The Separatist Two-Step

by Michael Auslin

Catalonia, Scotland, Texas. Is there something to the recent rage for separatism? It’s all about failing states, it seems. Ethnic-cultural differences may rise to the surface of political discontent more quickly than other grievances, but at the end of the day, it’s the growing sense of alienation and frustration over the incompetence of central governments. True, the Scots get tons of subsidies that most English now want to end, and some reports say that more English want the Scots to leave than vice versa. But the deeper trend holds: As government gets farther from the people, people get farther from the government.

John Fund’s piece on the homepage today calling for more transparency in Washington is a perfect example. The lack of accountability of the U.S. government, especially under Barack Obama, is driving the deepest of wedges between the American people: On the one side are those who either implicitly trust government to take care of their needs (like, say, free contraception), and those who seethe at feeling disenfranchised from the daily routine of governance. If you get money from the government, you’re probably more likely to give its profligate and incompetent ways a pass, perhaps even if just at the philosophical level. If you faithfully pay your taxes and comply with the ever-expanding net of regulations and laws, then you expect to have a say in how the whole awful mess comes together.

But it obviously doesn’t stop at our borders. At the same time that authoritarians and despots are strengthening themselves — Kim Jong Un solidifies his grip on North Korea and Mohamed Morsi grabs more power in Egypt — supposedly representative systems are seeing their legitimacy erode, as in Spain. Maybe the connection goes as far as the majority of Brits’ now wanting to exit the EU, which they see as an unrepresentative, power-hungry leviathan reaching deeper and deeper into British life. When the fever for separatism transcends ethnic-cultural boundaries, then a tipping point may be reached. The age of the complex nation-state (and its mutated EU multinational government) may have outlived its usefulness or believability. Bankruptcy will do that to a national legacy.

It will take more than a few bumper stickers in Texas to strip the figment of clothing from the naked American government, but to write off the Lone Star State as an aberration is to ignore the fact that it just may be ahead of the fiscal cliff. Once Washington decides to take us all over the precipice, and unemployment and taxes leap hand-in-hand, the idea of breaking up may not be so outrageous, even if it is impossible. The result can only be deeper division, deeper distrust, and deeper paralysis.

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