Thinking Rationally About Secession
Secession has been in the news lately. Well, not the mainstream news, for the most part, but local, Internet and alternative news outlets have been reporting a growing number of signatures added to secession petitions submitted to Washington (one has it at over 750,000 signatures). This began almost immediately after President Obama’s reelection, and while no one really expects this particular movement to go anywhere, people on both sides of our political divide take it somewhat seriously as a sign of how polarized and unstable our situation has become.
I’m going to tell you what I think about secession, and my hope is that readers will find it somewhat reasonable. In short, I reject the absolutely hysterical and frothing narrative that comes from some leftist quarters about the evil of secession. I don’t much appreciate the haughty dismissal and contempt that comes from some on both the left and the right, as if only a mental patient would want to secede from what America has become. Lastly, I don’t agree with the secessionists, but it has nothing to do with any sort of moral or philosophical objection to the principle of secession (I don’t think it is racist or crazy, in other words). Now to the meat and bones.
First, the whole idea of a “petition to secede” sounds a little strange and I must say, absurd. Revolutionary governments founded upon an overthrow of an unpopular regime have sometimes formally recognized a “right of revolution” reserved by the people in case a future generation finds it necessary to form a new government. Some communist literature I used to peruse, for instance, would praise Castro’s Cuba because the right of the people to rebel was (so they said) enshrined in the Cuban constitution. No one believes for a moment, though, that revolutions depend upon whether or not the ruling regime permits them. It really shouldn’t need to be said that revolutions occur in spite of what ruling regimes want, and that official recognition of a “right to rebel” is often little more than window dressing, when it can even be located in clear and precise language.
Even so, modern-day secessionists believe that the founders intended for there to be some kind of “right to secede.” I think some of the founders believed that, including Thomas Jefferson, while others did not. But neither Jefferson nor anyone else, at least to my knowledge, was thinking of a legal right to secede. Rather they were thinking of a natural right to cast off oppressive or failed regimes and establish new governments in their place. This is what is articulated in the Declaration of Independence, which was, as we hopefully all understand, not a note begging King George III for permission to secede from Great Britain. It was a declaration of fact, a notice of what would have already been accomplished by the time the message reached its addressees.
I recognize this natural right. The founding fathers recognized it, unanimously in their own case, and who knows in what divisions when it comes to the hypothetical rights of individual states. The Catholic Church recognizes it. Cardinal Bellarmine noted in his own writings, and Pope Leo XIII summed it up with the following words:
Lawful power is from God, “and whosoever resisteth authority resisteth the ordinance of God’ ;(6) wherefore, obedience is greatly ennobled when subjected to an authority which is the most just and supreme of all. But where the power to command is wanting, or where a law is enacted contrary to reason, or to the eternal law, or to some ordinance of God, obedience is unlawful, lest, while obeying man, we become disobedient to God. — Libertas, 13
In light of such considerations, I am forced to say that petitions asking for permission to secede look more like pathetic half-measures and childish complaining than anything else. If people are not prepared to lay it all on the line, as the Southern states were in 1860, then this sort of talk just invites ridicule. Those who are so prepared don’t ask; they do. There is no legal right to secede, just as there was no legal right for the American colonies to declare independence and form a new nation. There doesn’t need to be. Contrary to Reverend Lovejoy (ctrl+f to find the hilarious quotation from The Simpsons), legal and moral are not synonyms.
Maybe the purpose of the petitions is so that those who are prepared to secede can say “well, look, we tried doing this peacefully – but you wanted to fight.” If that’s the general orientation, well, there are much better ways to go about it. The best way to draw the federal government into a confrontation in which it will have no moral authority and little popular sympathy or support is to continue to pass perfectly reasonable laws at the state level that conflict with onerous, unjust, mean-spirited and irrational federal laws. Drug laws are a good place to start. If the people of Colorado want to be able to legally buy, sell and consume marijuana, they should have that right under the 10th amendment of the Constitution. If the federal government wants to impose its own contrary prohibition on the states, it will do so at the cost of legitimacy in the eyes of the long-lost forgotten man, hitherto uninterested in politics as a no-win situation for him and who reserves judgement largely for actions, not rhetoric. The forgotten men, collectively, might be called a “Silent Majority.” They might also account for the 7 million whites who stayed home instead of voting for Moderate Mitt.
A confrontation in which the states have the will of the people as their primary justification, having passed laws by popular vote or through representative legislatures, and in which the federal government has nothing but what amounts to a “might makes right” argument to brandish, will go well for the former and very badly for the latter. Liberty-minded conservatives as well as at least some on the left who distrust the federal government and would opt for localism over nationalism can even work together. There are leftists who want to smoke pot legally, and there are conservatives who should, by heaven, support them in this confrontation with the federal government. We aren’t talking about intrinsic evil here, as we would be in the case of abortion or contraception, both of which the feds can’t shove enough of down our throats. Hippies and rednecks, unite and fight!
Only when, in the popular mind, the situation is clearly understood as one in which the federal government refuses – effectively if not officially – to recognize the legitimacy of local democracy and republican institutions will any sort of secession or rebellion movement have the slightest bit of credibility. That moment has not come. It is also not too far off. But between here and there stand a number of tests to which the federal government ought to be subjected, tests which will be difficult for that arrogant and corrupt establishment to pass. Enough with the secession petitions, then. Collect signatures for petitions that really matter: to establish or disestablish laws and institutions that, respectively, oppose or favor the power of the federal government within your state.
Another issue that needs to be addressed is “secession = racism.” There is nothing remotely “racist” about secession. But I have to say, if the leftist establishment didn’t plan on having a black man espouse policies and ideas radically inimical to the American founding and effect the transformation of the United States into a European-style social democracy, it sure lucked out. Every criticism and all resistance can be explained in terms of racial paranoia, and no intellectual engagement is necessary. With Stalin’s chief prosecutor during the Moscow show trials, Andrey Vyshinsky, they can scream “shoot the mad dogs, every single one of them!” And that is more or less what they are doing right now.
Those of us on the right who find secession to be far too premature and imprudent (as I do) or just foolish no matter what happens will score no points with anyone who matters by joining in the chorus of rabid, unflinching condemnation. Those on the left who play the race card hate us all and nothing anyone says will change this. Moderate Mitt was deemed an extremist and a radical by these people, for heaven’s sake. We should articulate the reasons why we disagree with the movement, which may well have over a million names put to it by now, we may even distance ourselves from its actions. That said, I personally reject anyone who thinks it is either racist or “crazy/kooky” to be so fed up with the federal government and the degeneration of our culture that they would seriously consider secession. The parasitism of federal employees alone is enough to make me want to raise the Stars and Bars and start whistlin’ Dixie.
That doesn’t include ruinous wars both foreign and domestic (“War on Drugs”), the laying to waste of civil liberties, the assassination of U.S. citizens without trial or sentence, the mass transfers of wealth from productive workers and business owners to a class of permanent dependents who produce little if any wealth at all, the complete and total failure of the federal government to secure the southern border, the federal government’s official promotion of abortion, infanticide, subsidized birth control, “gay marriage” and every other moral abomination and cultural atrocity, and the debt we will never be able to repay to the Chinese. You’d have to be a little nuts not to consider secession under these conditions, at least as nuts as those who really think it can succeed without the requisites I outlined above.