This essay first appeared in Local Culture 4.1, where it was published alongside responses by Allan Carlson, Jeff Polet, and Michael P. Federici.
Woodway, TX. Surveying the growth of separatism in the United States from a front row seat as a professor at South Carolina College in the 1840s, the German-born political philosopher Francis Lieber was haunted by his sense that history was repeating itself. “If there be a book which I would recommend before all others, to read at this juncture,” Lieber told a crowd at a Fourth of July celebration in South Carolina in 1851,”that book is Thucydides.” In the Greek historian’s account of a war that pitted the neighboring city-states of Athens and Sparta against one another Lieber saw a grim prophecy of what lay ahead for his adopted country. A devoted unionist who would leave the South before the war, Lieber lamented the relevance of Thucydides’ observation that, despite a shared language, the Spartans and Athenians no longer understood one another.
One hundred and seventy years later it might be time to dust off Thucydides once more. The United States has been in crisis since it began, of course, and we’ve never lacked voices prophesying immanent doom. Even so, it is not a good sign that a recent survey by the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics found that half of Trump voters and four in ten Biden voters think it’s time to split the country up into Red and Blue Americas.
Reflecting this mood, three books published before the 2020 presidential election all treat seriously the possibility that the United States might come apart at the seams. Two of them even wonder if splitting up might be a good thing. Even more remarkably, from quite different points on the political spectrum all three of the authors seem to agree that an increased emphasis on localism, accomplished through various political and constitutional mechanisms, may be a way forward in our current moment, although they differ significantly in their enthusiasm for this alternative. These books are only one part of a growing consensus that something must be done to lower the stakes in our national politics before things spin out of control.
David French’s Divided We Fall: America’s Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation is the book-length equivalent of a sober man trying to break up a barfight before somebody gets hurt. One of the most prominent voices in the Republican Never-Trump movement, French now describes himself as politically homeless, although still conservative. From that vantage point he describes the increasing polarization of our politics. In one of the more chilling passages of the book, chilling because it so accurately describes our reality, he compares the opposing grievance narratives of the American right and left to the narratives he heard from Sunni and Shia Muslims during his deployment in Iraq. Each side in Iraq, he writes, had a “substantially true narrative of grievance and atrocity” about the other side that ensured a politics of mutual destruction. All that mattered was that the other side lose.
In the US these narratives are undergirded by demographic and cultural shifts, not to mention social media. French cites the idea of the “big sort”: that perpetually-on-the-move Americans tend to migrate to places that match their political identities, making red states redder and blue states bluer over time. In my own state of Texas, for instance, a CNN poll found that in the 2018 Senate contest between Ted Cruz and Beto O’Rourke transplants to the state voted for Cruz by a whopping 15-point margin, while a slim majority of longtime residents voted for O’Rourke. If Democrats want Texas to go blue, they might need the conservative Californians to stay put. French also argues that as states and cities become redder or bluer they succumb to Cass Sunstein’s “law of group polarization,” which posits that politically homogeneous groups engaged in collective decision-making tend to become more extreme in their shared views, positions, and policies.
Only the slow withering of other forms of identity—rooted in what Robert Nisbet once called the “mediating” institutions of family, church, community—could make a person pick up and move because he or she can’t abide living with Democrats or living in a state governed by a Republican legislature. In fact, as these other sources of identity have diminished, party affiliation and politics have become frighteningly important to modern Americans, to the point that they will switch out other parts of their lives to fit their political affiliations. They will reject family members, change churches, move to another state, and exaggerate or downplay their ethnicity in order to fit a perceived value system that is mostly absorbed from cable news and social media. I wish French had spent a little more time considering the forces that are eating away at these traditional sources of identity in the first place.
French plays out plausible scenarios for secession in fictional chapters that imagine scenarios for a “Calexit” and a “Texit,” both of which set off a string of consequences that end the United States as we know it. He follows this with a horrifying chapter titled “The World on Fire,” in which he lays out the possible consequences of a world without a Pax Americana.
French argues that we can avoid this future. In a display of idealism that is nothing short of heroic from someone active on Twitter, he encourages Americans to rediscover the lost values of pluralism and tolerance and to put those values into practice in the form of a renewed emphasis on both federalism and the Bill of Rights. “Under healthy federalism,” French writes, “American citizens would enjoy guaranteed civil liberties that didn’t waver or vary from state to state and they would enjoy a much greater degree of local control … [and] public policy would be variable, customized for local interests and local values.” He examines in detail how left- and right-wing versions of his ideas might work in the areas of healthcare and immigration, but he mostly shies away from more difficult issues, such as gun control and abortion, that would most directly challenge the boundary he sets out when he writes that “federalism ends where the Bill of Rights begins.”
By the end of the book French’s idealism emerges as something more akin to Christian hope in the face of despair than mindless optimism. He admits that federalism today is little more than a political tactic adopted by the losing side in the last election. He acknowledges that there seems to be little supply or demand for the kind of transcendent political leadership that implementing a new direction would require. His call for political courage at the end of the book reads like William Barrett Travis’s famous last letter from the Alamo, plaintive in its anticipated lack of reinforcements.
Quite different from French’s earnest appeal for unity is George Mason University law professor F.H. Buckley’s American Secession: The Looming Threat of a National Breakup. Buckley is a conservative who has previously applauded Trump’s transformation of the GOP into something akin to a workers’ party, and who even penned speeches for Trump during the businessman’s 2016 campaign. An American citizen, Buckley was born and educated in Canada, and his awareness of Canadian history and constitutional government lends the book a valuable perspective, namely that constitutional democracies can take different forms from the one we currently have. His writing style is deceptively informal and easygoing, disguising one of the better popular overviews of the political and constitutional issues surrounding secession I’ve read. Unlike French, Buckley isn’t so sure that secession would be a bad thing in a country so deeply divided.
To Americans who mostly believe that the history of secession began and ended with their Civil War, Buckley offers a gentle reminder that the centrifugal forces of separatism have accelerated in the 21st century, and that they are not restricted to the right end of the political spectrum. One has only to look at the results of the Brexit referendum, ongoing independence movements in Scotland and Catalonia, or the efforts of the progressive Yes California campaign after Trump’s election to see his point.
Then there is Canada. Most Americans are probably unaware that their neighbor to the North worked out a framework for peaceful separation after a 1995 referendum on secession narrowly failed in Quebec. Afterwards, the Canadian government submitted the question of the referendum’s legitimacy to the Canadian Supreme Court, which ruled that while a province did not have a unilateral right to secede, the sacred principle of democratic self-determination demanded that in the event of a successful referendum the federal government must enter into negotiations to work out mutually acceptable terms of separation.
Buckley argues that secession in the United States today might be met with a similar response by the Supreme Court, notwithstanding its 1869 decision in Texas v. White that secession is illegal. He also raises the possibility that a vote for secession could trigger a convention under Article V of the Constitution that might result in a constitutional amendment laying out a process for peaceful separation. Whatever one thinks of the merits of these options, Buckley is at least convincing in his argument that Americans are naive to think it couldn’t happen.
Of the three books here, Buckley’s is the only one that unabashedly makes the case for decentralization as an intrinsic good as opposed to an alternative to disaster. He breezily outlines the 18th-century debate between David Hume and Montesquieu about the proper size of a republic, clearly preferring the French answer: that smaller, relatively homogenous republics, where the people can actually know each other and their rulers, inspire the attachment and virtue necessary for good government. Buckley is at his best when laying out parts of Montesquieu’s argument that strike a progressive or localist chord today, such as the French philosopher’s warning about the size of private fortunes that would be amassed in a large republic. “A man will first feel that he can be happy, great, and glorious without his country,” Montesquieu wrote, “and shortly that he can be happy over the ruins of his country.” If there is a better summary of the civic perils of neglecting scale and inequality, I haven’t read it.
At the 1787 constitutional convention in Philadelphia Montesquieu’s views surfaced frequently, as when Roger Sherman of Connecticut countered James Madison’s grand national vision by observing simply that “the people are more happy in small than large states.” Buckley agrees, laying out the correlation between “bigness and badness” and citing statistics from the United Nation’s World Happiness Report to prove his point. Among citizens of the wealthy countries in the survey, those in such smaller countries as Finland tend to report higher levels of subjective well-being (how happy and satisfied they felt with life), while citizens of larger countries like China, Russia, and the United States come in well behind. In successive chapters Buckley makes the case that smaller countries in the developed world are less corrupt, less militaristic and imperialist, and more free.
And yet Buckley also presents the pitfalls that would accompany secession, even in a peaceful scenario. Bigger countries have larger free-trade zones, more diversified economies, and the advantage of economies of scale. Would the citizens of poorer states really be willing to give up the equalizing effects of such federal spending measures as Medicare and Social Security that transfer money from such wealthy states as California and New York to less wealthy states like Alabama?
In the end, Buckley concludes, somewhat tepidly it must be said, that outright secession isn’t the best path forward. Instead, he lays out a number of alternatives, which he calls “Secession Lite,” that would go well beyond David French’s renewal of federalism in devolving power to state and local governments.
The first of these is nullification or state interposition, a controversial idea with a long, messy history in the United States. Buckley points out correctly that in recent years nullification in all but name has been deployed by such states as California to thwart federal immigration and environmental laws and also by states on the right to avoid implementation of the Affordable Care Act and federal gun legislation. Many of these measures adopt the logic of Justice Joseph Story’s 1842 Supreme Court decision in Prigg v. Pennsylvania, which affirmed so-called “personal liberty laws” in northern states. These laws barred state officials from cooperating with the recovery of fugitive slaves by the federal government, effectively hamstringing enforcement of federal law without openly defying it. Buckley suggests that the legal limbo and confusion surrounding these recent impasses isn’t a bad thing if it affords more local autonomy in the short term and leads, eventually, to greater clarity of the line between federal and state power.
More interestingly, Buckley looks abroad for other possible models for decentralizing power. One is the example of “home rule” agreements offered to Canada and Ireland by the British government as a “halfway house to independence.” These agreements devolved significant power to local governments while maintaining control over foreign policy and other matters vital to the whole, and Buckley suggests that the United States could implement such an agreement through a constitutional convention.
Another avenue is the process by which Canada adopted a Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982. In that process, aside from a core group of nonnegotiable rights, such as gender equality, mobility, and a few others, Canadian provinces were free to opt out of rights many Americans deem essential, including rights to free speech and free assembly. This cafeteria-style approach might seem distasteful to Americans, Buckley acknowledges, but it provides a real-world model of how to decentralize power meaningfully while maintaining common markets, mobility, and a few nonnegotiable freedoms.
Buckley acknowledges that the Canadian approach would only accelerate the self-sorting that is already happening, and he admits that in a country where national identity is uniquely bound up in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights this could be a death blow to a common American identity. But he points out that we wouldn’t be talking seriously about secession if a common American identity still existed. In the event of secession today we would face the question that Lincoln faced: can a Union worthy of the name be held together by force? Our answer, Buckley suggests, might not be Lincoln’s.
Richard Kreitner, a writer for The Nation, occupies the opposite side of the political spectrum from French and Buckley. Kreitner’s Break It Up: Secession, Division, and the Secret History of America’s Imperfect Union is an extended gallop through American history intended to show that Americans have never been truly united and that it might finally be time to acknowledge that fact and go our own ways. Tracing the history of separatist and secession movements in American history, Kreitner aims, it seems to me, to convert readers on the left who write off secession as the domain of Confederates and crazy right-wingers. He argues that moments of purported unity in our history have often come at the expense of justice and that disunion has just as often been seen by those seeking justice as a promising vehicle for social progress. The core of the book is Kreitner’s neo-abolitionist case for the moral and political legitimacy of secession as a means of achieving what he sees as the ultimate ends of political life: justice and equality.
To this end, Kreitner offers an account of the constitutional era that is quirkily contrarian. He echoes historian Charles Beard’s famous economic interpretation of the national charter, writing that the meeting in Philadelphia in 1787 was a “desperate crafting of a new charter that was more protective of the prerogatives of the rich and less responsive to the wealth-spreading inclinations of the aggrieved masses.” Meanwhile, his account of the ratification fight would thrill the antifederalists, as when he writes that proponents of the Constitution used “deceit, censorship, and force” to win acceptance of their creation. In contrast, Kreitner observes, the antifederalists were not anarchists or reactionaries. “Despite their negative sounding name,” he writes, “[they] had a positive vision for the Union.… They believed the Constitution concentrated too much power in the federal government, thus undermining local autonomy and official accountability.” Somewhere, Patrick Henry is nodding.
Kreitner’s determination to prove that the impulse to disunion is as American as apple pie results in a laundry list of secessionist misfires and near-misses throughout American history (and, of course, one big bullseye in 1860). His narrative is lively, and he has an eye for great quotations. Readers will encounter northern Federalists, fearful of both unruly democracy and the growing power of slaveholding states in the Union, plotting secession during Thomas Jefferson’s first term in office. They will read about the powerful strand of disunionist sentiment in the abolitionist movement, including William Lloyd Garrison’s disdain for the Constitution as a putrid covenant that implicated northerners in “a system of the most atrocious villainy ever exhibited on earth.” And, of course, Kreitner documents the first and last time the nation actually did break up.
Kreitner also documents some less well-known historical examples of separatism, such as the state constitutional convention in California in 1878 at which some delegates openly declared their preference for secession rather than compliance with federal immigration law that allowed Chinese immigration. Some of the most interesting examples in the book are various bids for self-determination by black Americans, such as a resolution at the first Black Power conference in 1967 calling for a “national dialogue” on separating the United States into two countries, one white and one black. In 1968 delegates even met in Detroit to form a provisional government for the Republic of New Afrika, made up of several Deep South states.
Kreitner argues that Americans today are engaged in a new “Cold Civil War,” and he frankly raises the question of whether it would be better to go our separate ways. This might not mean complete separation, and Kreitner brings interesting voices from the left into this conversation, including the urbanist Richard Florida, who has argued for federalism as a way to revitalize our cities and as a way out of the toxic morass of our politics.
But Kreitner also means this history to free his readers “from the shackles of post-Appomattox orthodoxy and complacent, consensus-minded clichés.” Secession, he argues, might be the only way to meet the moral demands of the present. He asks whether our dysfunctional union is up to the task of combatting climate change, racial injustice, and economic inequality, and in each category he argues that not only is our current system not up to the challenge but that it is actively frustrating solutions both at home and around the globe. Short of systemic changes, such as dramatically expanding the House of Representatives and eliminating the Senate, Kreitner suggests that Americans on the left must ask the question, “What is it all worth?”
Some Front Porchers have been asking the same thing for a while. After all, in one sense secession is only an extreme political manifestation of things that many Front Porchers value: a sense of identity rooted in place, local economies, government at human scale. The beating heart of secession in this view is the combination of local identity with the democratic principle of self-determination. Back in 2009 Katherine Dalton, writing for FPR’s website, said that “secession is localism with teeth. It is localism taken to its logical end, once all petitions have been stamped Rejected.”
But who, we should ask, will end up with bite marks in this scenario? In answering this question, localists should consider carefully the forces that often drive modern separatism. As the Canadian Supreme Court realized, the idea of self-determination draws its legitimacy from the deep well of our devotion to democracy. But upstream even from that is the modern belief, arguably the central principal of liberal societies in the modern world, that individual identity should have as few limits as possible imposed on it from outside the sovereign self. It is no coincidence that in the United States a rise in secessionist sentiment has paralleled the rise of the so-called “sovereign citizen” movement, which denies the legitimacy of any interpretive authority beyond the individual when it comes to the Constitution. Furthermore, it seems to me that secessionist movements in such places as California or Texas are driven not by a desire to preserve unique regional identities or local economies but by political identity, essentially national party affiliation, which now fills the gaping hole left in the American psyche by the evaporation of other loyalties. In a world in which our identities and enmities are fed to us through fiber-optic cables, secession movements have become competing drives for total homogenization, in which every Red or Blue state would adopt or reject the same policies as every other Red or Blue state.
This should give us pause. Without identifying the nation-state as an unquestionable good, localists inclined towards secession might consider that instead of enabling the sorts of stable identities, organic communities, and attentive governments they might hope to achieve through secession, they could instead find themselves unleashing the political equivalent of the modern rootless self. “I am a good swimmer,” Francis Lieber told the crowd in 1851, warning that secession would spark a never-ending cycle of separatism, “but I should not like to spend my life in whirlpools.”
Born in Prussia in 1800, a young Lieber watched from the window of his family’s apartment as Napoleon’s army marched into Berlin, a moment of humiliation that impressed on him a lifelong appreciation for large, strong countries that could resist invasion and provide stability for their citizens. As a young man he watched in despair as his native country dissolved into rivalries between what he in disgust called “petty sovereignties” after the fall of Napoleon. “With you,” he warned his South Carolina audience, “the evils of disunion are happily but matter of apprehension; with me, unhappily, a matter of living knowledge. I am like a man who knows the plague, because he has been in the East…. [Y]ou only know it from description.” Lieber lived to see his fellow Americans experience the plague for themselves.
Secession might look different in our day than it did in Lieber’s, of course. Over the last few decades scholars have cast a critical eye on the nation’s claim to be a natural organism, revealing the winding and often violently contested process of construction that has produced most modern nation-states. In some areas of the world nation-states were imposed by colonial rulers, and in a postcolonial era secession offers a remedy for oppressed or mutually hostile ethnic or religious groups that find themselves trapped by lines on a map. Combined with the powerful principle of self-determination, the acknowledgment that nations are built, sometimes imposed, and not born, has cast modern secession in a different light, lending a prima facie legitimacy to such processes as Canada’s that offer a peaceful path to separation. Summing up the bloody history of secession around the world over the past two centuries, the historian Don Doyle once noted “the astonishing compulsion of modern nations to resist fragmentation,” but there is some reason to believe that such compulsion may be weakening. A few years ago the legal scholar Sanford Levinson observed that views of secession have roughly tracked changing views of divorce over the past two centuries, at least in the United States. Viewing marriage as a sacred covenant, few people in the nineteenth century thought divorce should be legally or socially available. Today most people believe it should be not only legal, but in certain cases encouraged.
And yet there are no guarantees. Last year China imposed a draconian “security law” on Hong Kong that, among other things, explicitly outlawed secession. To see that violence is still a very real possibility accompanying modern secession one has only to look at Cameroon, where Anglophone separatists and a Francophone central government have been fighting a civil war for the past five years, or to Bosnia and Herzegovina, where it is feared that Serbian threats to secede may revive civil war. Francis Lieber argued in 1851 that secession was unavoidably a revolutionary act, and revolutions are by their very nature unpredictable. Without a constitutionally defined path to secession, that is still true today.
If the status quo is unsustainable and secession a dark unknown, then a renewed emphasis on federalism in some form seems the wiser path. As a method of defusing competing drives for homogenization, federalism has the advantage of not being revolutionary, even if it is controversial. It is a principle deeply embedded in the Constitution, our history, and, increasingly, our actual practice (more on that below). There are few roadblocks, constitutionally speaking, to the kind of scenario David French lays out, in which the federal government allows different states and municipalities to take quite different approaches to public policy.
Historically, of course, federalism has been embraced more eagerly by such conservatives as French and Buckley than by such progressives as Kreitner, but this may be changing. After all, Trump-era Republicans have shown very little hesitancy in wielding the power of the federal government to achieve their own cultural priorities. There are good reasons, in other words, for progressives to embrace a politics that, while it may not achieve everything they want, at least protects them from what they do not want.
Just as significant, reactions against the impersonal tyranny of the algorithm and exploitative mass consumerism in the age of Amazon may have primed some on the left to see big government not as a solution to these problems but as part of the same genus and prone to the same flaws. David French hints at this when he notes that “even as we crave localism and customization in our consumer and residential lives, all too many of us stubbornly resist the idea that the federal government should follow suit.” Federalism might even be a way to decrease the civic damage done by such platforms as Facebook, which directly benefits from a centralized governmental structure that to the exact extent it wields homogenizing power also creates a vast potential audience for political messaging.
Among the most interesting voices advocating federalism on the left today are the self-proclaimed “nationalist federalists.” Their ranks include the likes of Heather Gerken, Dean of Yale Law School, whose Twitter profile announces that she is a “progressive who believes in federalism.” Gerken’s vision of federalism, outlined in law review articles and lectures, dismisses traditional paradigms of state sovereignty pitted against federal sovereignty in a zero-sum contest (Federalism 1.0, she calls it), as well as a view that would portray federalism as a threat to civil rights (Federalism 2.0). Instead, she argues that we should acknowledge, and embrace, the reality of a situation in which the federal government today is largely dependent on state administrative capacity to carry out its goals, and in which states have a host of ways to resist and modify policies they dislike, and to originate policies that they would like to see adopted more widely (Federalism 3.0).
Gerken outlines with approval how states and cities already use “uncooperative federalism” or “uncooperative localism” to resist federal policies, forcing on the federal government a calculation of whether the risk of enforcement is worth the expenditure of political capital. Often, as in the case of marijuana laws or sanctuary cities, administrations of both parties have decided it is not. Gerken also argues convincingly that while under a federalist system states can limit certain rights, they can also originate them. Using the adoption of gay marriage by state governments as an example, she argues that historically rights are not granted from the top down but from the ground up. “National policy, after all,” she writes, “is a giant gear to move. As with a clock, you need movement from lots of small, interlocking gears to move a bigger one. Federalism and the First Amendment are those interlocking gears.” Gerken’s nationalist federalism is mostly about sanctioning more explicitly the way the system already works, in which friction and divergent interpretations of the constitution are features, not bugs. The good she is seeking is not merely the advancement of a progressive political agenda. “There’s nothing inherently progressive or conservative about federalism,” she writes. Instead, “it moves all kinds of debates forward, from gun rights to gay rights.” Gerken sees it as a good thing for democracy, and for the country. “Uncooperative federalism may sound antithetical to certain legal values,” she writes, “but it’s not antithetical to democratic ones.”
Can a renewed or more explicitly acknowledged federalism keep us from the whirlpool of secession? We should all hope so. But what if we have already been sucked in? “The worry,” Heather Gerken writes, “is that our politics are quickly overtaking the institutions that were designed to channel them.” Indeed, since Gerken wrote this in 2017 one might argue that between the politics of COVID and the chaos of the 2020 election her fears and the fears of David French have been fully realized, secession or not. After all, secession is only the political manifestation of a deeper problem, a breakdown in legitimacy and a crisis of sovereignty, of consent, without which government of any kind cannot function. Secession is a result of this deeper crisis, not its cause or its coincident. Therefore, it is only in hindsight that we will be able to tell if, in these first months of 2022, we were already wandering in the dim shadows of the no-man’s land that exists between the dissolving form of an old sovereignty and the coalescing form of the new.
In the meantime, there is plenty we can do. In his excellent recent book, After Nationalism, the political scientist Samuel Goldman expresses skepticism about the possibility that our problems can be solved by following any blueprint, whether towards a renewed national identity or a diffused one. Dismissing the idea of a unified national identity as mostly a historical chimera, and warning that efforts to renew a national identity are at best unpredictable and potentially dangerous, Goldman instead calls for us to live with the “messy, frustrating plurality” of American life and instead to invest our energies and identity into much smaller communities of meaning and purpose. He writes, “These smaller, more coherent groups, rather than abstractions of loyalty and solidarity, are the appropriate setting for cultivating particular virtues that we cannot reasonably expect more than three hundred million people spread over much of a continent to share.”
Paradoxically, reinvesting our identity in local institutions, local communities, local politics, and local environments may also be a path back to some form of mutual feeling in our national politics. In a 2012 lecture for the National Endowment for the Humanities titled “It All Turns on Affection,” the tutelary spirit of this publication, Wendell Berry, argued that our ability to imagine ethical or civic responsibilities to fellow human beings whom we will never meet can only exist as an extension of our affection for the unique qualities of the people, places, and communities where we live out our daily lives. “By that local experience,” he wrote, “we see the need to grant a sort of preemptive sympathy to all the fellow members, the neighbors, with whom we share the world.” Engaging the world of politics is, of course, necessary if we want to make possible the sort of life – life on a human scale – that Berry advocates. But it may also be that in order to engage in politics properly, in order to answer rightly the momentous questions posed by our time, we need first to live in the world as it presents itself to us in the limited sphere of our everyday lives.