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Hell Yes, Secesh! Don’t Let The Door Hit You On The Way Out

It is a measure of the sheer poverty of our national politics that the notion of secession is in the air again. Hey, just like those happy days of slavery and civil war again!

Last summer, no less an official than the governor of Texas and likely presidential aspirant (never mind the irony - this is regressivism we're talking about here, folks), Rick Perry, hinted that if Washington didn't stop leaning so hard on the states, then people down there might just get to feelin' justified to go their own way. Don't mess with Texas, Eastern elite dudes! Meanwhile, though, Perry will of course continue accepting large lump-sum checks from the Feds, if it's all the same to you.

Then knucklehead governor of Virginia, Bob McDonnell, who seems every day more like a model of forward thinking - if only it were still the thirteenth century - has joined the recent stampede to honor those great patriots of the 1860s - who, er, um, tried to wreck the country - by re-instituting Confederate History Month there. No mention of slavery, either. Great idea, Bob! And so original, too. Old, racist, white guys feeling victimized by history. What a novel concept!

Meanwhile tea party savants continue to demonstrate the volatile dangers of amateur alchemy, mixing ample ignorance with toxic rage to produce catastrophic idiocy in scary proportions. (As if twenty minutes of watching Glenn Beck wasn't single-handedly sufficient to make that case by itself.) They hate the oppression of Washington and bemoan the transgressions against states' rights. Then they go cash their Social Security checks, on the way to their Medicare-funded doctor's office visit.

As if that weren't nutty enough, now we learn that a Republican district nominating convention in Minnesota - Minnesota! - missed by just two votes including a resolution in its platform declaring that states have the right to secede from the union. What is in those lakes up there?!?!

These are the ravings of lunatics. The combination of federalism and capitalism makes American government in Washington about the least intrusive of any in the world, apart from those that are just a mess. I guess if you happen to think that the people of Sweden are being crushed as we speak under the oppressive yoke of socialism, you might find the (very low) tax rates in America to be scandalous. I guess if you think our good friends in Britain are enraged that they not only don't have a federal system of vertical power sharing like we do, but they don't even have states with which the national government could share power if it wanted to, then you might get away with thinking that Washington is a cruel taskmaster, lording it over Mississippi and Arizona. Just one thing, though - don't tell the Swedes or the Brits. So far, they have miraculously managed to avoid finding out just how oppressed and unhappy they truly are.

It's also amusing that you rarely hear the nice folks of the unhinged right specifying what it is, exactly, that the fascist feds are taking away from them. Guns?! Well, er, actually, no. Religion?! Gimme a break. The right to be racist?! Still perfectly legal.

Even though logic is to the right in America what a snarling Doberman is to cornered blind cat, I'd like to nevertheless dignify their rants by treating them seriously enough to agree with their expressed desires. If Texas wants to leave the union, I say: Let ‘em. Same with anyone else. I'm not kidding. I mean it.

I say that for three reasons. The first is philosophical. I have never understood how one can claim to believe in democracy, but only if people are limited in what they get to decide via their democratic institutions. It's not enough that you get to pick your representatives, or even set policy directly through an initiative or referendum. Ultimately, the most profoundly undemocratic thing you can do is force people to belong to polities they don't want to be part of, and set that question as off-limits to their democratic decision-making. Americans hate the idea of being dictated to by this or that international institution. Why should they in turn demand that states be dictated to by America? If one happens to care about consistency of principle, this makes no sense.

Except if, as we often do, we reify the present into the eternal. America, we say, must remain intact because it exists today and we therefore cannot imagine any other alternative. Well, guess what? There wasn't always America. There wasn't always France or Britain or Germany or Canada either. In fact, the creation of each of these polities from their respective parts was deeply controversial in its time and often remains so today. Don't be surprised if any day now the Québécois vote in a referendum to leave Canada, or the Scots to ditch the UK and form their own country. It's already come close to happening. And if that's what they want, then that's what they should be allowed to do. Otherwise, let's not fool ourselves. It ain't democracy. It might even be colonialism.

The second reason I don't have a problem with the concept of secession is pragmatic. The fact is that secession attempts are going to happen. Always have, always will. And when they do, there are basically two response options available to those who are the would-be seceded upon: The first is what you might call the Lincoln model, which is to deny anyone the right to leave a union their grandparents voluntarily joined or (more often) were forced into, and to fight a war if necessary to prevail on that question. It's bloody and it is, as I've already pointed out, highly undemocratic. I may be the only guy north of the Mason-Dixon Line to argue this, but I think Lincoln was wrong to force the South to remain in a union they no longer wanted to be in (not to mention the irony of him invoking the American War of Independence, over precisely the same concept, in the Gettysburg Address). The same is true of the ugly war Russia has fought in Chechnya, or the nasty Balkans wars of the 1990s. The principle is exactly the same in each case.

Option two, which I am happy to report the Anglophone Canadians or the English in the UK would surely follow today, is to say a reluctant good-bye. Divide up the household assets, get a divorce, pat the kids on the head, wish them luck, and send them packing. We might call this the Gorbachev model, and thank goodness he employed, rather than Russia going down Lincoln's path and fighting the fourteen other former republics to make them remain in the Soviet Union. Can anybody say the world is substantially worse off today because Belarus or Kazakhstan are independent states now? On the other hand, there are about 650,000 Americans who were consumed in Mr. Lincoln's war, and one heck of a lot more additional misery back then, beyond those direct battle deaths. That's a lot of people whom we can definitely say were seriously worse off. And for what? What great disaster would have ensued had the US split?


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That's a serious question, which brings me to reason number three for letting secesh secede. It's not exactly a secret that the folks who want to split from the union today (as before) are the ones with the nastiest, most backward politics in the country, and would therefore hardly represent a loss to the rest of us. Worst of all, though, because they are aggressive and skilled at hard-ball politics, they are also the folks who hold leadership positions in the US government, way out of proportion to their numbers. Which means that their lousy politics get nationalized for all of us to enjoy. Thinking I'm kidding? Do these names mean anything to you?: Bush, Cheney, DeLay, Palin, McCain, Armey, Clinton, McConnell, Gingrich, Lott, Frist, Rove, Atwater, Thurmond, Helms. and so on... For years now, these fine folks have been working to turn the USA into Mississippi, rather than the other way around.

And they've succeeded. So now that they're talking about seceding, I'm wondering exactly what the down-side is. It's not like we in the would-be rump United States will lose revenue or something. In fact, the opposite is true. The folks who bitch the most about the oppressive heavy hand of Washington are always the same ones whose states are net recipients of federal funds. Which makes the rest of us net payers. And, I'm sorry, I don't mind helping out my comrades (even in Texas) who need an assist here and there. But not if they're going to have stupid and regressive policies. And especially not if the price of my assistance is having them insist we all have stupid and regressive policies. And really, totally, especially not if they're going to complain about how tough it is being forced to receive and spend my tax dollars.

I'm dead serious, then, when I say good riddance to the tea party and GOP dominated states and their backward societies. If they want to secede from the union, we should encourage them. We in the progressive states will then be free to actually make thoughtful public policy decisions for once, without all this painful catering to absolutely obstinate regressive politicians. They, meanwhile, can set up their ideal Republic of Jesus. They can toss out science and do supersti... - sorry, I mean religion - instead, as the basis for their education system and other policy decisions. They can spend all their money on the military and eat pork rinds all day long. They can cut their lazy seniors off the Social Security and Medicare dole, and put them to work in coal mines right up until the day they die. It will be good for their character! They can oppress women and minorities and gays just as much as they need to in order to feel better about their sorry selves, and then watch what happens when all those folks split for better places, like where we live. (Watch out, though - we may borrow their repressive immigration policies to keep them out of Intelligent America. We'll treat regressives like they treat poor Mexican immigrants, and wouldn't that alone be worth the price of admission?)

I'd like nothing more, to be honest, than to see those two new polities, side by side, conduct a little living experiment in social science. Let's all come back ten, thirty and fifty years later and compare notes. Let's see who is succeeding and who is just seceding, whose policy ideas work, and whose don't.

But there's one little problem, of course. There wouldn't just be two new polities - there would be more. In some ways, the best thing that happened to the Confederacy was to lose the war, because otherwise, like any good confederal polity, they would have immediately had to struggle with the massive problems of a pathetically weak central government. It's the same built-in disaster that caused the Founders to ditch the Articles of Confederation after about a decade or so of failure under its structure, opting instead for the horrifyingly repressive federalism model of the Constitution instead.

Let's say the South were to secede tomorrow, and establish Richmond as the capital of the new Confederate States of America. Not only would those boneheads immediately realize that none of their problems were solved by ditching Washington, and not only would they see that their problems and standard of living just got worse without us to carry them anymore, but they would also still be dealing with the same old power issues, only with worse outcomes. Richmond would try to give orders to Texas, only to find Texas flipping them a very nice little states' rights birdie in response. It might even get deeper than that. Maybe southern Florida would split from the northern half of the state. Secession on secession. And so on. What an accomplishment, eh?

If it sounds like I'm laughing at these tea party buffoons and their secession rants, it's because I am.

And if it sounds like I'd be more than happy to grant them the wish of their autonomy, it's because I would.

Indeed, I would just as soon that we secede from them ourselves, if they're not going to get there first.

Goodbye, and good riddance.

Oh, and good luck, too. Y'all are gonna need it.

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David Michael Green

David Michael Green

David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York.

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