Franke: Secession ‘Lite’

July 22, 2020

Secession ‘Lite’: The Federalist Solution

by Mark Franke

Our nation is in trouble, deep trouble, and there is no gainsaying that.

We have always been divided as a people, at least during my lifetime. Perhaps the 1950s with Ike in the White House is an exception but then I may be looking back on a childhood that becomes more and more idyllic as I age. Being of high school and college age during the Vietnam era was my initiation into the darker side of our American ethos, one that prefers strife to collegiality, emotion to reason, name-calling to debate.

We used to be able to count on politicians to tamp things down by working within a rather narrow ideological band for national and local policy. Sure, elections could be contentious but we accepted the outcome and moved on as most new administrations wouldn’t really change much within what George Will and others have called the American creed.

I can’t point to the exact moment when we lost this consensus but in retrospect I would suggest that it was Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court in 1987. Rather than examine his juridical qualifications and his constitutional IQ, the opposition launched a campaign to defeat his nomination on purely political grounds. The snowball has been accelerating downhill ever since.

It’s not that the United States was in some kind of utopian bliss prior to this. We had our moments even at our founding. Think of the nasty presidential campaign of 1800. And then there was the Civil War which followed as the illogical conclusion to a rapid descent into the abyss in the decade prior to that.

It’s that same abyss that confronts us now. Even a casual reading of the history of the 1850s informs us of the dangers when people stop listening and just yell louder. We are back there in terms of the stridency of discourse and propensity for violence.

So will we end up in the same inferno? Is another secession crisis in the offing?

Some think so and too many of these are cheering it on.

California has an active secession movement, wanting to rid itself of the deplorables residing between both coasts. Counties in Oregon, Washington and Illinois would like to affiliate with neighboring, less liberal-progressive states with lower taxes and more social tolerance of traditional values. We have those on both the left and the right who believe our union is fatally flawed. The extreme left and, let’s be honest, its liberal elite supporters are resolved to beat down any opposition to its totalitarian cultural goals.The movement isn’t called “Cancel Culture” without cause.

Constantly losing to the mobs on the street and the moral cowards in the boardrooms and statehouses has driven some conservative thinkers to despair of our union’s permanence. If the union is to dissolve, shouldn’t we attempt to set the framework for this dissolution, they ask?

This is where they stumble. Could a 21st century secession movement succeed? The last time this was tried the result was nearly three quarters of a million deaths. Are we willing to chance this again? Most of us, thankfully, say no.

Still, there might be a middle road that could work. George Mason law professor F.H. Buckley is the godfather of this concept, one he calls “Secession Lite.” (See his book “American Secession: The Looming Threat of a National Breakup” published this year.)

What he is advocating is really nothing more than a return to the federalism envisioned by our Founding Fathers and enshrined in the Ninth and Tenth amendments. Don’t recall learning about those in civics class? You certainly won’t if you are under the age of 50. You really ought to read them and then rethink your perspective on today’s mess.

Buckley’s vision is for there to be a set of commonly held principles of the first order, including the need for a central government to provide national security and guarantee basic rights, those proceeding from natural law. These are often called “negative” rights in that they enjoin the government from usurping these rights from the people. See the Tenth Amendment.

All others remain vested in the states or local communities and most importantly the people. Think of cultural or lifestyle issues and of tax-supported social welfare programs. If you want open carry for handguns, move to a state that allows it. If you want a substantial municipal infrastructure to support homelessness, move to a city that is willing to tax its residents to pay for it. In a word, vote with your feet.

Canada operates this way to a considerable extent. Its Charter of Rights and Freedoms from 1982 requires only a handful to be universal across the nation. All others can be interposed at the provincial level by invocation of the Charter’s “notwithstanding” clause. Think of Quebec and the French language.

Would that work in the United States? Buckley thinks so, or maybe he just really hopes so. His solution is the only credible one I have heard that can turn us from our stampede toward the abyss. I’m no fan of Friedrich Nieztsche but his quote is even more haunting today:

“When you look into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.”

Mark Franke, an adjunct scholar and of the Indiana Policy Review and its book reviewer, is formerly an associate vice chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.


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