CLICK IMAGE TO TUNE IN LIVE — SUNDAY. 4/19–8–9am PACIFIC. Governor-in-Chief Gavin Newsom has spoken of California as a nation-state in recent moths. F.H. Buckley – author of American Secession – joins me to dissect his comments.

Can California Just Declare Itself a Nation State?

Frank Buckley’s Predictions in American Secession are Looking Pretty Accurate

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Libertarians — myself included — have held out hope for a federalist revival that would shift power from the Federal Government back to the states, where it belongs. I even published a book of my favorite interviews on this theme, Power to the States: How Federalism 2.0 Can Make America Governable Again.

One of the chapters featured the unexpected rise in popularity of federalism in California (hardly a bastion of libertarian thought). On many issues, a majority of Californians want to resist the Federal Government — in some cases favoring even stricter standards, such as in the case of automobile emissions standards, while simultaneously seeking to relax Trump’s strict immigration controls.

One of the incredible civics lessons we will soon obtain from the Coronavirus outbreak has to do with the limits of “Federalism 2.0.” California Governor Gavin Newsom now appears to be positioning the Golden State as a Nation State. We have our own plan for re-opening the economy, which is allegedly based on “data” and “science” rather than politics.

While the Supreme Court has clearly upheld the states’ authority to implement quarantines, we are in somewhat uncharted territory as places like California, Oregon and Washington may attempt to extend the shelter-in-place guidelines — forcing healthy Americans to stay indoors — for an unreasonably long period of time.

Is the brewing showdown between President Trump and Governor Newsom an omen of a future Civil War, or could California legally secede from the Union without the need for a bloody war? Or, perhaps will we find a new balance of powers that eliminates the need for either?

Back in January, when I interviewed Frank Buckley on his latest book American Secession, I didn’t think a “Cal-Exit” could be so near on the horizon.

If Buckley’s thesis is correct, then Californians are desperate to regain their winning streak in the culture war, which ended when Trump was elected. Will they use the COVID-19 outbreak as a pretext to break with the rest of the country if a Trump re-election seems imminent?

This certainly isn’t the Federalism 2.0 I was hoping for.

Tune in for Frank’s always insightful and humorous analysis of the “Governor-in-Chief’s” strategic use of terms like “nation-state” and “exports” in responding to the Federal Government’s alleged abdication of responsibility.

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Bob Zadek: Welcome to the longest running live libertarian talk radio show in all of radio. Thank you so much for listening this Sunday morning. I’m happy to welcome back to the show Frank Buckley.

Frank is a senior editor at the American Spectator. He is a regular columnist at the New York Post and has written regularly for the Wall Street Journal, USA today, U.S. News, National Review and the American Conservative.

Frank has recently published American Secession, a timely book where he explores what would secession look and feel like in America today? Is it something to be welcomed or feared? or, are we already experiencing an
“American Secession” or are we about to experience it?

I raise the topic because California Governor Gavin Newsom had a bit of a hissy fit publicly awhile ago and was complaining about how President Trump and the Federal government was handling the coronavirus control, and shelter in place. He complained that he wasn’t getting his share of supplies, whatever that may mean. He announced California would exercise its power as a nation state and would acquire its own ventilators, its own testing kits, its massive bargaining power and buying power to somewhat economically separate itself from Washington. So Gavin Newsom clearly has listened to my earlier show and discussion with Frank when his book had just come out.

Newsom’s speech might have been a mini Fort Sumter attack. We will find out this morning. Frank, welcome to the show this morning,

Frank Buckley: Thank you for having me.

Analyzing the Concept of Nation-State

Bob Zadek: What do you think, Frank? California is sure big enough in economic and population size to stand proudly in the family of nations. Let’s drill down a bit. Gavin Newsom used the phrase “nation-state.” What do you imagine that concept might mean? Is California already a nation-state? Actually, Frank, how radical is the concept that California or any other state should consider itself a nation state?

Frank Buckley: There’s no magic about the word “nation” just by itself. You could imagine different nations within a single country very easily. Quebec says that it’s a nation that is part of the government of Canada. Scotland is a nation or something like that within Great Britain. To couple nations with nation-states suggests something more. It suggests a degree of independence. Gavin was talking about something like that when he talked about California going its own way in its response to the coronavirus epidemic. That’s really benign. That’s part of the Trump administration’s approach to all this, to let different states compete and find the best way. That’s just what federalism was all about.

So if what we’re talking about is nothing like the Civil War, but simply a return to the early federalism of the founders, that’s a good thing.

Divided Sovereignty: The Blueprint of America

Bob Zadek: You use the word “independence.” I’d like to expand upon that because states are in many ways independent of each other and of Washington. The stay-at-home orders, the quarantine, the police power — States are today structurally quite independent of Washington in those ways.

All the headlines have talked about the action states and localities have been taking independently of Washington, and we saw recently how edicts from Washington are a guidance, not a mandate. States are also in great ways — putting aside foreign policy, putting aside national defense — independent now as they always were.

Weren’t the states created in many ways as nation-states? Constitutionally they were independent of the Federal government in many ways. How much is Gavin Newson’s yearning to be a nation-state a done deal because states always have been nation-states?

Frank Buckley: The idea of independence brings with it the concept of sovereignty. When we were founded as a country, sovereignty was for the Brits a bit of a stumbling block. They couldn’t understand how you could have a British Empire within which there would be sovereign entities. In other words, they couldn’t conceive that America or the individual colonies could be sovereign in any respect. There could be only one sovereign.

Some people at the framers convention echoed that view. Alexander Hamilton did. But that wasn’t reflected in the document that came out of Philadelphia in 1787. Instead, we had an idea of divided sovereignty. So, a state would be sovereign with respect to state powers and the federal government would be sovereign with respect to its powers. You could have divided sovereignty – that’s the original conception of America. What has happened since then is that the line has been blurred, and state sovereignty fell into ill repute as a function of the way it was used by racists in southern states.

What Gavin Newson is trying to do here is recover the original understanding of American federalism in which states would be sovereign within their scope of competence.That’s a good thing, because not all wisdom emanates from Washington. It is good to see different states trying different things. It used to be called the laboratory of the states. Maybe we’ll learn from this or maybe we will learn that what they tried doesn’t work so well. Anyways, the best ideas will emerge from this competition between the states.

Bob Zadek: What is interesting is that it is the progressive states right now –perhaps because their guy is not in control of D.C. — so maybe they simply don’t want Washington having excessive “control” over the states because Washington is controlled by the other team. That’s the depressing view.

I don’t choose to take that view. I’m hopeful that the progressives — Newsom and Cuomo — have been outspoken. But putting that aside, it is encouraging to me to find that a return to original federalism is now very much being discussed in polite conversation.

Let’s use our imagination a bit. Assuming that this wave of secession, in the sense of the relationship between Washington and the states continues to gain momentum, speak as to what changes we might experience in this readjustment.

Frank Buckley: Well, the relationship is always a difficult one. There’s an internal fragility to federalism because if you want power, which politicians do, rule from Washington means a capturing of the castle — rule over 340 million people — which beats ruling over the million people living in the state of Wyoming for example. There’s always a tendency towards bigness, towards centralizing power, except when you get to the point where everybody realizes this has gone too far. I hope that’s where we are now.

What happens if people realize not every decision should be made for 340 million people from Washington, DC — right? The alternative is a return to federalism. The initiative may come from people like Gavin Newsom and people who are openly advocating secession in California. The movement might start simply with a desire to assert state control over some contentious matters, say education, which is clearly a state matter.

If a state were to declare itself independent or to make moves in that direction, I think what we would quickly find is that an independence referendum would not really be binding. It would really only begin a process of negotiation. Let’s say if Trump is reelected, a vote for secssion would just begin a process of negotiations because you have to start talking about how to divide up the federal debt. How do you divide up federal property? When it comes to that, the votes from people in other states matter too. The votes of people in California would matter, but the votes of the rest of the country would matter as well.

It would start with a process of negotiations and things like free trade, trading of goods and people, etc. would be on the table. You don’t just want sovereignty, you don’t just want independence — you want to couple it with interdependence, with continued relations with the rest of the country and indeed with the rest of the world. So in the same way that we have treaties with countries like Mexico and Canada, California would not want to become an autarchy and cut itself off from the rest of America.

A large part of California’s wealth comes from the fact that it trades with the rest of the United States. Nobody wants that to disappear, and you don’t want to need a passport to visit Las Vegas. All of these things would end up on the bargaining table and the most likely consequence of the bargain would be a return to the federalism of 200 years ago — the federalism of the Founders.

Back to the Future: Moving towards Federalism

Bob Zadek: I would like to remind our listeners that we are not talking about the very beginning of the process of the movement back to the future — the federalism of the founders. There are so many recent examples:

Sanctuary cities are where localities are saying to Washington that they reject the policy being imposed upon us.

With respect to the drug war, where use of marijuana and other Schedule-I controlled substances are illegal.

Yet Washington allows people to violate federal law so long as they are in compliance with state law. Congress has not allowed Washington to spend even one red cent of federal money to enforce federal drug laws.

Secession has been underreported and under-discussed. It should be giving all of us who favor federalism goosebumps. It’s almost as if the genie is out of the bottle and it’s on the way anyway. Drugs, sanctuary cities, and now the behavior of the states and localities to the Covid-19 virus.

So Frank, isn’t it well on the way? Are we gaining momentum?

Frank Buckley: This sort of thing has been going on for some time. It actually began when Northern states refused to enforce federal fugitive slave laws. The Supreme court held that the feds could not enlist state employees — state police — to enforce federal laws. And that’s what’s going on in California right now. The feds cannot enlist state troopers to enforce federal drug laws or immigration laws. That’s simply an example of federalism. Pot is illegal. That’ll come as a surprise to anybody who walks down the boardwalk in Venice but it is illegal under federal law. It’s just that the feds can’t really enforce it.

There are practical limits and legal limits to the fed’s ability to enforce federal law across the country. One thing we discovered is that there has been an expansion of federal criminal law which is rubbing against local feelings. It is an example of the perverse fragility of federalism. When you get a bunch of politicians in Washington debating whether to expand federal criminal law they will always tend to expand it in Washington. What you need is a kind of umpire that’s going to police that. For many years, the Supreme Court was not that umpire. You also need a push-back from the states, from people like Gavin Newsom.

Bob Zadek: Independence means recovering the past. It is independence from the one-size-fits-all, not from the national identity concept. We will still be Americans, but just as the founders were in 1788, they were citizens of the United States, but they were also proud citizens of their state, and they had much more control over their lives.

So Frank, the secession that you highlight in your book is really, yet again, citizens insisting upon more control over their lives. I find that encouraging, and one of the great areas of hope for the future of this country. It is healthy and it is strong. It is nothing other than when a young adult says, I am free of my parents. I don’t need that guidance anymore. I am in control of my life.

Frank Buckley: I’ve come across two different kinds of libertarians. One kind of libertarian concerns themselves solely with the rights of the individual vis-a-vis the state. That kind of person is apt to tune out debates about federalism. “What does it matter,” he’ll say, “there’s still going to be a state.”

There’s another kind of libertarian who says it also depends on the state in question. If California completely seceded from the union, you would entirely eliminate one level of government. I have to think for a libertarian that that is something they would applaud. Not only would you eliminate one level of government, but the more intrusive one at that. So what does federalism mean in this context? It isn’t exactly the same thing as libertarianism because if every state was permitted to go its own way on a whole range of issues, you’d have a variety of different responses on things like abortion, for example.

Some states would be more liberal than we are at present, although I don’t know if that’s possible. Some states would be less so. The libertarian who concerns themselves solely with individual rights — who would say we are no better — is wrong. We are better, since we get the option to sort ourselves out. You can move to a jurisdiction which works for you. You get to choose your level of laws by your location decisions. Californians are moving to Texas and vice versa, and in doing so they are opting for the level of law that they want. Some Californians find the laws in California to be oppressive so they will move.

Bigness vs. Individual Happiness: An Argument for Federalism

Bob Zadek: In your book you point about the concept of bigness in terms of size of government and the size of the country, individual wellbeing. You point out with historical references as well as contemporary references how “bigness” goes against individual happiness.

Federalism, which means the instrument of government which controls us most directly means that each state is now smaller. This should make us happier right?

Frank Buckley: The optimal size of a country, the question of bigness versus smallness, was a big topic of debate when our country was created with the Framers at their convention in Philadelphia in 1787. The winner of the debate was a group of small state delegates who decided smallness was goodness. The people who opposed them, Madison and Hamilton, were shot down basically.

Some of the delegates, George Mason for example, said we have these western states in the Ohio Valley who want to join the Union, and we don’t want that. We want to stay small. Inevitably the country moved across to the Pacific to California. We added a lot of new states. We became big.

We started with a country of 4 million people in 1776. We ended up with a country of over 340 million people — one of the largest countries in the world. I did some number crunching over this. I found that smaller countries are happier countries. They’re less corrupt. They’re freer. The intuitive explanation is that when you have a small country, the people are closer to the rulers, right? The voters are closer to their governors and the leaders can be disciplined if they’re not doing a good job. It is a lot harder when you have one country of 340 million people. This gets into the debate of the electoral college, which was meant to preserve smallness in a way. The people who are saying that the winner of the popular vote should be the president are essentially making an argument for bigness.

Bob Zadek: Obviously by definition a state is smaller than the whole of the country. Your research is a strong argument in favor of smallness — to transfer more power over your day-to-day life from Washington to the states. Who knows better than people who are closer to you? What is good for you individually and collectively? The answer is obvious. The concept of Washington going back perhaps in more modern times to President Wilson was that autocrats in Washington are elite, they are smarter and they know better.

So the concept of this elitism is that somebody distant knows better simply because they are presumptively smarter. And if you were designing a concept as the founders did, and as we are doing this morning, you would never design a concept to find a way to remove power as far away from the people as possible. It makes no sense.

Frank Buckley: It makes no sense at all and much of our politics right now is a reaction against that kind of bigness. If you remember the Tea Party movement during the reign of good King Obama, that was a peaceful revolt against the government from Washington. The people among the Progressive’s who are unhappy with President Trump right now are basically the left version of the Tea Party. In both cases what they object to is the winner-takes-all kinds of politics. It matters who the president is and much of the anger of politics would dissipate if you withdrew that power from the Federal government to the States.

The people right now who object to Trump are really objecting to rule from Washington. The same was true of the Tea Party, right? It would matter less if the power of the Federal government were less. If what mattered more was who the governor of your state was then California wouldn’t be so worked up about President Trump.

An Area of Bipartisan Agreement

Bob Zadek: On the issue of power to the states, it isn’t clear. Depending on the issue, progressives favor “states rights,” an ugly phrase with an ugly history going back to the Dixiecrats in 1948 and Strom Thurmond and that crowd. States’ rights doesn’t mean that ugliness, it simply means federalism.

But in many ways progressives’ strongly support of federalism and states’ rights — for example, sanctuary cities, ignoring federal drug laws, California establishing its own emission standards for automobiles, etc. — there are so many instances where progressives embrace states’ rights. And similarly, there are many instances where conservatives and libertarians favor states’ rights. So this seems to be the major political issue for which there seems to be agreement. What’s preventing it from accelerating?

Frank Buckley: If there is agreement, and there is, a big reason has to do with the success of the Civil Rights revolution. It’s not 1948 and more power to states like Alabama and Mississippi would not mean that the civil rights revolution would be undone in those states. There are a large number of African American voters in those communities.

Bob Zadek: We also have a constitution to prevent regression.

Frank Buckley: I could see different states going different ways with respect to things like religious rights for example. You have cases going up before the Supreme Court with respect to the so-called Blaine amendment, which adds aid to parochial schools. It was frankly anti-Catholic movements in large part.

So different states might go different ways on different things concerning the Bill of Rights. We’re living in a liberal democracy where every state adheres to basic liberal values. I mean, there’ll be differences with respect to some issues, but in general, the civil rights revolution has succeeded and that has made federalism more attractive.

Bob Zadek: One of the areas that mitigate against the devolution of power back to the states is the taxing power. When Washington is able to suck so much money out of the states through national taxes, once you have the money and return the money to the states, you return it with conditions, which means the states have some control, but the feds really control how the money is spent. So, in order for federalism to accelerate, what is required is that Washington would have to return money to the States through block grants on some fair basis so that states can do what they wish within very broad guidelines. Once that is determined to be kind of silly, why have the money to go to Washington to begin with? Then a reduction in federal taxes with reduction in federal power and an increase in state taxes if they wish, and an increase in state power if they wish. I think in order to have a peaceful de facto secession, you have to readjust the money because that is the elephant in the room.

Frank Buckley: You’re talking about the federal government’s so-called spending power — its ability to suck up all the money and then to send it back to the states with strings attached. Because of the thickness of our regulatory state, the way in which basic decisions are run out of Washington would surprise people. Highway decisions are often made out of Washington. Even local bike lanes might have to do with federal spending. There is no real reason for that.

The only fly in the ointment has to do with the fact that some states are rich and some are poor, so there’s a net transfer from rich to poor states, right from the California’s to the Mississippi’s, which makes separation more politically attractive for a lot of Californians. The people running the separatist campaign in California are saying we are getting less from Washington than we send to Washington.

Bob Zadek: I have an observation about rich states and poor States. Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan are countries or nation-states without much going for them in terms of inherent wealth. They do have free markets and personal freedom making them global powerhouses. Poor states are made poor by bad policies. There need not be poor states. Some states right now have fewer natural resources and worse weather, but they are not for that reason alone poor or not poor. So I wonder about that concept about poor states and whether more power to the states would allow them to become richer by their own political activity.

Frank Buckley: George Gilder’s Wealth and Poverty written in the mid-seventies, talks about the Saudis, and Gilder says that is not the source of wealth, it is the ability of people within a country to do their own thing, to start a business, to have an infrastructure which supports all of that. The Saudis are very poor in that respect. The true source of wealth is people and not something in the ground.

Bob Zadek: California is described as a wealthy state, but California has more people living in poverty by federal standards than any other state as a percentage of the population. So California is proof that there is no such thing as an inherently rich or inherently poor State. They are made that way by their policies. And with the growth of federalism, States could become wealthy if they wanted.

A Cynical Reason for California’s Embrace of Federalism

Bob Zadek: There has been no structural complaint about the fact that we’re in a pickle because Washington cannot enforce national stay-at-home laws or stay-at-home regulations. Nobody is complaining about that. People have been so willing to accept the neutering of federal power insofar as the virus is concerned. It’s interesting to me that in a country that has become so used to having all power reside in Washington, nobody is concerned that power doesn’t reside in Washington. People are content to leave it to the governors.

Frank Buckley: There’s a cynical explanation for that. The guys who ordinarily want to see more federal power realize that today that would mean more power in President Trump, which they don’t like. I think what’s been going on is a great argument for federalism. You had a bunch of States initially going their own way with respect to the stay at home orders and now you have states that are experimenting with relaxing those rules.

This question is so complicated that it really matters to see how one state does it versus another. You’ve got extremes between Michigan on the one hand, very repressive, and Florida much less so. We’re seeing pressure from people both ways. I’m generally in favor of opening up the economy as quickly as possible. I’m looking forward to seeing the governors experiment with loosening things up.

Bob Zadek: An indication of the utter hypocrisy in the state of California is that amid all of this, right in the middle of Gavin Newsom declaring nation statehood for California, which means power to the states, President Obama — in a not necessarily headline grabbing event — backed down from the nutrition standards which schools must exhibit in school lunches, the standards that Michelle Obama imposed upon the states.

Trump rejected those, he reversed them. As a result, Trump said, the states can decide the nutritional balance and what should be in school lunches. Seems sensible to me, but California is now suing Washington demanding it reverse that. In other words, the very state that is declaring nation-statehood is suing Washington for ceding power to the States. How bizarre is that? My goodness, have they no shame.

Frank Buckley: That’s called California imperialism. That’s a case of California wanting to impose California standards on the rest of the country.



-- • host of The Bob Zadek Show on 860AM – The Answer.

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Bob Zadek

Bob Zadek • host of The Bob Zadek Show on 860AM – The Answer.

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