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Secession Isn’t Conservative
Such a radical and reactionary course of action defies just about any definition of American conservatism. It would be an act of destruction.
Secession is popular again. On both Right and Left, certain voices are agitating for a breakup of the American Republic. Some extremists openly advocate for civil war, but most secessionists want a no-fault divorce in which a state, or a bloc of states, breaks away from the United States to form a new, culturally homogenous, independent republic.
According to new data from UVA’s Center for Politics, 41% of Biden voters and 52% of Trump voters believe that it might be time for America to break up. Leftists want to split up with red America to form new enclaves of equity, social welfare, and progressivism. Right-wingers want to partition their communities off from broader American society in order to preserve traditional ways of life. Both are motivated by an impulse to get away from people who feel fundamentally alien to them. Each side thinks, “people like you just don’t like people like me. We have nothing in common. Best to go our separate ways.”
There are strong, substantive arguments to be made for why an American breakup would not only not work out the way its proponents imagine but would be a catastrophic disaster. Others have made those arguments better than I can.
Today, I want to focus on the Right. And specifically, I’d like to focus on why the desire to break up the United States is anything but conservative.
For most of human history, conservatism meant preserving old hierarchies and traditional structures of authority. American conservatism is different. American conservatism seeks to conserve classical liberalism, the tradition of natural rights, the U.S. Constitution, and the ideals of the American Founding.
Secession from the United States of America rejects the Founding and rejects the U.S. Constitution. In most cases, it’s a rejection of classical liberalism and natural rights as well.
Carving out a theocratic territory that restricts liberty (especially the freedom to practice non-state-sanctioned religions) rejects natural rights. Leaving the United States to create a paternalistic society that mandates traditional ways of living, speaking, dressing, and behaving rejects classical liberalism and natural rights. Forming an enclave to preserve Anglo-American cultural homogeneity (which probably includes discriminating against nonwhite individuals) is a rejection of the idea that “all men are created equal.”
Breaking up the United States means tearing apart the current fundamental order. That is not a conservative act. That is an act of destruction. It is reactionary and radical.
So-called conservatives who advocate for such destruction will argue that the current constitutional order is already irrevocably broken, or at least that it is under serious assault. They claim that secession is the only way to save it. But what is under attack and what needs to be saved?
Secessionists on the Right say that “our traditional way of life” is under attack and that splitting up with blue America is necessary to preserve that way of life. While that may be a conservative impulse in the European tradition, it is fundamentally unconservative in the American tradition.
While American conservatism does seek to preserve traditional ways of living, that is a secondary goal. The primary goal is preserving the American Founding and natural rights, including the right to liberty.
I am a conservative in the American tradition, not a conservative as Europeans might use that word. If I have to choose between conserving classical liberalism and the Constitution on the one hand and conserving traditional ways of life on the other, I will choose classical liberalism and constitutionalism. If preserving the Constitution means jettisoning certain traditional ways of life, I will make that trade.
I like the English language. But it does not matter if Americans speak English, Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, or any other language, so long as their government affords them the rights and dignities due to every human being.
A conservative in Europe, who seeks to preserve traditional ways of life rather than natural rights, will embrace statism in the name of banning cultural radicalism. An American conservative, who believes in limitations on power and the rule of law, will not. In the name of preserving every human’s right to choose for themselves how to live and how to pursue happiness, I am willing to accept that other citizens may live in radical, libertine, and promiscuous ways.
Secessionists will argue that an American crackup is inevitable. They say that progressives and traditionalists do not even agree on the same set of basic fundamental facts about the world. And that such incompatible value systems cannot coexist.
But the American Constitutional order allows for citizens to live in diverse ways. The Founders designed a system where factions with diametrically opposed values could live together in peace.
A better, more conservative solution to the balkanization of American culture is a re-embrace of federalism. Not “states’ rights.” Not the nullification of federal laws. But instead, a return of power from the federal government to the American people, as well as to state and local governments. We can decentralize power rather than destroy the American Republic. This means returning control to the levels of government (state or local) that are closer to the concerns of individual citizens.
Instead of carving a new, post-liberal integralist nation out of the existing United States, we can give back the power local and state governments once had to set the laws and customs for their own communities. You can have trans pride parades in Berkeley and Sunday business closures in Lynchburg. This doesn’t require partitioning states into a loose confederation of autonomous actors. It just requires returning policymaking power to the relevant governmental authority given that power by the U.S. Constitution.
For starters, courts can start interpreting “interstate commerce” to mean…interstate commerce. Business that does not cross state lines would be outside of the federal government’s regulatory authority. The federal government wouldn’t be able to mandate that businesses provide contraception to their workers, nor that they vaccinate all their workers.
Courts could also return to a narrower understanding of the necessary and proper clause. In other words, they could restrict Congress and the President to the enumerated powers.
This would allow states to determine their own educational policies, business policies, vaccine policies, and drug policies. One state could offer free public community college, and another could allow the unlicensed carry of firearms. Oregon could legalize heroin, and South Dakota could jettison seat belt laws.
In short, returning power to its proper place would provide a conservative (and better) solution to the problems raised by secessionists. America can continue to operate as a diverse land but remain united. The federal government would still coin money, fight wars, defend civil liberties and civil rights, and make treaties.
Freedom of Movement
Even the bluest city has Republicans. Even the reddest state has progressives. If America breaks up, could disaffected citizens move to a place that reflects their values? Emigration between two hostile nations is not an easy task. It is not as easy as, for example, the situation we have now wherein citizens of Texas have unquestioned freedom to travel to California (or to any other state in the union) to settle down permanently.
Right now, American citizens have unrestricted freedom to move within the United States. No visa or passport is required. If you hate your state’s politics, you can leave and go to a state more amenable to you. If the United States breaks up, it will be much harder for disaffected citizens to emigrate between independent republics, especially if there is lingering bitterness from the breakup. For “conservative” secessionists living in blue states, a more reasonable and more feasible solution is simply moving to a different state.
With a return to federalism in America, such a move would actually have the impact on individual lives that secession advocates claim American breakup would have. Except without the drastic fallout of an actual American breakup.
Others have made a case for federalism better and more eloquently than I can. So, I will finish by saying that – for American conservatives – federalism not only represents a better solution than secession, it represents a more conservative solution. Re-embracing federalism means restoring the delegation of power laid out by the U.S. Constitution. It means a return to, and preservation of, the American Founding. It is a solution in keeping with classical liberalism and the tradition of natural rights. In short, secession is a rejection of the principles of American conservatism, while a return to federalism is the natural consequence of upholding those principles.
From the Editor: I cannot endorse the main thrust of this article enough. As a fusionist (both a classical liberal and a traditionalist), I can see no other path forward that secures the founding vision and allows for a new awakening of Judeo-Christian values than fighting for a return federalism. Our republic simply cannot endure if the central government continues to be the MacGuffin in a sick, perverse political contest between two factions that want to wield it to force their view of the “good life” upon everyone else. We are simply too big of a country to survive a one-size-fits-all centralized scheme. American conservatism, properly understood, recognizes the U.S. Constitution for the miracle that it is and will fight tooth and nail to conserve the classically liberal order it constitutes, not only because it is good for our polity and domestic tranquility but because Judeo-Christian values can only truly flourish within a sphere of liberty. -Justin