Popular new book discusses the potential for breaking up the United States.

No matter who is elected in November 2020, now is a golden opportunity to plan the establishment of a new nation.  George Mason University law professor F.H. Buckley suggests as much in his book  American Secession: The Looming Threat of a National Breakup  (Encounter Books, 2020). 

In American Secession, Buckely holds that we are now living in a secessionist century.  Many countries in Africa and Asia were created as a result of secessions from the large European empires, while more than a dozen independent states emerged from the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. Since the 1990s, small nations have thrived because the end of the Cold War lessened the need for a powerful military that only a big nation can provide.  In addition, the decline of tariffs and the rise of international free trade have allowed small states to avoid crippling trade barriers.  These developments have eliminated many of the negative costs of secession, and have made it a more realistic alternative.  

Professor Buckley notes that secessionist sentiment is now “a worldwide phenomenon supported by people from every ideological perspective.  On the Right, the New Flemish Alliance wants Flanders to secede from the French-speaking Walloons in southern Belgium.  On the Left, the Parti Quebecois wants Quebec to secede from Canada.  Catalan separatists are strong in Spain, and Scottish separatists dominate the politics of Scotland.  Secession is often accomplished without violence, as happened on the amicable breakup of Czechoslovakia into Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

Big nations are especially subject to separatist challenges. India is constantly challenged by separatists in Kashmir, Assam and the Punjab, while China faces native Tibetan and Uyghur movements. Amazonian indigenous peoples want to secede from Brazil, as do Kurds from Iraq and Turkey. East Timor and Irian Jaya want to secede from Indonesia, and both the Philippines and Nigeria have been torn apart by Muslim separatists.  If virtually every large national government is confronted by secession, why would the United States be an exception?

In the post-Cold War era, the United States has become overlarge, and is increasingly exhibiting the behavior of an empire on the verge of collapse. Public opinion polls show that the majority of Americans would not wish to fight to preserve a federal government that many do not respect. This is the result of the Pacific states and the Northeast moving in a more progressive direction, while the heartland is becoming more conservative. And because we are a much more mobile country today, rather than going to war, those individuals who are strongly progressive or extremely conservative would more likely simply move to another state where they fit in. 

Professor Buckley suggests that a peaceful separation of the United States can occur, and secession of a state can be accomplished, by passing a constitutional amendment.  Article V of the U.S. Constitution allows anything to be proposed as an amendment, without limitation.  There are two methods: either Congress can pass a resolution that is ratified by thirty-eight state legislatures (three-fourths of the states), or the legislatures of thirty-four states can call a constitutional convention which will pass a resolution that is then ratified by thirty-eight states.  

The Supreme Court provides an alternative avenue for secession.  Although the Supreme Court expressly denied the right of a state to secede in the 1869 case of Texas v. White, this decision was an unsurprising legal recognition of the just-completed reunion era.  Buckley suggests that “were the Court to reexamine the constitutionality of secession today, it would likely take a more nuanced view of exit rights, one that leaves wiggle room for disunion.  In particular, originalists on the Court who are faithful to the intentions of the Framers would be willing to recognize secession rights” (pp. 34-35).

The question of a state’s right to secede within international law is suggested by Canada’s 1998 Supreme Court decision in Re: Secession of Quebec.  That Court decided that while there is no absolute right of separation, peaceful secession may occur if four criteria are met: 1. There is a democratic vote with a strong majority of a province’s residents favoring secession, 2. the secession declaration contains clear protections for minority rights, 3. the province and the central government agree to a satisfactory division of federal assets that are located in the province, and 4. the seceding province guarantees that it will pay its fair portion of the national debt (pp.39-42).  Buckley argues that legally, “The moral case against secession is far weaker today than it was in 1861; the Canadian middle way would therefore be appealing as a reasonable compromise” (p.42).  

One question he does not consider is whether California and Nevada might declare independence, on the basis that the original 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo between Mexico and the United States was illegal and void.  After all, the sale of this region was forced on Mexico by the U.S. army.  If Pacifica, a potential name for a West Coast federation, offers to pay Mexico a fair sum of money for its losses, Mexico could sign a new treaty with the new nation, recognizing it as the rightful government of the area.  

Whichever legal means are used, Buckley says the U.S. “might concede the seceding state’s independence in general, while maintaining some form of association… for example, the free movement of goods, services and people…. In any case, the barriers to secession are far lower than most would imagine, and the temptation to split apart is far greater than at any time since 1860” (p. 43).

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