Late in President Obama’s second term, Kurt Schlichter and a group of conservative bloggers got together over drinks and noted that the political divisions in the country were intensifying and appeared intractable. Liberals and conservatives had irreconcilable visions of law, government, and society. They represented two fundamentally different and perhaps diametrically opposed countries. Perhaps, Schlichter and his friends mused, everyone would be happier with a national divorce.
Schlichter’s novel, People’s Republic, is a raucous imagining of that split and its aftermath. It envisions a not-too-distant future in which mass civil disobedience and armed resistance to a gun-confiscation law enacted by President Hillary Clinton (whoops!) precipitates the disintegration of the Union. Life in the 38 (mostly red) United States remains relatively pleasant, with widespread gun ownership, thriving agricultural production, and shared traditional values. The blue-state “People’s Republic of North America” has bigger problems: there simply isn’t enough money for every priority, the black market thrives, and an increasingly authoritarian police force struggles to keep order among a disappointed, angry, heavily urbanized populace.
Schlichter’s book came out two months before the 2016 election, when the scenario of an eventual conservative revolt against liberal governance seemed more likely. But since Election Day, it is liberals who are envisioning secession. “Yes California,” which advocates “Calexit,” has deployed 8,000 volunteers across 40 state-wide chapters, aiming to collect the 585,000 signatures required to put secession on the ballot in a March 2019 special election.
This spring, Black Mask Studios will release Calexit, a comic-book series about a “fascist” president who declares martial law and attempts to expel all immigrants from the country, prompting an armed resistance movement to spring up.
Talk of state independence has cropped up in Vermont, Oregon, and Washington. In The New Republic, Kevin Baker declares, “It’s time for blue states and cities to effectively abandon the American national enterprise, as it is currently constituted. Call it the New Federalism. Or Virtual Secession. Or Conscious Uncoupling—though that’s already been used. Or maybe Bluexit.”
The Left’s new appreciation for federalism, as noted by the New York Times and Boston Globe, is particularly ironic. Baker boasts that under his vision of a “New Federalism,” Blue America will turn into “a world-class incubator for progressive programs and policies, a laboratory for a guaranteed income and a high-speed public rail system and free public universities. We’ll focus on getting our own house in order, while yours falls into disrepair and ruin.”
Deep down, many Democrats believe conservative policies are so self-evidently wrong-headed, unjust, and dangerous that conservative-leaning states shouldn’t be allowed to pursue them.
Most conservatives, of course, love the idea of empowering state and local governments to be the so-called laboratories of democracy. Federalism as the term is commonly understood allows conservative policies to be enacted more quickly and liberal policies to be contained more effectively. The problem is that federalism can’t be conditioned on which party controls Washington, because then it turns into a “heads I win, tails you lose” scenario for one side. Democrats had little interest in federalism during the Obama years. Obama’s Justice Department sued states over their voter-ID laws, redistricting plans, school-voucher programs, and enforcement of immigration law. It’s reasonable to suspect that that the new pro-federalism voices on the Left will change their tune when Democrats return to the White House.
There is a larger problem, though: Deep down, many Democrats believe conservative policies are so self-evidently wrong-headed, unjust, and dangerous that conservative-leaning states shouldn’t be allowed to pursue them. This attitude, if sufficiently widespread, makes federalism impossible, which is a shame. If it was applied consistently, a federalist approach to controversial issues could soothe our political and cultural tensions and allow Americans to vote with their feet, gravitating to the governing philosophy, policies, and culture they like most.
The fantasy of a national separation may be comforting to those who find their party out of power. But like so many fantasies, it would be no fun at all in practice. (You would think our last national experience with a region’s attempt to break away in the 1860s had made that sufficiently clear.) Federalism could save our national marriage from divorce by giving each side some space. But if it’s merely an intellectual foundation for secessionist impulses, things will get worse before they get better.