E Pluribus Unum? Or Out of Many, Many More A legal scholar argues that the United States is a bad marriage that needs to end.

American Secession: The Looming Threat of a National Breakup

By F. H. Buckley (2020, Encounter Books) 170 pages with index, notes, and appendix.

One Nation, indivisible

—The version of the Pledge of Allegiance of the Greatest Generation

 

One Nation, under God, indivisible

—The version of the Pledge of Allegiance of the Baby Boomers

 

 

 

 

1. The Way We Are Now

 

“We’ve been taught,” writes F.H. Buckley in American Secession, “that the idea of secession is long behind us. It’s not, and there’s much to be said for an American breakup. We’re no longer apt to hang out with people across the partisan divide, or work with them or even live in the same neighborhood. As a people we’re too darn mean, and as a country we’re too damn big. We would get along better if we split apart. The constitutional hurdles are far lower than most people think, and there would be no Abraham Lincoln to stop us.” (119)

Some might be inclined to think that Buckley, a Trump supporter and conservative, must be a bit tongue-in-cheek with this. But he is not. He makes a plausible case that the country can separate, despite the Civil War which seemed to cement the states for good, and that it really ought to. He is right that the country is terribly divided: the left and the liberals versus the right and the conservatives, with compromise, which our system of government is designed to promote, being seen as defeat, as utterly unacceptable, on both sides. As General MacArthur famously said, “There is no substitute for victory.” Surely, we are now convinced that compromise is not anything like victory. We have arrived at the point as a nation where we feel compromise does not work to stem political strife. (When one considers the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850, there may be truth in that sentiment.) This is exacerbated by an electoral system of “winner take all,” which means losers feel even more closed out, and gridlock rather than compromise becomes more likely and more dire. So, we have arrived at the point of dissatisfaction with the way our government is supposed to work. It is very much like being in a bad marriage. Consider this: When Trump supporters stormed the Capitol Building on January 6, 2021, they were accused of fomenting an insurrection by seizing the seat of government and threatening duly elected representatives. They, on the other hand, thought they were stopping an insurrection by preventing certification of the presidential election that they thought was fraudulent. This is how bad it has gotten. Each side has a different version of reality. Politics, like religion, is a form of delusion. As Buckley writes, “it doesn’t matter who’s right when the differences are irreconcilable.” (21)

The rise of identity politics (a new version of pluralism) has spurred an almost hyper-segregation in the face of all the romanticism about diversity (an update of the 1950s and 1960s idea of integration). What was meant to produce greater acceptance and appreciation of the excluded has instead generated fear and loathing of their demands and suspicion of their insistence on the re-shaping of the entire society. Here is an odd paradox as both sides in this power struggle maintain that they are the correct interpreters of the meaning of democracy. For the left, America is the ongoing process of greater democratization of institutions and more freedom and restoration for various groups. The left sees America as a mistake, even a crime, that must be corrected through repair, reparation, and radical restructuring. The right is nothing more than an expression of reaction and everything that is wrong with our country. For the right, America is about individual freedom, unencumbered by government or special interests. For the right, the left is nothing more than a collection of radical special interest groups that do not democratize but rather choke the life out of freedom through massive entitlements and the complete repudiation of any of our country’s liberal traditions. For the left, America is promise denied. For the right, America is the sublimity of its promise. Increasingly, these views have become irreconcilable.

Politics, like religion, is a form of delusion. As Buckley writes, “it doesn’t matter who’s right when the differences are irreconcilable.”

Racial segregation continues apace; racism has hardly been eliminated despite dramatic improvement for Blacks over the last fifty years. Indeed, like a kind of tar baby, the more we deplore and oppose racism, the more enmeshed we become in our belief in the validity of its categories as a remedy for the ills that it has caused. This too is a conundrum from which there seems no escape.   The idea of identity itself, a manifestation of the revolutions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, has become both a form of rage, an expression of emancipation, and the new fashion of human consciousness. Identity is a national obsession, a weapon, and a moral imperative. Political hatreds have always characterized the American experience. But their current manifestations are more bitter, many believe, than during the days of slavery.

 

 

2. The Way We Could Be

 

What holds the United States of America together? The Constitution, of course, buttressed by a bloody civil war where a group of secessionist states was defeated militarily and forcibly brought back into the union, and Texas v. White which held that secession is unconstitutional, the union had been made indissoluble under the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution was merely the improvement or reworking of the earlier document. There is no right to secede. Of course, Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president, was never tried for treason, which would have made the point indelibly clear about secession had he been hanged. The federal government thought there was a good chance that Davis—who would have argued that he had renounced his citizenship when his state seceded and thus, he was not a traitor—would not be convicted. For some, the reasoning would be, how can a democracy be a true democracy, how can citizens have true autonomy, if they cannot freely reject membership in that society. So, there was a real possibility that significant segments of the population, and not all of them in the south by any means, were not as sure about the permanence of the union as our leaders wanted them to be. Whether the marriage that is the United States is good or bad, it is permanent.

But how can a marriage be legitimate if it ceases to represent the will of those in it? Is not the union a political marriage, so why is there not such a thing as political divorce, if some of the members are unhappy with the arrangement? There is no such thing as a permanent marriage if the act ceases to have consent, and people always have the right to withdraw their consent, according to our Declaration of Independence. Buckley writes that Lincoln likened this idea of leaving the union as a “free love” marriage. “That would have seemed silly to most people in 1861, but it’s what no-fault divorce has given us.” (103) But Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to James Madison, suggested that the Constitution should be up for negotiation every twenty years (each new generation) and that the states would revert to their original state of freedom until a new governing document was agreed upon. (103) This might have been a form of intellectual daydreaming but among the Founding Fathers it was thought that the union was not necessarily permanent or that it was necessary for it to earn its justification over and over again. It was not a free love marriage but a marriage contract, no different from any other contract. Is our federalism truly settled, or is it in process, or is it an enigma, a flaw that confounds, frustrates, and mystifies us?

Buckley offers that we are “living in a secessionist moment in world history.” Three developments created this moment: the decolonization of Asia and Africa; the end of the Cold War; and the universal acceptance of free trade. (24)  All of these caused the creation and realignment of nations and the movement of large numbers of people.

There is no such thing as a permanent marriage if the act ceases to have consent, and people always have the right to withdraw their consent, according to our Declaration of Independence. Buckley writes that Lincoln likened this idea of leaving the union as a “free love” marriage.

In this moment, what would prevent the United States from breaking up? Nothing much, according to Buckley. It is almost a certainty that if any portion of the United States wanted to secede, the remainder would not likely use force of arms against the rebels. First, as Buckley points out, there is no single morally repellent issue like slavery that might drive people to force of arms. Second, whether the seceding portion was liberal or conservative, the opposing side would probably be glad to see it go. “Good riddance” would be the common feeling. Third, although the intensity of our hatreds may make us willing to kill for them, we are not so willing to die for them.  Nowadays, we Americans are willing to wipe out our political enemies only if they are willing not to oppose their deaths by shooting back. Genocide is painless, or at least it ought to be, so both sides fantasize. For this reason, Buckley believes, and so do I, that another civil war is unlikely, although there could be violent skirmishes. But a separation is quite possible. It is likely that any seceding states would be permitted to negotiate a settlement for their departure.

Aside from our intractable political divisions, Buckley thinks it would be good to separate because the country is too big. We are the third-largest country by population. (Only China and India are bigger.)  We are the fourth-largest country by land mass. While Buckley concedes there are advantages to being big: amassing wealth, having a big military, being feared and respected because of our size; these advantages are offset by the disadvantages of bigness: greater amounts of corruption; a less responsive national government that becomes more controlling as the nation becomes more divided; a more diverse population, segments of which are more likely to push for separation as a form of autonomy. Everyone wants a voice. Smaller countries tend to be happier because people feel better about the people they are living with; they have less corruption and more responsive governments. Life is less contentious because it has been simplified and equalized.

Buckley contends that if the United States separates, the left and the right will be happier and in fact get along better. As separate entities, they can compete without getting in each other’s way or thwarting each other’s efforts. In this way, we might find out whose ideas really are better. For Buckley, our federalism must become a version of home rule, following the examples of Canada and the United Kingdom, allowing states to pretty much practice their own affairs as they wish while the federal government speaks for the various states on foreign affairs.

Buckley contends that if the United States separates, the left and the right will be happier and in fact get along better. As separate entities, they can compete without getting in each other’s way or thwarting each other’s efforts. In this way, we might find out whose ideas really are better.

Buckley’s book is worth reading. It is intelligently written and allays our fear, at least in the moment of reading it, about the country breaking up by arguing it would be good if it did. But the Civil War is mythical in our national imagination, for it is the price the nation paid to stay together and to bring its enslaved Blacks into the fold of citizenship, imperfect though it was. Even for those who hate our country, they are nonetheless fascinated by its size, by its power, by its wealth, by its brazenness, by the magnitude of its accomplishments, and the crudity of its sins. The desire for a breakup may harken to the strain among many Americans—from Thoreau to the environmentalists to the DIY movement—for a simpler life: small is better because it is simpler; big is complicated. If one fantasy of Americans was an empire from ocean to ocean, another, just as compelling, was the state as no bigger than a town hall meeting, where everyone directly participates as the state.

I once told a friend that I would rather live in the churning belly of a rampaging Godzilla than be the flapping tail of a lovable dog. As Orson Welles’s character Harry Lime said in The Third Man, “In Italy for thirty years out of the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love. They had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” What price glory?

Subscribe to our "Mixed Issue" email newsletter!