Secession: A How-to Guide
Frank Buckley compares the divided states of America to a married couple with irreconcilable differences.
Frank Buckley‘s ’new book, American Secession argues that when it comes to country size, bigness is bad and small is beautiful. And he thinks we are on the verge of a break up.
Would America be better off as many smaller countries? While the case has been made by many inferior minds, Buckley brings a historical context that makes it seem less far-fetched to envision a Republic of California, Vermont, etc.
When the Framers set out to tinker with the Articles of Confederation, few thought they would come up with a brand new Constitution.
28 states have proposed a constitutional convention, or “con-con,” to tie federal government’s hands with a balanced-budget amendment. If the necessary 38 states pass such resolutions, we could end up with a much more dramatic event — secession.
The United States is no longer one country, but at least two. He’s issued this warning in previous books and on my show before. A left-leaning elite (mostly clustered in coastal cities) now comprises a “New Class” that shares little in common with the rural population that elected Trump in 2016. And although “secession” is still a dirty word for most progressives, that hasn’t stopped a number of breakaway movements like Calexit and the Second Vermont Republic from gaining momentum. If Trump is elected to a second term, these will surely gain steam.
So let’s say California got fed up and wanted to opt out. Then what? Texas tried it in 1861, but was smacked down by the Supreme Court in Texas v. White after the end of the Civil War. The Court ruled that Texas’ vote to secede from the Union prior to the war didn’t count — in other words, the relationship between states in the Union was “dissoluble.”
Nothing has changed since then, meaning the only legal route to secession is through a “con-con.” While most historians look favorably on the preservation of the Union during the Civil War, Buckley argues that there’s more to be gained today from a legally-sought secession.
Today, America increasingly looks like a unitary state than the republic the Framers gave us thanks to the explosive growth of Federal government in 20th century. This “bigness” has taken a toll on our happiness, our wealth, our freedom, and the overall effectiveness of the government.
Listen to the show to hear the full argument and the “how-to” guide for a modern day secession movement. Those who read his new book will come away with a very message. Namely, that national self-determination can be exercised for progressive reasons, and that a looming break up may in fact be the best way to avert another Civil War.
Frank Buckley compares the divided states of America to a married couple with irreconcilable differences. Is it best for us to part amicably, or muddle through?
Bob Zadek: About the greatest gift that a scholar can give to Americans and to the world is to take a concept which is considered to be unthinkable, and to make it thinkable, if there is such a word as that. Our guest this morning has done exactly that.
Frank Buckley has written a book which raises a concept that my friends out there will think to be unthinkable. But it is not. It is fascinating, interesting, and provocative. Once you start wondering about the concept, if you are like me at all, you can’t let go.
Frank’s book is entitled American Secession: The Looming Threat of a National Breakup. Frank, welcome to the show this morning and thank you so much in advance for the writing and the Tuesday publication of your book.
Frank Buckley: Well, Bob, thanks very much for having me.
The Reasons For Thinking About Secession
Bob Zadek: Your book is entitled *American Secession, the Looming Threat of a National Breakup.* Secession, although it clearly has a defined meaning, can describe a continuum of political events or political circumstances. So secession isn’t one concept but a range of concepts. What is there about America today that makes you fear or wonder about secession?
Frank Buckley: There are maybe more now than in 1961different people of different persuasions in the United States — not just divisions. The divisions are so intense. There’s so much animosity that you have to wonder at some point where that is going to lead.
If half the country thinks the rest of the country is deplorable, why do they want to be in the same country as us? And if you’re one of the deplorables, do you want to be in the same country as the people who despise you so openly? Particularly so when secession is not the great bogey man but rather it is actually something quite feasible and quite doable, which is not what people understand. Most of the countries in the world are staring down some form of those secession crisis. Why do we think we are exceptional?
Bob Zadek: We will come back to the word crisis. Whether the session is a crisis or whether the crisis causes secession and secession is actually a cure, we will find out and revisit that. You said the country has never been more divided. I wonder if that is really the case. There are many social and political divisions in some ways, but they have always been here. People didn’t just start feeling a certain way.
I think the country has always been divided, but it didn’t matter so much when we had less concentration of power in Washington. If California chooses to organize its government and its lifestyle in a certain way, it didn’t matter to California and it shouldn’t matter if Arkansas makes a different decision or the people of Arkansas. California is free to live its way and Arkansas is free to live this way and while there may not be approval, it doesn’t matter because who cares if somebody chooses red rather than blue or green?
It is only when power becomes concentrated in Washington so that the team in power gets to impose its laws on others. If the team in power is Midwestern in its organization, it gets to impose that point of view on the coasts and vice versa. So would you agree with me or take issue with the fact that the divisions have always been there? It’s just that centralization of power makes it more significant to the average person than if the States where the where the locus of political power?
Frank Buckley: There are a couple of questions in that. So let me take them in turn. The first question is, are we really more divided now than at any time in the past? And I would argue the answer is yes. Maybe the exception is 1776, but in 1861 slavery did not divide people.
I might invite people to take a look at the last state of the union message that James Buchanan sent to Congress in 1860. What he said was that he understood why South Carolina was not happy, but no country in the world better protected slavery, and we we’ren’t going to change that. And indeed in the spring of 1861, the most prominent Republicans, William Seward and Abraham Lincoln, were prepared to have a constitutional amendment, which would guarantee slavery in perpetuity. So that really wasn’t much of a division.
Right now the divisions are greater and the animosity is intense. One of the great problems here is the effort to create a one size fits all government across the United States through Washington. In one sense the stakes are lower than they were in 1861. Slavery wasn’t an issue in 1861, but it became an issue. But right now, the civil rights revolution has largely taken hold. We are not going back to Jim Crow or anything like that in any part of the country, and if a session happens, it might well come from places like woke California, in other words it would be politically correct.
But here we have a federal government enforcing laws across the country and a Supreme court upholding rights applicable across the country and there is no opt out. When the federal thumbprint was smaller, it didn’t matter so much. We could settle where we wanted, and have the form of government we wanted, but you can’t escape the United States government short of something like secession, or a vast expansion of States rights, which I favor.
Demystifying Secession: The Two Templates
Bob Zadek: And of course the latter is just getting back to the Federalism the founders gave us. So that’s an easy one. There is widespread support for what you just said, which is power back to the States. In fact, I published a book a while ago on Power to the States. I’m hoping for that now. There are two templates. There is of course, Brexit — basically one small unit seceding out from a much larger unit. And then there is Czechoslovakia, both of which you discuss in your book. Tell us about those two templates.
Frank Buckley: There are two questions. The first is, who are the secessionists? One plausible source of secession would come from libertarians. Imagine the ability to get rid of one entire level of government by snapping your fingers. As for Brexit, here’s another potential group of secessionists. There are a whole bunch of people who worry about how we’ve become an administrative state and they claim we have departed from the rule of law and given it over to the regulators. Brexit is a form of regulatory reform. What the Brits objected to was the ceding of administrative power to Brussels, and Brexit completely reverses all of that.
If you’re one of those people who worry about the administrative state that would make you sympathetic to some form of either secession or broad devolution away from the regulatory state based in Washington. As for Czechoslovakia and Quebec, there are a lot of people who assume that if there is a session that it is going to involve violence. For example there was the attempt of secession in 1861 and that didn’t turn out terribly well. But that is not the history of modern secession movements, right? The history is that they involve people sitting around the table and cutting deals, which is Czechoslovakia. The differences between the Czechs and the Slovaks were fairly smaller. The Czechs were kind of more hip and with it and the Slovaks were more conservative, Catholic, agrarian, etc.
The differences were basically pretty slight, but nevertheless, they decided to go their own way and they’re getting on famously. The other example is Quebec, and I lived through a succession referendum and that came very close. What the separatist government in Quebec proposed was not outright independence. What they proposed was something called sovereignty independence.
What sparked this in Quebec was enthusiasm for something called Bill 101, which was legislation passed by the separatist government, which was really frankly kind of anti-English.The English in Quebec called the Bill 401. Why? Because 401 is the name of the highway between Montreal and Toronto. The Anglos just looked at what was happening and pulled up stakes and moved to Toronto or Montreal. That’s kind of what you would expect to see happen were there a secession movement in the United States. It would be great or U-Haul but there wouldn’t be any more.
Bob Zadek: A far less dramatic change would simply be if federal legislation were enacted with an opt-in or opt-out election, so that every state could elect to have a federal law. Something like nullification, which Jefferson and Madison speculated about with the Kentucky Resolutions, where states could not nullify, but could elect to adopt and be governed by regulation and otherwise not. That would be a huge relief of pressure and that would remove the pressure to secede. Whether we’re talking about minimum wage legislation or right to work laws, whatever federal legislation abounds. If by a vote of the state legislature opt in or opt out, that would in effect be secession light, wouldn’t it?
Frank Buckley: Yeah, it would be. Although I think it would take more than that because the problem is not Congress perhaps so much as it is the Supreme Court. That gives one a clue as to why the debates are different in 2019 than they were 10 years back or 20 years back. Something cataclysmic happened for the left in 2016 with the election of Donald Trump. Why did the left go nuts? What exactly happened was the left had assumed that they had won the culture wars. Back in 1992, Irving Kristol, the father of Billy Crystal, said “the culture Wars are over, the left won.” And the left pretty much assumed that. Republicans like Mitt Romney or even George W. Bush never seriously threatened the hegemony over the culture enjoyed by the left in the media and through the courts.
The left had the courts and now they don’t. If Trump makes a couple more Supreme Court appointments, the changes with respect to the Supreme Court might be fairly substantial. For the left this is an existential crisis. It is like a religious war. So Trump represented something entirely different in American politics, which is a complete reversal of something that left thought it had won. That explains the psychosis with respect to the Antifa people.
It seems to me that the left is going to either admit defeat and compromise. Drag queen story hour, forget about it. Right? That’s one possibility. I don’t think it will happen. The other possibility is that they will look seriously at secession.
Bob Zadek: When you talk about secession, do you foresee it being like the Brexit model or do you imagine that the country will virtually divide itself in half, and the complex division occurs?
Frank Buckley: Probably the 1861 model, which is one state taking the lead (that was South Carolina in 1860) and other States following. My assumption has been it would be a movement from the left. So you can expect a state like Oregon to leave and then have other States join. Other States would come along rather slowly.
Would would happen afterwards would be a recognition that there might be such a thing as a right of secession. Up until 1861 people assumed there was a right of secession. The originalists, faithful to the intention of the framers, would agree that there was a freedom of secession. So like you’d expect with a referendum in a state followed by a declaration of secession from the state legislature signed by the governor. All these things inevitably end up before the Supreme Court and I think the Supreme Court at that point would be forced to conclude that there is neither an absolute bar nor an absolute right to secession. The parties would have to get together and talk about it.
Bob Zadek: Since succession can be carried out as a negotiation, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. There are degrees which we will talk about after the break, where a country where the end result is federalism simply with a different label with power devolving back to the states, which in my view, relieves the pressure. If the stakes are not that great, then the left can have their way of life and the right can have their way of life and there’s no external force affecting that. Once people are allowed to live their life and to pay the level of taxes they think is appropriate and to provide the level of public services they think is appropriate, all of the pressure goes away.
We won’t need anything with high drama. How do you go about relieving the pressure in this country, the political, social, economic pressure caused by the division is the challenge facing us? Secession may be the ultimate remedy but the least likely remedy. But maybe not.
We are really discussing whether one group of people ought to be able to force their will as to lifestyle, to the level of taxation, and as to social control, on another group. Is it politically healthy to enable any group to be able to force their will as to other than the most basic standards such as “don’t harm me and don’t take my stuff”?
Probably not. And if that’s not healthy, is it healthy for one state to force its will upon another state? Probably not.
The Results of Secession: Downsizing
Bob Zadek: Are Americans better off if we are big and powerful as opposed to being less big and less powerful? You discuss that in the book, because the byproduct of secession is that the resulting countries are smaller and less powerful. Is that good or bad?
Frank Buckley: I described the kinds of people who might favor something like secession. They would include the people who were just tired of being hated. It would include the people who are libertarian and like the idea of getting rid of one level of government. It would include the people who worry about the administrative state and they would see secession as something like regulatory reform. It would include people like Peter Schweitzer who worry about corruption, which is mostly the Washington based corruption. So who are the people on the other side? Nationalists, and what drives the nationalists? I mean, what is it about America that would make them want to hold the whole thing together? One of the things is the idea that in America, of 330 million people, we are the toughest kid on the block.
We got all the guns in the room and we can dominate any other countries militarily. This is something the neocons supported after the fall of communism. So we would be giving up that sense of glory if we split up into smaller countries. But maybe glory is not all it’s cracked up to be. You could offer the following deal to California. If you didn’t have to pay for the military of the United States, you would save enough to finance a national health scheme in California. That is the deal offered to California. I think a lot of people would take it because the point is that glory has a price tag, in terms of American lives lost and in terms of how we dominate the world in terms of military spending.
If you want to indulge neocon dreams about dominating the world, okay. One of the reasons why Trump won in 2016 is he opposed that. He wants to pull back American troops except where there are American interests at stake. I think most Americans would trade off glory for other things at this point.
Bob Zadek: Earlier I said your book makes the unthinkable thinkable. Your discussion about glory makes that point exactly through a mind game that I invite our listeners to play. How would you feel in the deep corners of your psyche as a citizen of the country and of the planet if America were smaller militarily without being any less safe — if we were less dominant in world affairs, if we had a foreign policy that didn’t care all that much about what the rest of the world did, so long as they treated us fairly and we’re not a threat, you would just another country, a free country, a prosperous country, a happy country?
If that is appealing to you then you are signed onto Frank’s observation that bigness is not necessarily good and maybe kind of bad. America as a non-world power, no less safe, no less prosperous, just less important.
Frank Buckley: We live in a world that is completely dominated by the U.S. military. You wouldn’t be Denmark, but you’d be closer to Denmark. And when you take a look at the experience of other countries, it is easy to conclude that power is actually not good. The happiness countries tend to be smaller countries. They are less entangled in a swamp, the government is closer to the people and better reflects them.
What gives Washington the intellectual power to be able to tell you how to govern your life in San Diego? It’s bad enough in Sacramento but Washington? The bigger the country, the easier it is for interest groups to step in and get their own way. Small is beautiful. If you look at those smaller countries, you have countries that are free or freer than the United States. You have countries that are pretty well-governed and countries that are whole lot less corrupt and you’d be surrounded by people who tend to agree with you on most things.
I don’t want a passport to visit you in Ohio and San Diego. Those kinds of discussions would be on the cards. It wouldn’t be a Declaration of Independence. It would be something in between. We declared independence from Britain. Two years later the Brits came to their senses and said we’re going to offer you everything you want. We’d like to keep foreign policy and we want you to maintain your connection to the British crown. And the Americans at that point said, no. We are in the middle of a war. But that kind of a deal offered to the California’s and Oregon’s should be pretty tempting.
Bob Zadek: The great contribution of the book is that it invites in a very important way, Americans to rethink the core relationship of American citizens to Washington. While secession is at the very end of the spectrum, there are so many intermediate grounds as we have spoken about and Brexit is a good example of this. Although right now it’s really messy, it is expected that the UK will be trading with the EU, that they will still be a part of NATO. They already have defense treaties. So if done right, the effect upon the UK will be profoundly positive and very little negative. They will get back local control of a lot of their life without losing very much in exchange, and without warfare.
This is simply a negotiation. Who among us wouldn’t want to have more local control. The only people who don’t are the people who yearn to control others.If you surrender that yearning to control others, you really can’t oppose what Frank is proposing in one form or another. When you made reference to the founding era, you really want to go back to the past. You want to go back to the past in the most positive way where Washington was basically the postmaster general in terms of the effect upon the everyday life of Americans. We don’t have that today but that’s kind of the goal. It’s good old-fashioned Federalism that you want, correct?
Frank Buckley: I like going back to the framers for a lot of reasons.These guys were about the smartest people around then or anytime since, and they were eminently practical people. They well understood the possibility of the union splitting apart. When the framers met on several occasions, people said, “We are going to leave you guys. We’re going to go our own way. We might make alliances with some foreign country that will treat us better.” They were kind of carving up America at that point.
At one point, Madison suggested the possibility of federal troops being sent in to enforce federal laws upon the States. He proposed that at one point and then almost immediately there afterwards he said, “Oh my God, I don’t really think that. I don’t believe that. No federal government should be given the power to invade a state.”
Of course, when Alexandria was invaded in 1861 it was from federal troops on the other side of the river that did it. I don’t think that would happen. If it were Oregon or California that wanted out, a president like Trump might take a look at the electoral college and say, “Oh, okay, I can live with that.”
Bob Zadek: Therefore the whole concept of secession, which inevitably people in their consciousness associate it with the Civil War, a bloody conflict with 750,000 American lives lost. But that’s not at all what we are talking about. We are talking about a rejiggering of the relationship between citizens and the federal government and citizens and the state government. We are not talking about anything with high drama, or with any violence at all.
Explaining the Concept of Home Rule
Bob Zadek: Now Frank, you mentioned in your book a concept called “Home Rule.” Tell us about that.
Frank Buckley: Home rule was something that the Gladstone government in England offered to Ireland as a way of pacifying the country. The Irish objected to rules from Westminster. So England said we will give you a self rule within Ireland with the exception of certain things, such as Ireland establishing a particular religion, and foreign affairs.
There would be free movement of goods and people. Stuff like that would be discussed if we were to go that route in American. The way that this would happen would be something like an Article V Constitutional convention. People would have to bargain over this. I don’t think there’s a unilateral right of exit and I don’t think there’s a unilateral barrier to exit. I think there is a middle ground somewhere. If there were a referendum to secede which was ratified by the state legislatures, you have to choose between your allegiance to a unified country and the rule of democracy. Because you wouldn’t have democracy. So all things points towards renegotiation of federalism under something like home rule.
Smaller Countries, Happier Countries?
Bob Zadek: Is there a sensible starting point for the states to have “home rule?” If much federal legislation allowed the states to opt out, that would immediately weaken the negative influences of division in this country. It doesn’t matter if people feel different ways about ways of life and social and economic issues. It wouldn’t matter if States are not forced to adopt a point of view that most of its citizens don’t want. A negotiated change in that relationship would make us a far more United country and it would be perhaps a manner of secession or a secession-light. A simple act like that would make us so much happier place. You make reference to happiness. You did a little bit earlier in the book, but let’s close on an upbeat note and tell us about happiness in smaller countries versus happiness in big tough America.
Frank Buckley: That is a debate that goes back hundreds of years to Montesquieu vs Madison. If you look at the data, smaller countries are happier.
Bob Zadek: So I ask now, how would you feel if America was strong from a military defensive standpoint and strong economically, but unimportant in world affairs? We were just a happy, prosperous, safe place, but not exporting Americanism around the world. Would you wake up with a smile on your face?
- American Secession: The Looming Threat of a National Breakup [Amazon]
- American breakup: secession is much closer than we think | Spectator USA, by Frank Buckley, Dec. 2, 2019
- Chick-fil-A’s Creepy Infiltration of New York City | The New Yorker
- The Surprisingly Solid Mathematical Case of the Tin Foil Hat Gun Prepper
- The Campaign for California Independence (Yes California)
- Second Vermont Republic — Wikipedia
- Exit, Voice, and Loyalty — Wikipedia
- Can Texas Secede From the Union? | Texas v. White [YouTube]
- Is Secession Legal? | The American Conservative
- Secession Could Give California the Reality Check it Needs — Foundation for Economic Education
- Debunking myth of the ‘runaway’ convention — Goldwater Institute
- The One Book You Must Read to Understand American Politics in 2018, September 2018
- Fergus Hodgson on the Fintech Revolution & Competitive Governance, December 2019
- F.H. Buckley on *The Republic of Virtue* — December 31, 2017
- F.H. Buckley on *The Way Back: Restoring the Promise of America* , — July 03, 2016
- Has America Become an “Elective Monarchy”? — October 26, 2014
- Seasteading, with Patri Friedman, September 13, 2009