Whoever wins on Nov. 4, few Americans will harbor any illusions about their national unity. No matter which pairing one chooses — red and blue, Right and Left, coastal elites and flyover salt-of-the-earthers — there is no getting around our status as a country divided, a people set apart from one another as much by regional culture as by religion or political ideology.
A perfect time, in other words, to talk about secession — which is what will happen when the Middlebury Institute’s Third North American Secessionist Conference convenes in Manchester, New Hampshire a week and a half after the election.
Good introduction to the issue: America is hopelessly divided between left and right, and subdivisions within those categories.
Looking at history, national secessionist movements are relatively successful. Numerically, most of them failed – but the ones that succeeded now run most of this planet. Considering the magnitude of their demands, the vehemence of opposition, and the bloodshed they usually engender, they seem a successful type of political movement. Yet in the same historical perspective, non-national (non-ethnic) secessionist movements are a total flop.
Now, if anyone can secede at any time, that means the end of the state, the government, on the usual definitions. And not just of tyrannies and gulags, but also of ‘nice’ democratic governments. The explanation might be simply the fear of bloodshed and chaos – anarchy in the most negative sense. This does not explain why national secession has been relatively successful: it is possible to take an ethical position that “all secession is wrong”, but evidently very few people do. Distinctions are made, and conditions are set, but some secessions are accepted.
Democracy relies on a prohibition of secession. A democratic regime assumes a ‘demos’ – a unit of political decision-making which is constant between decisions. If every dissident minority secedes after every opposed decision, then there is no democratic regime. (There would be no political regime at all – at least not for standard political theory).
So democrats have concluded, like President Lincoln in the 1860’s, that secession must be suppressed. Since modern democracies are nation states, secession is now treated as an issue of national unity, and national identity: Lincoln was one of the last politicians who had to address secession as a classic political issue.
This is what they’re up against: democracies, which in theory thrive on internal opposition, instantly disintegrate if they let anyone secede — unless that group is ethnic, in which the nation neatly fragments with the host nation filtering out a single ethnic group.
Some philosophers have distinguished between the question whether and, if so, under what conditions a group has a moral claim-right to secede and the question of whether and, if so, under what conditions a constitution ought to or may include a right to secede. For example, while acknowledging that secession may sometimes be morally justified (where this presumably means the group in question has the claim-right to secede), Cass Sunstein has argued that constitutional recognition of a right to secede is incompatible with the principles of constitutionalism (or at least democratic constitutionalism) (Sunstein, 1991). Sunstein argues that a basic principle of constitutionalism is that political institutions, including the constitution itself, must be designed so as to encourage citizens to engage in the hard work of democratic politics, where this means competing in the public forum on grounds of principle, with a minimum of strategic bargaining. Following Albert O. Hirschman, (Hirschman, 1970) he then contends that if the constitution acknowledges a right to secede then discontent minorities will be tempted to shirk the hard work of principled, democratic politics either by actually seceding when the majoritarian decisions go against their preferences or by using the threat of secession as a strategic bargaining tool as a de facto veto over majority rule. In either case, democracy will be undermined.
Neat thinking, but if a group is a minority with needs contrary to the majority, it’s never going to get what it wants in a democracy, anyway. Hence the reason that groups of a non-mainstream political alignment, or those who believe politics has become misinterpreted, want to secede — they are numerically inconsequential.
“The argument for secession is that the U.S. has become an empire that is essentially ungovernable — it’s too big, it’s too corrupt and it no longer serves the needs of its citizens,” said Rob Williams, editor of Vermont Commons, a quarterly newspaper dedicated to secession.
“Congress and the executive branch are being run by the multinationals. We have electoral fraud, rampant corporate corruption, a culture of militarism and war. If you care about democracy and self-governance and any kind of representative system, the only constitutional way to preserve what’s left of the Republic is to peaceably take apart the empire.”
This summarizes the American argument well. People to watch in the secession game:
- The Middlebury Institute
- Alaskan Independence Party
- Second Vermont Republic
- Independent Nation of Texas
- Republic of New Hampshire
- Hawaii Nation
- Free State Project
- Parti Québécois
- Christian Exodus
- Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization
- League of the South
- Lakotah Nation
What’s interesting is that these groups are from all over the political spectrum.
The League of the South wants the old Confederacy; Vermont wants to be a liberal free state; Christian Exodus wants a small Christian theocracy.
These different groups agree on one thing however: they can’t get along, so the best way to get along is to separate into smaller groups, so that they don’t have to come up with 1 rule to fit 2 or more different inclinations.