreme emergency far-in-future possibilities. That is, 1865 means that there can be no talk of a right to secession that is not fundamentally revolutionary, i.e., a violence-backed turning to the most basic political principles which can only legitimately occur after the Constutition’s polity has actually has fallen apart or become otherwise unrestorable.

avatar Carl Scott November 10, 2009 at 6:34 pm

John, thanks. And, Ms. Dalton, what I mean by “every sharp tooth you need” has only to do with what is needed for restoring states’ power. As for what is needed to protect the local community from the state, from internal dissensions, and more significantly, from the international corporation-dominated economy, those are much more fundamental and probably dismaying question.

avatar Nathanael Blake November 10, 2009 at 8:57 pm

Albert, first there are quite a few times where it is of political expedience to be vague instead of clear.

However, I suspect that the real issue between us might not be the realities of politics, but what we ought to be moving forward to. If you want to move forward to secession, you may be right that it is impossible without the language of secession (though I think that secession that didn’t call itself such would probably poll better). Either way, I think your goal wrongheaded and unrealistic. If you wish to move toward increased localism within the American federal system, you shouldn’t touch secession with a pole of any length.

avatar Bob Cheeks November 10, 2009 at 9:13 pm

Well, I’m so glad to see the debate developing in such interesting trajectories. Hell, I can’t even get the township not to add on a 1% license plate tax while BO and the commie-dems go about the business of leaving me and mine in reduced circumstances.

avatar Mike November 11, 2009 at 8:55 am

With all due respect to the author and this site, while all the “rebranding?” This is a pointless endeavor that devalues the historical connotations of “Federalism” and “State’s Rights.” Calling it anything else devalues the possible lessons both terms carry to those whom are ignorant to their meanings.

I have never encountered a person trying to educate themselves on the “Subsidiarity Papers,” but I have come across many reading the Federalist Papers for the first time. Pursuing this avenue is as ridiculous as Liberal Third Wayers referring to themselves as Progressives.

One of the poignant and more aesthetically appealing faces of conservatism is its total and utter dependence on historical trends, both good and bad. These provide us with a looking glass into the possible future. Renaming it because it offends some is playing right into the hands of the Left by adopting one of their most ludicrous strategies, renaming something that polling has indicated is unpopular or offensive.

In the end you are destroying the very roots of relevant history to conservatives. Quite living in fear. Celebrate our heritage as conservatives, push the optimism about the future it embodies, and educate those, properly, on what it really means.

Anything else and you doom it to wandering in the wilderness and eventually death from philosophical starvation.

Thank You.

avatar Caleb Stegall November 11, 2009 at 9:36 am

Carl, those contributions are valuable. Where do I sign up for the Berryville Fifteen?

I certainly agree that there is a lot of legal work that must be done to lay the groundwork. And political work. Local elections matter. We need candidates.

I’m not sure that you are right that we all “get there” as Americans first. I may be an exception, but my state is my home country, always has been and always will be.

avatar Carl Scott November 11, 2009 at 3:11 pm

Caleb, glad you enjoyed it. I wrote that one “get there” sentence thinking there might be a few exceptions to the rule, and that you might be one of them.

Certainly I know that culturally, there is great deal about myself that is Californian to the core, wherever I am. But I never felt my primary political belonging to be Californian.

Rather, I fondly remember having a dream about my elementary school classmates and I defending our suburb from the Redcoats–we looked down the bank at the British advancing over the sidewalk and into the Eucalyptus trees, raised our muskets, and fired away. Those 5th-grade history lessons really got under my skin, apparently!

Leave a Comment

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: