A third of Americans now support the splitting up of the nation into like-minded countries independent of Washington
This article is taken from the May 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
More than 180 years ago, John Quincy Adams gave a speech to mark 50 years since the presidential inauguration of George Washington. “If the day should ever come, (may Heaven avert it) when the affections of the people of these states shall be alienated from each other; when the fraternal spirit shall give away to cold indifference, or collisions of interest shall fester into hatred,” he told a New York audience, “far better will it be for the people of the disunited states, to part in friendship from each other, than to be held together by constraint.” Collisions of interest festering into hatred? That sounds familiar. The Trump years were famously light on fraternal spirit and, as the divisions deepened, “parting in friendship” started to look awfully attractive to a growing number of Americans.
In January, America’s 46th president struck a different tone to its sixth. “Without unity, there is no peace, only bitterness and fury,” said Joe Biden in his inaugural address. “No progress, only exhausting outrage. No nation, only a state of chaos.” So far, these have proven little more than empty bromides. Within his first 100 days, the self-appointed unity president had lent his support to a corporate boycott of one of the 50 states, accused Republican governors of “Neanderthal thinking” and made only the faintest effort at bipartisanship in his early legislative moves.
If it wasn’t already obvious that the divides that brought America the Trump presidency weren’t going to disappear, the ugly transition from one administration to the next — including its violent denouement at the Capitol — has raised one of the most fraught possibilities in US politics: could the increasingly disunited states of America break apart?
Biden’s win led to calls for secession from the right. After the Supreme Court refused to overturn the election result, Texas’s GOP chairman, Allen West, suggested “law-abiding states should bond together and form a union of states that will abide by the constitution.” Shortly after the election (and weeks before his death), the conservative radio host, Rush Limbaugh, said he believed the country was “trending towards secession”, telling his listeners: “There cannot be a peaceful coexistence of two completely different theories of life, theories of government, theories of how we manage our affairs. We can’t be in this dire conflict without something giving, somewhere along the way.”
Bipartisan talk of secession has ominous echoes of the pre-Civil War era
Some on the left agree. The “Calexit” campaign for Californian independence gained traction after Trump’s 2016 victory (then faded after its leader’s ties to the Russian state emerged). The Cascadia movement for an independent state in the Northwestern corner of the country pushes an ecologically-inflected case for self-government. More broadly, the sense among Democrats that they can no longer abide a political system they see as unfairly stacked against them continues to grow.
For some, the party’s unified control of government — and the limitations they nonetheless face — only strengthens the argument. A recent essay in the progressive monthly The Nation argued that “the threat of secession” was “the only route to create a democratic and just politics”. “A blue-state secession campaign would be designed to negotiate an end to the Electoral College and our undemocratic Senate rules,” wrote Nathan Newman, a professor at CUNY.
According to a poll commissioned by Brightline Watch, almost one in three Americans support the break-up of the United States into like-minded regions. The same survey found that 41 per cent of West-Coast Democrats back the idea of a breakaway Pacific region while 50 per cent of Republicans in the South would back the equivalent move in their part of the country.
The left and right’s near-mirror-image talk of secession in the face of a rigged system demonstrates just how wide the chasm between Blue and Red America has grown.
This bipartisan secession talk has ominous echoes of the pre-Civil War era, when threats to break-away came from the North as well as the South. Abolitionists questioned the merits of a Union that allowed for the existence of slavery. Two years before the fighting started, the prominent abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison argued that “by the dissolution of the Union we shall give the finishing blow to the slave system; and then God will make it possible for us to form a true, vital, enduring, all-embracing Union from the Atlantic to the Pacific.”
F.H. Buckley, a professor at George Mason University’s Law School and the author of American Secession: The Looming Threat of a National Breakup, believes a Democrat-controlled state is more likely to secede than a Republican one. “The most plausible scenario would involve a 2024 Trumpist victory,” he says. That would be a tipping point that might tempt a blue state to threaten secession. “Once these things start, you never know where they’re going,” says Buckley.
In a war-game of post-election scenarios conducted by Washington, DC insiders last year, John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager in 2016, played the role of Joe Biden. Faced with a hypothetical narrow Trump electoral college win on a minority of the popular vote, Podesta said the Democratic party would not allow him to concede.
He proceeded to claim that voter suppression had swung the result and persuaded the Democratic governors of two Trump states to send Biden supporters to the electoral college, setting off a chain of events that included Washington, Oregon and California threatening to leave the Union if Trump was sworn in for a second term.
It’s not hard to imagine how a closer result last November might have triggered an even more profound crisis than the one America has just weathered. The bumpy path from November to January was by no means the worst-case scenario. And it is all to easy to see how, with each passing election, the losing side views their opponent’s victory as less and less legitimate.
Arguably the biggest impediment to secession is a legal one. In the post-Civil War case Texas v White, the Supreme Court denied the right of any state to secede. “The constitution was ordained ‘to form a more perfect Union’,” wrote Chief Justice Solomon Chase in the majority opinion. “It is difficult to convey the idea of indissoluble unity more clearly than by these words. What can be indissoluble if a perpetual Union, made more perfect, is not?” In 2006, the late Supreme Court Justice, Antonin Scalia, wrote that “If there was any constitutional issue resolved by the Civil War, it is no right to secede.” But would a state that wanted to leave be stopped? Should it be? And if so, by what means?
For all the parallels drawn between today’s divisions and pre-Civil War politics, that era ended in a conflict in which America learned just how high a price it was willing to pay for the Union. Paradoxically, today’s growing disunity could be exactly what saves America from a second Civil War. “I don’t think we’d get another Abraham Lincoln,” says Buckley.
Instead, he thinks a contemporary American leader faced with secession would be in the mould of James Buchanan, Lincoln’s predecessor whose view of the Southern states’ departure was, as Buckley summarises it, “I don’t think that’s constitutionally permissible but what do you want me to do? Send in the army?”
Buckley is fairly relaxed about the idea of a break-up. Similarly, Richard Kreitner, a writer from the other side of the divide, doesn’t see secession as unthinkable. In Break It Up: Secession, Division and the Secret History of America’s Imperfect Union, he makes a boldly revisionist claim that far from secession being a mid-nineteenth-century aberration, it is “the only kind of revolution we Americans have ever known”. For 250 years, he writes, “we Americans have done whatever we could to avoid deciding once and for all whether we actually want to be one country.”
In other words, Kreitner thinks that disunity is as American as apple pie. “The idea that it might all fall apart,” says Kreitner, “is a hidden thread through our entire history, from the colonial era to the early republic and the Civil War and beyond, through the fabled ‘American Century’ and up to our own volatile moment.” Kreitner’s argument seems back-to-front to me. The noteworthy thing about America is surely that it has stuck together.
America’s continued existence as a staggeringly culturally diverse, continent-sized democratic nation-state is an unlikely feat, and it suggests a country that — for all its noisy arguments — values unity. A Michigander can accuse a pro-secession Texan of sedition in a way that would be implausible if an Englishman were to level the same charge at, say, Nicola Sturgeon.
For now, secession threats are still mostly part of a bigger fight for the future of the country as a whole: a nuclear option in a cold civil war. America may lurch forwards having loud arguments that belie an underlying stability. But if divides grow wider and differences on fundamental constitutional questions start to look irreconcilable, more and more Americans might agree with John Quincy Adams: better to part in friendship rather than being held together in constraint.
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