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American Secession: The Looming Threat of a National Breakup, by Francis H. Buckley. Encounter Books, 2020. 170 pages with index. US$23.99

Francis Buckley, a professor of law at George Mason University in Virginia, is the closest thing America has to a Jonathan Swift, the great 18th-century Anglo-Irish satirist. His writing on politics is the most entertaining of any present commentator I have read on US politics, and his humor illuminates rather than obscures fundamental issues.

I read American Secession when it appeared earlier this year and thought it overstated. Re-reading it after the pandemic brought America to a virtual standstill, it now seems that Buckley pulled his punches.

Buckley, to be sure, does not want the US to crack apart, and initially intended the secession thesis as an ironic foil for his own views, in the spirit of Swift’s Modest Proposal. What he sees in today’s America, though, is alarming.

Asians who struggle to make sense of American social and political trends should give it close attention; it deserves translation into several languages. “We’ve hit rock bottom, with no clear path up,” the author avers, referring to the collapse of trust and civility across the American political divide:

“When Trump separated children from their parents at the border, the normally level-headed Joe Scarborough said, “I don’t want little children ripped from their parents’ arms. I don’t want them marched off to showers.”

Michael Hayden, former CIA director, tweeted that “other governments have separated mothers and children,” and he added a photo of Auschwitz. The respected Foreign Policy magazine published an article saying that, for the first time in America’s history, a Nazi sympathizer occupied the Oval office.

Violence has been normalized. When US Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) was attacked by a neighbor and suffered six broken ribs, lung damage and multiple bouts of pneumonia, Kasie Hunt laughingly said on MSNBC that this was one of her “favorite stories.”

The coastal states vote Democratic by huge majorities, while the interior votes Republican. California pays more than US$100 billion more in federal taxes to Washington than it receives in spending.

A California secession movement is afoot “soliciting signatures for a ‘self-determination ballot measure that would ask California voters whether the state should become independent. If it passed, it would lead to another referendum, which if passed would require the state legislature to issue a formal declaration of independence.”

The impulse comes from California’s left-wing fringe, to be sure, but, Buckley argues: “It might happen … it’s the state that bans offers of plastic drinking straws while giving heroin users free hypodermic needles. California has become the symbol of utopian excess, and a place where conservatives wouldn’t want to live.”

Meanwhile, in South Carolina – “too small for a republic and too big for a lunatic asylum” – a philosophy professor named Don Livingston has revived southern secessionism, suppressed by the 1865 Union victory in the Civil War but never extinguished.

Californians and South Carolinians “are like partners in an impossible marriage. It doesn’t matter who’s right when the differences are irreconcilable. And both might be right.”

What might unite the country? Not, says Buckley, the new nationalism, a political current that he helped foster as a founder of Scholars and Writers for America in 2016, a group of intellectuals (including this writer) supporting Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Buckley is an equal-opportunity offender, and points to the paradox in conservative nationalism:

“There’s been a revival of nationalism among conservatives, but this hasn’t served to unite the country,” he argues. “The icons of American nationhood are the liberal principles expressed in the Declaration of Independence and guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. Other countries have their common cultures or religions. What America has is an idea that constitutes our identity as Americans, and that idea is liberalism in the classical sense.” So “illiberal conservative throw away the only set of ideas that could unite us.”

There are other conservatives, Buckley continues, who “argue that nationalism must be based on something more than an idea. They dismiss what’s called ‘creedal nationalism’ as insufficient. We’re more than a creed, they say. We’re also a community with a common set of values and beliefs about how to advance the common good … For this reason the conservative nationalist should be a secessionist. He tells you he loves America. It’s just other Americans he hates.” 

A good deal of Buckley’s book discusses the disadvantages of bigness and the virtues of state and local vs federal decision-making. His arguments are well-crafted but less arresting than his discussion of the great divergence in beliefs.

They also have a ready riposte: Local government does many things better than federal government, but the latter is far better equipped to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. One might add that in a world where power and prosperity both depend on technological advances, the resources of the federal government are required to support the research and development that generates new technologies.

America created the digital age as a byproduct of the Cold War – every important invention from the computer chip to the internet started with a Defense Department research grant – and if America is to compete with China, it requires aggressive federal support for R&D.

But that really isn’t what matters to Buckley. His discussion of the economics and legal mechanics of secession is offered in a Swiftian spirit, the better to examine America’s national character. The great political bifurcation, I would add, has the character of a religious war.

Along with Buckley, I believe that something more than liberal constitutionalism holds America together. In place of the accretion of habits and customers that define culture of the Old World, Americans are self-inventors, and our founding mode of self-invention is the Protestant identification of America with biblical Israel.

This is more vivid in the Civil War than in the Declaration of Independence – Lincoln’s Second Inaugural has the cadences of the King James translation of Hebrew Scriptures, and the Battle Hymn of the Republic begins with an apocalyptic reference to Isaiah.

I have written elsewhere of the making of American identity and its cultural expression in the individual’s never-completed journey towards salvation, which reappears in every Western, detective story and action film, not to mention our national novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

American culture was so compelling that it made generations of immigrants reinvent themselves. Reinvention is America’s strength and weakness. In the past Americans imagined themselves a new (almost) Chosen People building a new City on the Hill.

But the same Protestant religious impulse and penchant for reinvention went haywire in the era of identity politics, as chronicled by religious writers like Joseph Bottum and Joshua Mitchell. Instead of a common national identity, it spawned a welter of contending ethnic, racial and gender pseudo-identities.

The result of these fractures, Professor Buckley reports, is “a constitutional crisis, our second since the Civil War. In 1861, our Constitution proved incapable of resolving the differences among us. Now too, on health care, immigration reform and so many of the issues that divide us, stasis reigns and necessity is met with impossibility.”

Of course, he does not really believe that secession is at all likely. “So I reveal myself to be a unionist, albeit one who wants to see a smaller federal government and a devolution of power to state governments. I believe that tolerance is better than fanaticism, and that ideological hatreds are especially dangerous because they’re so enjoyable,” he concludes.

The Covid-19 pandemic makes an even stronger case against secession. The virus of identity politics preceded it, and produced fractures in the body politic at the state and local level which did as much or more damage than the divisions at the national level that Buckley cites.

A case in point is the acrimonious wrangle in March between New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio.

As Charles Duhigg reported in an April 26 expose in The New Yorker, DeBlasio’s health officials begged him to close schools and order social distancing at the beginning of March, when the mayor still tweeted that people who felt flu-like systems should go to their doctor, which “only increased the odds that the virus would spread.”

Health workers’ unions threatened that their members would stay home if the city didn’t provide child care after closing schools. Not until March 16 did DeBlasio accede to his advisers’ urgent demands, and then made a last trip to his own gym. A former New York City health commissioner told Duhigg, “if you tell people to stay home and then you go to the gym, you can’t really be surprised when people keep going outside.”

Duhigg adds: “At press conferences, Layton and other physicians played minimal roles while de Blasio and Cuomo, longtime rivals, each attempted to take center stage. The two men even began publicly feuding – arguing in the press, and through aides, about who had authority over schools and workplace closures … De Blasio and Cuomo kept bickering.

“On March 17th, de Blasio told residents to ‘be prepared right now for the possibility of a shelter-in-place order.’ The same day, Cuomo told a reporter, ‘There’s not going to be any ‘you must stay in your house’ rule.’ Cuomo’s staff quietly told reporters that de Blasio was acting ‘psychotic.’ Three days later, though, Cuomo announced an executive order putting the state on ‘pause’ – which was essentially indistinguishable from stay-at-home orders issued by cities in Washington State, California and elsewhere.”

“Tom Frieden, the former CDC director, has estimated that, if New York had started implementing stay-at-home orders ten days earlier than it did, it might have reduced Covid-19 deaths by 50% to 80%,” Duhigg reports. “More than 15,000 people in New York are believed to have died from Covid-19. Last week in Washington State, the estimate was fewer than 700 people.”

Democratic governors and mayors in California and Washington State listened to the epidemiologists, acted quickly, and saved thousands of lives. New York’s elected officials bickered and bowed to recalcitrant constituencies, notably the overwhelmingly minority health workers, and lost thousands of lives. 

The blow from the coronavirus revealed lines of fracture that divide New York from California, and New York State from New York City. And these were deadlier than the wrangling between the Trump administration and state governors over availability of ventilators, timing of economic closure and opening and emergency funding.

The damage done to the body politic has reached the capillary level of the American body politic. There no longer are coherent regional divisions that might sustain a secession movement. The divisions inside the Democratic Party run as deep as the battle between Trump and the self-styled resistance. 

Professor Buckley is right to call for more civility and moderation. What should alarm Americans – and only Americans – is that we find ourselves in the sort of crisis that in the past fostered a spirit of national unity, but instead set us at each other’s throats.