Commentary

The Great Secession

Is America too big? Is it time to break up the U.S.?

A week after the November election nearly 700,000 Americans from all 50 states had signed 69 secession petitions as part of the White House “We the People” online petition system. The missives requested the administration to peacefully allow states to leave the union. One petition advocated permitting states which seceded to form their own nation. A formal White House review is triggered by just 25,000 signatures.

Although President Obama’s reelection sparked the cascade of petitions, advocates cited other grounds. Daniel Miller, president of the Texas nationalist movement, claimed: “This is not a reaction to a person but to policy and what we see as a federal government that is so disconnected from its constituents and absolute no regard for what its purpose was.” He added that “self-determination is kind of the underpinning to all of this — the ability to provide Texas solutions to Texas problems.”

One Texas petition complained that America “continues to suffer economic difficulties stemming from the federal government’s neglect to reform domestic and foreign spending,” in contrast to the state, which “maintains a balanced budget and is the 15th largest economy in the world.” Many of the petitions cited America’s Declaration of Independence. Two state measures quoted Benjamin Franklin: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” One petition spoke of the necessity of separating from “a tyrannical government.” A related bumper sticker proclaimed: “Secede! From the United Socialist States of America.”

Not everyone was amused. On the Huffington Post Bob Cesca called signers “whiny diaper babies.” Others opposing secession responded with their own petitions. Some advocated seceding from those wanting to secede. One Texas petition advocated using education to “eradicate” the disease afflicting the “mentally deficient” who were pressing for secession.

And some petitions advocated defenestration for those exercising their First Amendment right to petition the government. Two online missives proposed deportation as a remedy. One petition urged the president to “sign an executive order such that each American citizen who signed a petition for any state to secede from the USA shall have their citizenship stripped and be peacefully deported.” No need, apparently, to go to Congress or the courts in this case. One of these measures quickly hit the administration’s 25,000 signature minimum.

Cesca even used the “T” word, calling advocacy of secession “technically an act of treason.” He noted that a similar effort was punished with great force 150 years ago.

The administration has yet to comment, but promised to prepare an answer. “Every petition that crosses the threshold is reviewed and receives a response,” stated the White House.

Today it is the Right that is talking about secession. However, Glenn Harlan Reynolds pointed out that the left did so after George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004: “… disappointed Democrats were talking about secession, and circulating maps of America divided into ‘The United States of Canada’ and ‘Jesusland’.” Frustration with elections and policies are not confined to any ideology.

No leading political figure has yet signed on. The closest might be Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Three years ago he said his state wasn’t likely to secede, but “there’s a lot of different scenarios.” He said he saw no reason to dissolve the American union, but “if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what might come out of that?” The same year he opined that as a onetime independent nation “we can leave anytime we want. So we’re kind of thinking about that again.” But when asked about the new petitions, his spokesman said that the governor “believes in the greatness of our union and nothing should be done to change it.”

Indeed, truth be told, most of the signers probably don’t want to go. They are upset at Barack Obama’s re-election and are lashing out — even whining a bit, though not really like “diaper babies.”

However, if they were serious no one likely would stop them. Although President Abraham Lincoln plunged the disunited U.S. into a horrific civil war, today American leaders routinely lecture the rest of the world about the importance of settling such quarrels peacefully. They would more likely take the advice of one U.S. Senator who, three years into America’s greatest conflict, wished that the national government had said “erring sisters, go in peace.”

In contrast, Cesca imagined the possibility of “an army of disloyal soldiers and militia” seizing a handful of federal military bases, but losing to vastly more capable U.S. military which “would summarily wipe out an army of rag-tags.” Short of that, he predicted that Washington would starve out the dissenters, blocking “the power grid, pipelines, shipping lanes and, yes, satellite and internet communications.” He also foresaw the likelihood of “solidly blue areas inside the seceded states” which would require emergency airlifts, á la the Cold War Berlin Airlift.

It sounds like a Hollywood script being written. Indeed, one wonders if Cesca became a bit excited at the thought of visiting death and devastation upon Red States and all others who disagreed with him. Or perhaps he was smoking funny cigarettes or suffering from an overeager imagination when he wrote his column. The Horsemen of the Apocalypse stalk America! The Mayans were right: the world is about to end!

Cesca did make one fair point. Most of the states with the strongest support for secession are the biggest “moochers and freeloaders,” receiving substantial financial transfers from the national government. The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank made the same point: Missouri gets $1.29, South Carolina gets $1.38, Louisiana gets $1.45, and Alabama gets $1.71 for every $1 in taxes paid.

With secession “that gravy train would cease to exist,” noted Cesca. He went on to suggest that everyone in America would be helpless if they weren’t collecting federal goodies and looting everyone else, which is nonsense — pervasive subsidies and bail-outs make Americans weaker, not stronger. But some people currently demanding their freedom might not be quite so enthused about freeing themselves if they knew that meant they would be on their own financially.

Behind all the silliness is a serious issue, however. Why shouldn’t people be able to reorder their political arrangements if they wish? Must whatever has been put together be forever kept together? In an otherwise hysterical column, Peter Morrison, a Texas Republican Party activist, reasonably asked: “Why should Vermont and Texas live under the same government?” Indeed, why?

There’s no inherent reason why any particular group of people should be in community with any other. Slavery will always stain the cause of the southern Confederacy, but what principle justified slaughtering thousands to hold the country together? Unionist Horace Greeley declared in the New York Tribune: “We hope never to live in a republic whereof one section is pinned to the residue by bayonets.” Then-Col. Robert E. Lee opposed secession but explained: “a Union that can only be maintained by swords and bayonets, and in which strife and civil war are to take the place of brotherly love and kindness, has no charm for me.”

In many ways we are a badly divided people. Noted Patrick Buchanan: “While no one takes this movement as seriously as men took secession in 1861, the sentiments behind it ought not to be minimized. For they bespeak a bristling hostility to the federal government and a dislike bordering on detestation of some Americans for other Americans, as deep as it was on the day Beauregard’s guns fired on Fort Sumter.”

Americans soon may face the issue from the other direction. On November 6 residents of Puerto Rico voted for statehood in a confusing plebiscite on the island’s status. Puerto Rico, conquered by the U.S. during the Spanish-American War, currently is a commonwealth. There long has been a small independence movement, but the majority of Puerto Ricans traditionally preferred commonwealth to statehood. This time the majority rejected the “present form of territorial status,” after which they voted on the alternatives of independence, statehood, and “sovereign free associated state.” Statehood won with 61 percent.

The mere fact that someone wants to join the union doesn’t mean it should be invited to join. That applies to other potential aspirants as well. There once was serious talk of Canada breaking up, and Patrick Buchanan mused on which provinces should be invited to become American states. Even if America’s northern neighbor dissolved and some of its parts wanted to join the U.S., it wouldn’t necessarily make sense to say yes.

Rather than arguing about secession, it would be better to revive federalism. The national government has grown into a monster Leviathan, attempting to micro-manage the lives of 314 million Americans. Yet Washington is dominated by unrepresentative elites which are largely beyond peoples’ control. Frustration and anger are justified.

What to do? Reynolds wrote: “Let the central government do the things that only central governments can do — national defense, regulation of trade to keep the provinces from engaging in economic warfare from one another, protection of basic civil rights — and then let the provinces go their own way in most other issues.” If you’re not happy, you don’t have to secede: just move to another state.

This has the advantage of fulfilling the original constitutional scheme. The national government was supposed to have only limited and enumerated powers. In contrast, according to James Madison in Federalist No. 45, states were to be concerned with “the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the state.”

Bigger is not always better. Europe is discovering that reality, as opposition rises to continuing efforts to shift more power to the European Union and Brussels, and secessionist sentiments grow in Belgium’s Flanders, Spain’s Catalonia, and Great Britain’s Scotland.

Concern is likely to only grow in America. Washington is ever more imperious and unaccountable; it does ever more that should be left to other governments and, more important, to other institutions. Inflammatory rhetoric aside, Americans face a crisis of government.

Secession isn’t likely to prove a practical answer. Instead of breaking up the United States of America, people should focus on devolving authority to states, localities, families, and individuals. Rediscovering federalism should become the new mantra in Washington.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former special assistant to former US president Ronald Reagan.