When Marjorie Taylor Greene recently tweeted, “We need a national divorce,” she set off a furor. “We need to separate by red states and blue states and shrink the federal government. Everyone I talk to says this,” the Georgia congressional representative said.
Subsequent tweets clarified she was not calling for a new civil war or creation of two separate nations, but a radical devolution of federal power that would leave states in control of domestic policy and retain a common national defense. While her statements might seem extreme, they represent a substantial element of the political right that even has reflections on the left. The sense we no longer have much in common as a country, but as Greene puts it, suffer from “irreconcilable differences,” spans the spectrum.
With this post, I start a series to explore three recent books that survey the potential for a U.S. breakup and what it might mean for politics in coming years. Two are written by authors coming from a conservative perspective. Neither advocate a breakup and recommend steps to avoid one. They are American Secession: The Looming Threat of a National Breakup by F.H. Buckley and Divided We Fall: America’s Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation by David French. The third, written from a progressive viewpoint, is Break It Up: Secession, Division and The Secret History of America’s Imperfect Union by Richard Kreitner. He documents how secession movements have emerged from left and right, and how they are emerging again. Kreitner makes his own proposals for retaining national unity.
Importantly, all were published in 2020. The publishing industry has its fads, and this clearly was one, likely in anticipation of a fractious presidential election whose results might be contested. The only previous breakup, the secession of the Southern states that precipitated the Civil War, came about due to the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln, a result the South could not accept. The January 6 uprising at the U.S. Capitol indicates the publishers’ anticipation was not too far wrong. National divisions have not subsided since, and could return with a vengeance in 2024. These three books have a continuing relevance, as the Greene tweet underscores.
This post will review the Buckley work. Coming posts will review the other two books.
A secession moment
Secession movements are rising around the world, notes Buckley. He cites the movement for Scottish independence, the breakup of Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union, and separatist sentiments in nations ranging from Pakistan and Indonesia to Turkey and Nigeria. “Go down the list and there are secession groups in nearly every country. And are we to think that, almost alone in the world, we’re immune from this?” To prove his point, Buckley cites secession efforts in California and Cascadia, coming from the left, and Texas, coming from the right.
“We’re now living in a secessionist moment in world history,” writes Buckley.
“Countries threaten to split apart when their people seem hopelessly divided,” he writes. “We’re less united today than we’ve been at any time since the Civil War, divided by politics, religion and culture. In all the ways that matter, save for the naked force of the law, we’re already divided into two nations just as much as in 1861.”
National divisions have caused political gridlock with divided government unable to meet in the middle of key issues such as health care and immigration reform. That has produced the first constitutional crisis since the Civil War. “And , as in 1861, that’s a recipe for secession.”
While the idea of secession “has been consigned to the political loony bin since the Civil War,” the idea is increasingly respectable, Buckley asserts. “The barriers to a breakup are far lower than most people would think, and if the voters in a state were determined to leave the Union they could probably do so.”
Writes Buckley, “I see us on a train, bound for a breakup. The switches that might stop us have failed, and if we want to stay united we must learn how to slow the engine.” His recommended solution, underscoring that Greene’s viewpoint is far from isolated, is “a devolution of power to the states.”
A revisionist history
James Buchanan is widely regarded as one of the worst if not the worst president in U.S. history for the way he, as Lincoln’s predecessor, let the nation drift into Civil War. Buchanan believed that Lincoln’s election did not give the Southern states the right to secede. But he also believed that the Constitution did not provide the federal government the right to use military force against the states. That sentiment was widely shared. The New York Herald wrote, “the citizens of the free states are not prepared for civil war, nor will they consent to imbue their hands in the blood of their brethren at the South.” Even Lincoln seemed to agree, but that was before South Carolina shelled Fort Sumter, spurring rage across the North and leading to military mobilization.
The cost of the war was unanticipated. Buckley writes, “If people in 1860 preferred disunion to war, they would have been still less inclined to fight had they known the war would kill 750,000 people – a sum higher than the total from all other American wars before and since . . . It is not too much to say that America blundered into the Civil War, as foolishly as the countries of Europe when they awoke to find themselves at war in 1914.”
“And now? Were a state to secede today, we would have two presidential models to choose from, Buchanan and Lincoln. Buchanan is remembered as a weak-minded failure, but is it so certain we’d want a Lincoln in office, ready to use any means necessary to preserve the Union, ready to sacrifice the lives of many thousands of soldiers? It’s not 1861 anymore.”
Buckley returns to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 to draw a conclusion that seems to be backed by history. The drafters did not conceive of the Union as an unbreakable bond, and believed the new nation would break in two if they did not succeed in drafting a Constitution acceptable to all. They viewed the document “as a compact (italics author’s) among thirteen states, and they believed that when one state thought its rights had been traduced by the federal government it could withdraw from the compact . . . “ In fact, Virginia conditioned its ratification of the Constitution on the right to secede. “The constitutional originalist must therefore conclude that states have a right to secede.”
In the 1869 case of Texas v. White the Supreme Court did rule that secession was forbidden. “After the Civil War, a politicized Supreme Court discovered a principle of perpetual union. Insofar as this represents a victor’s constitution, it would be a less than reliable authority if Secession 2.0 were to come before the Court.”
The idea of secession is tarred by its association with slavery, so the thought it could be justified might raise profound discomfort. But it should be noted, if one is to believe the case put forth by African-American historian Gerald Horne in The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America, that the American Revolution was itself a secession from the British Empire by a national elite heavily reliant on slavery and concerned with growing abolitionist sentiment in Britain. Those were the same people who wrote the Constitution.
Bigness is badness
Buckley clearly comes from the conservative side of the aisle. But he espouses a sentiment that has broad appeal across the spectrum, that when systems and nations grow too large, they become abusers of their own and other people. He quotes Jean-Jacques Rousseau: “Greatness of Nations. Size of States! The first and principal source of the miseries of mankind.”
“Perhaps we’re just too damned big. After China and India, we’re the third largest country by population,” Buckley writes.
In this, he is resonant with authors such as E.F. Schumacher who wrote Small Is Beautiful, influential on many 1970 environmental and bioregional thinkers, and his intellectual predecessor, Leopold Kohr, who argued large states inevitably use their disproportionate power to oppress the smaller. Buckley presents a series of statistical indices to make a convincing case.
Larger countries devote a higher share of their national economies to military expenditures than smaller countries. He cites a 2018 study that shows the U.S. share is 3.1%.
Smaller countries have lower levels of corruption. The 9 least corrupt countries in the world are all small in population, and excepting Canada all small in geographical scale. The U.S. ranks 16th on this list.
Smaller countries tend to have governments more responsive to their citizens. By contrast, districts in the U.S. House of Representatives each have around 750,000. That is far more than the 30,000 proposed by George Washington at the Constitutional Convention and ratified unanimously. But returning to that ratio would create a body of unwieldy size.
Overall, small countries are happier. Of the 14 happiest countries in the world, only two, Switzerland and Canada, have populations over 10 million, while many are far smaller. The top 3 are Finland, Norway and Denmark. The U.S. ranks 18th. Obviously, wealth is a factor too, as many small countries are also immiserated by poverty. But is does tend to affirm the point that smaller is better.
A national devolution
The Constitution set up a federal system that was based on classic liberalism of human freedom set out in the Bill of Rights. That is what gave us a common identity as U.S. of Americans, Buckley maintains. But, he adds, conservative nationalists are moving away from those traditions, and along with it that common identity. “We’re overlarge, and we’ve sacrificed the trust and fellow feeling that a common national identity used to provide.”
Meanwhile, the traditional federal system is being supplanted by a more unitary state that imposes common standards, ruled from a national capital that has become “a sclerotic society of special interests . . . We may want a fresh start.”
Buckley proposes a radical devolution of power to the states while leaving the federal government with important powers. “Today, federalism is not healing the country’s divisions, so something else is needed, something more like home rule.”
That could be instituted by a new constitutional convention that rewrites the balance between state and federal governments. Buckley notes a call for a convention to institute a balanced budget amendment has been endorsed by 28 states, while 6 other states have made a similar call around other proposals. If they could all be taken together, that would make up the three-quarters of states needed to call a convention under Article V of the Constitution.
“As for what happens then, the sky’s the limit.”
Dangers and pitfalls
This would be a moment of maximum danger. The arguments for devolution to smaller political units are indeed potent. There are greater possibilities for democracy and people power at a state and regional scale than in the continental behemoth that is the United States. At the same time, the pitfalls of devolution must be taken seriously, as current events underscore.
Buckley notes that assertion of “states’ rights” was discredited by Jim Crow segregation laws. “Since then, however, the civil rights revolution has taken hold and it’s much less likely that secession would be employed to discriminate against a minority.”
That represents one of the weakest points in his argument. When the Supreme Court essentially gutted Voting Rights Act protections under the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision, Southern states were quick to begin imposing new restrictions that make it more difficult for Black people to vote. After the recent Dobbs v. Jackson decision overturning reproductive rights guaranteed under the Roe v. Wade decision, abortion restrictions went into effect in many states. Florida is attacking the use of equity, diversity and inclusion criteria in institutional governance.
Buckley acknowledges, “Different states might now go their own way on human rights . . . Diverse sets of rights would permit Americans to settle in jurisdictions whose policies match their own preferences.”
That assumes a certain level of resources and flexibility that many, such as millions of Black people in the South, might not have even if they wanted to move.
Environmental and climate protections would also be at risk. For instance, Greene gave as reasons for a national divorce opening up fossil fuel production and eliminating Environmental Social Governance rules. Federal public lands devolved to the states would be thrown open to logging, ranching and mining even more than they are now.
We are in an era of deep national division, much as Buckley writes. But much of the division stems from exactly these questions of human rights and environmental protections. We lack a national consensus, and are thus deeply split. That is why proposals for devolution and regional independence must be approached with the deepest caution. Much is to be said for creating powerful state and regional political entities empowered to direct their own development. Small is indeed beautiful, and works better for people in many ways, while bigness often generates badness. But at the same time, we need greater agreement on common values that protect people and planet. This is a conundrum that must be faced.
Build unity from the ground up
I think the answer is to be found in grassroots organizing that builds consensus on values from the ground up, rather than having it imposed from distant centers. If we are to have a more devolved future, this is where it must start, with people where they live. And that is where we must start. The U.S. future is uncertain, and centrifugal tendencies are on the rise.
“We’re likely to remain united,” Buckley concludes. “Nevertheless it would be foolish to dismiss the possibility of disunion. It’s the direction in which we’re headed, and the notion it couldn’t happen again is fanciful.”
Indeed, we must take the possibility seriously, and build links across urban and rural geographies, red and blue states, and other dividing lines. We don’t need a national divorce. We need a new basis of unity, and that ultimately will come by talking with one another.
This first appeared on The Raven.