Republicans have much to think about after last Tuesday’s defeat, and their self-examination should be as wide-ranging as possible. “What do we do now?” is a profoundly important question, not just for the future prospects of conservatism and of the Republican party, but also for the future of the republic. A crucial component of this introspection will be to listen to almost everyone who puts forward an idea; now, certainly, is not the time for epistemic closure. But nor, to paraphrase William F. Buckley, is it time for our brains to fall out. To wit, this fringe talk of secession is preposterous and counter-productive, and, such as it actually exists, it should be opposed and marginalized with extreme prejudice by conservatives of all stripes.
The Republican party’s first president was America’s greatest unionist, Abraham Lincoln. If the crisis of 1861 was not sufficient to convince Lincoln that the dissolution of the union was for the best, then a second term for Barack Obama should not be satisfactory for us. “I appeal,” said Lincoln, “to all loyal citizens to favor, facilitate, and aid this effort to maintain the honor, the integrity, and the existence of our national union, and the perpetuity of popular government; and to redress wrongs already long enough endured.” This, not defection, should continue to be our calling card. What wrongs have been done will be best redressed through our existing Constitution — and should be.
Today, things look bleak and I have written openly of my own despair at the direction in which we are headed. Coming from a fallen land, I have seen how this story ends before. But there is little to be gained from taking our ball home and railing at reality. Dereliction is the preserve of adolescents who, upon failing to get their way, pretend that they are going to move to Canada, or Europe, or anywhere else that they consider would be preferable to remaining in the United States. Let them go. But those who understand that the United States is the greatest force for good in the history of the world should not be even contemplating its dissolution. Conservatives, remember, are worried about American decline, and there is no more sure way to hasten that than to break the country up into pieces.
Rick Perry, long chided for idle talk of secession, put it well in a statement this morning:
Gov. Perry believes in the greatness of our Union and nothing should be done to change it. But he also shares the frustrations many Americans have with our federal government. Now more than ever our country needs strong leadership from states like Texas, that are making tough decisions to live within their means, keep taxes low and provide opportunities to job creators so their citizens can provide for their families and prosper. We cannot allow Washington’s tax and spend, one-size-fits-all mindset to jeopardize our children’s future, undermine our personal liberties and drive our nation down a dangerous path to greater dependence of government.
He is right. The most fruitful course of action for America’s would-be secessionists is to join with those of us who take the Tenth Amendment seriously and to focus on shrinking Washington’s influence and returning power to the states. (If, reading that sentence, you just thought “yeah, fat chance that would ever happen,” perhaps ask yourself whether a state actually seceding from the United States and being peacefully allowed to do it is more likely? I think not.)
What should we make of the counter-claim that secession is a “fundamental right” of free people, and that its advocates do not need a solid justification for its exercise? As a rule of thumb, those who take this line tend to overlook that the matter was settled in the Civil War and to direct attention instead to the Declaration of Independence. This is a mistake. Contrary to popular belief, the Declaration provides neither for an untrammeled right to secession nor an unfettered justification for revolution. Jefferson, hardly a steadfast foe of insurrection, wrote that, “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient Causes.” This is crucial. As strongly as I oppose the president and his philosophy, he is but a “transient cause” and he is, alas, there fairly by the consent of the governed. A word to the unwise: History shows that revolutions rarely succeed — even if those revolting win. Are we seriously to entertain that we are at the point at which it is worth the risk?
When the South declared its independence, it saw fit to ape Jefferson and provide an an apologia for the break. On its laundry list were no less than 82 references to slavery. This, clearly, did not cut it. If modern secessionists were to accept the premise that “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation,” what would be on their account? Which “facts” would “be submitted to a candid world”? Obamacare? Dodd-Frank? The amnesty executive order? The HHS mandate? Please. These are serious problems to be sure, but they are political problems, not problems of structure. They are either bad calls or, as Brecht might sardonically have put it, problems with the electorate. Go back and read the Declaration’s list of “injuries and usurpations.” Jefferson catalogs not political but anatomical grievances. The distinction is acute.
“Transient” is, of course, a subjective term. What, one might ask, is to stop those who disagree with my assessment as to how serious things are from declaring that the standard has been met and declaring that the time for revolution is here? What if political gripes are legitimately leveled in support of mutiny? Okay, then. Let’s get real. At the end of the Declaration, Jefferson pledges the “sacred honor” of the signatories. This oft-forgotten line serves as a potent reminder that the colonists could have lost. However sure I am — and, make no mistake, I am — that the revolutionaries were on the side of the angels, their independence was ultimately earned and legitimized because they won. Had they failed, King George III would have been thoroughly within his rights to hang the lot of them. The same goes for the South. Sure, the southern states could secede — there isn’t much that anybody could do about that. But, having done so and declared themselves a foreign entity, what remained of the United States of America was surely entitled to invade to try to get them back. This it did. The rest is history. Why should America let a state go because it doesn’t like the result of an election it willingly participated in?
Talk of secession is asinine, counter-productive, and distracting. Conservative Americans are not systematically being denied their liberties. They are not facing the might of a British empire determined to crush them. There is no Declaratory Act. There are no unwanted foreign troops stationed in our cities. Instead, we are failing to win the argument. This is a considerable problem, but we have two things to our advantage. The first is that our ideas are timeless and they are right. They will win again, whether it is by argument or economic gravity — and if they don’t, then we will have bigger problems to deal with. The second is that we have at our disposal the most wonderful Constitution and nation that the world has ever seen. Let’s not hear any more foolish talk of dismantling them.