The folly of secession

In 2004 I read about secession for the first time. Devastated by the reelection of George W. Bush, many Democrats and liberals took GOP buzzwords like “blue states” seriously enough to openly wonder why the states that voted for John Kerry couldn’t leave the Union. After all, gay couples had a better time of it in Boston, Chicago, certainly in San Francisco – much better than states like Mississippi and Montana with marriage amendments on their ballots. Almost assuredly these professions made more money than cousins in Nebraska.

An article by Kevin Baker in The New Republic last week reopened the pointless debate. Written as if rehearsing a smirk substituted for prose, Baker adduces the Wisconsin Idea and Louis Brandeis as historical instances of the kind of federalism that would allow Kansas to go its way and California another. Hamilton Nolan sighs:

It is interesting, then, to note that the blue state secession movement mostly attracts the support not of the actual types of people who might be oppressed in Donald Trump’s America, but of very wealthy techies. Nothing more needs to be said about the fig leaf.

The impulse to bandy about the threat of secession is not rooted in concern for the vulnerable. It is a tantrum by rich people who are angry that their political power temporarily does not match their economic power. Think about how shallow a self-proclaimed liberal’s commitment to social justice has to be for them to say that the proper response to the ascent of a quasi-fascist amoral strongman is to cede him the majority of the nation’s territory and stop helping to support social programs for everyone not lucky enough to live in a coastal state. Ah, what brave commitment to justice for all! If 51% of your state voted for the bad man, we will condemn the other 49% to misery. That’s what good liberals are all about! We all remember how Abraham Lincoln became an American hero by telling the Confederacy: If you are uneducated enough to think that slavery is good, go be your own country. With time your slaves will certainly come to realize that blue states are preferable!

My spring break project, almost complete, is Eric Foner’s Reconstruction after nibbling at the edges of this influential tome (The Fiery Sword is one of the better recent Lincoln bios). Only in the aftermath of the Civil War when Southern Democrats, encouraged by their ally in the Oval Office, passed the Black Codes and refused to seat newly elected black legislators, among other developments, did Republicans in Congress pass bills that saw the United States as a national polity with a robust federal government. Until interest in Reconstruction began to wane in 1874, the freedmen put their faith in the Grand Old Party because it was the only political coalition, tergiversations and all, that believed in using the full power of the national government to enforce due process, or, to quote Foner, “the broad conception of national authority spawned by the Civil War and embodied in the postwar amendments.”

The parties have switched polarities; it’s the Democrats who believe government acts best as mediator between private and local interests when fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution are at state. To abandon the minorities to the depredations of a Sam Brownback, Rick Snyder, or Rick Scott is to nullify (I chose this infinitive on purpose) the ideal for which hundreds of thousands died a century and a half ago and erode the vigor of the central government in which liberals purport to believe. It is to disavow the hard work of canvassing and coalition building in municipalities. It is to take voters for granted. It is to say fuck you to minorities in GOP-leaning states. “If the Federal Government cannot pass laws to erect the rights, liberty, and lives of citizens of the United States in the States, why were guarantees of those fundamental rights put in the Constitution at all?” said Benjamin Butler in 1871 about the Enforcement Acts. Let this quote serve as a carving on the tombstone of secession.

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