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Outsiders vs. Insiders: Is the American secession movement really gaining converts?

The late Civil War historian Shelby Foote is renowned for a number of quotes, but perhaps his most famous is, “Before the war, it was said 'the United States are' - grammatically it was spoken that way and thought of as a collection of independent states. And after the war it was always 'the United States is', as we say today without being self-conscious at all. And that sums up what the war accomplished. It made us an 'is' (emphasis added).”

So the Civil War made us an “is;” many are now saying we need to go back to an “are.”

Fort SumterWith all the talk about America’s deepening divides one might wonder whether the “is” Foote spoke about even exists today. The War Between the States truly was that type of easily definable conflict with two distinct geographic regions opposing each other, one of which decided to go its separate way. The more powerful northern section won the military struggle and therefore prevailed in the political one as well. In the process the individual states lost a lot of their power. In becoming an “is” (as opposed to an “are”) local control became subservient to national will.

In theory, in our constitutional system men and women of good character will submit to the law to maintain order and social coherence. But peace lasts only as long as there is deference to that governing authority. It appears that we don’t have it anymore.

Of course the shooting two weeks ago brought back a few more “United States is” moments including the one in the House of Representatives on Wednesday afternoon when bitter rivals Paul Ryan and Nancy Pelosi teamed up to suggest all members of Congress really constitute a huge feuding family that loves each other regardless and this was a tragedy felt equally profoundly by both Democrats and Republicans.

Yet anyone who perused social media after the event saw that the incident did little towards extending Ryan’s and Pelosi’s feelings of warm fuzzy-ness to the population at large. The online comments ranged from “he (Congressman Steve Scalise) deserved it” to basically claiming that volatile Republican rhetoric provided justification for leftist James T. Hodgkinson’s suicidal rampage.

I haven’t yet seen any internet honorariums to Hodgkinson’s memory, but then again, I haven’t looked for them either. I don’t think it would be very difficult to find something of that sort either.

The deteriorating nature of public discourse has some calling for…secession?

Erick Erickson wrote in The Resurgent last week, “In our present atmosphere there is no escape from the American ISIS that is the political left. Evil preaches tolerance until it is dominant and then it seeks to silence good. Evil is now dominant — but the partisan line is blurred.

“The only escape is dissolution. We should part ways if we cannot have federalism. We should start talking about secession. If both sides have decided that every hill is a hill to die on and control of Washington means reward for their friends and punishment of their enemies, we need to end Washington. The way to do that is end the union.

“I am no longer an optimist about the future of this country. This past week has shown there is no incentive for the better angels of ourselves to rise. Both sides are out for blood. The only way to calm the situation is for us to part ways…”

Erickson is not and has never been a sun-shines-all-the-time type of idealist but this outburst was particularly gloomy even by his standards. The sometimes acrimonious #NeverTrump leader has faded in and out of acceptance since Trump pulled off his unanticipated win last November but I don’t recall an instance prior to this one where the political commentator called for a total break-up of the United States.

For sake of argument we’ll go with Erickson’s appeal to split apart the country. The practical question is, how would secession work?

Fellow #NeverTrumper David French made a similar plea for federalism a couple weeks ago in contending the nation was moving towards “divorce.” French discussed the myriad of cultural fragmentations being seen today as the dividing line between conservatives and liberals.

But assuming we could all agree on “divorce” or secession, who gets to be the presiding judge on the motion? Who decides who goes where and who keeps what? Who gets the car? Who assumes the debt? And most importantly, who takes the kids?

A national secession movement would require the different warring factions to essentially agree to disagree and split amicably into easily determinable geographic regions where leftists can have their cap and trade, unfettered abortion on demand and gender neutral bathrooms; meanwhile, conservatives could have, well, an America that is decent, law-abiding and pro-life. The agnostic liberal northeast would seem to be the natural home for folks of the progressive persuasion but does that mean hippy progressive art lovers in Austin Texas would consent to relocate to the cold and dingy north?

Likewise just as unworkable would be secession on a smaller scale. Suppose a neighbor is a Bernie Sanders supporter and posts anti-Trump messages on your community’s Facebook page as a nightly bedtime ritual. A few weeks ago he discovered you’d cheered Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord and subsequently posted your address for his green radical pals to harass you. Can there be a political resolution to this problem?

If there is such a magic therapy it hasn’t yet been proposed. These microscopic cultural fissures are usually the purview of law enforcement – or the courts by way of tort judgments – but if you can’t identify the threat by name or appearance, how do you resolve it?

In defiance of this whole mess some might decide to move to more friendly cultural regions; some migrate to the mountains; others head to the deserts; some even move out of the country entirely to friendly tax havens like Costa Rica or Roatan, Honduras. But everywhere there’s an internet connection the problem will follow. Human nature isn’t easily definable much less containable.

I still maintain the only workable recourse to any grand scale cultural vexation is returning to the Constitution. Freedom and individual liberty are proven winners when given an opportunity to flourish.

Liberty includes possessing the ability to protect oneself from the fringe when compelled by necessity. Daniel Lee wrote in the Wall Street Journal last week, “There’s a saying among gun-carry permit advocates: ‘When seconds count, police are minutes away.’

“That was not the case last week but only because Majority Whip Steve Scalise’s Capitol Police detail was on hand and courageously engaged the shooter. Had Rep. Scalise and his security team not been present, congressmen and their aides would have been easy pickings until local police arrived. That took three minutes—but that’s a long time to spend taking cover in a baseball dugout under armed assault…

“The truth is that armed citizens can never substitute for police, who train, practice, and re-train constantly. But officers can’t be everywhere. And ordinary citizens—even congressmen—can’t field full-time security teams. Local jurisdictions shouldn’t take away the tools we need to be our own first line of defense.”

It’s a fact – officers can’t be everywhere, nor do we want them everywhere. If the solution to today’s cultural conundrum is to pay for and station the police – or military – on every street corner we might as well follow those hermits choosing to move to the mountains or to the islands of Honduras to escape the violence. This type of security arrangement may work for Israel but it won’t suffice for the United States.

Lee is correct that states and localities need to loosen gun restrictions to allow citizens to protect themselves. But even there you run into the same political issues as before with the progressive half of the country dead-set against liberalizing (in the good sense) firearm possession and carry laws. It seems these people willfully ignore the stacks of statistical evidence indicating that legal guns help prevent crimes from even occurring.

There isn’t an easy answer.

Given the enormous obstacles the United States has encountered and overcome in the past, doing so again in the twenty-first century would seem to be eminently achievable. But today the schisms loom so large and the political will to work towards consensus is so weak that the task appears insurmountable.

If things don’t change in the near future Shelby Foote’s “is” just might turn back to an “are.”

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