In The Scottish Disease Kevin Williamson writes “the Scots aren’t along in dreaming of secession,” and that the false & utopian allure of secession is that “it promises to [remove] those who do not share our values and our priorities from the polity.”
Bigger is not always better, and there is a time to break away, as our Founders did, and as people have from time to time for as long as history has recorded. But the United States functions remarkably well at both the federal and state level. There are many deep and important criticisms to be made of it, but, difficult as it sometimes can be to believe, we live in one of the most stable and coherent societies that the world ever has seen. There are a few countries today that can boast of being better-governed — Switzerland, Canada, and Australia, for example — but not one that has been governed so consistently well for more than two centuries. Liberty and democracy are remarkably fragile things: Nearly every nation in Europe that had them lost them at some point during the 20th century, and much of the rest of the world has never quite gotten the hang of them.
What is often difficult for Americans on opposite sides of our political divide — which is mainly a cultural divide — to admit and appreciate is how deeply we need each other. A United States without a Manhattan does not quite work, and neither does one without a wheat belt. The roughnecks and the Web developers need each other more than is generally admitted. But they do not necessarily share a vision of the good life.
Even very early American colonial society, relatively homogeneous though it was, contained within it distinct and irreconcilable cultural currents: Massachusetts saw the world in a different light than Pennsylvania did. The genius of the American order was — was — that there was no reason to try to change that. The model of federalism that was operational for the first part of our national history meant that certain irreconcilable differences did not in fact need to be reconciled. (Some of them did.) We live in an America in which a teacher’s saying “God bless you” when a student sneezes is cause for a federal lawsuit — but we can have cities called Sacramento, Corpus Christi, and Santa Fe. Strange as it may seem, it is worth remembering that we had actual established churches at the state level for years, and nobody thought that a Christian Taliban was emerging. Quakers and Congregationalists managed to negotiate their differences.
The centralization of political power — whether in Washington or in London or in Brussels — means that such differences must either be reconciled or, should they prove truly irreconcilable, erupt into conflict. The allure of secession is that it promises to abate such conflicts by removing those who do not share our values and our priorities from the polity. Talk to a secessionist in Texas for five minutes and you’ll appreciate that he does not so much want to launch a new republic as he desires to exile the powers that be in Washington, and perhaps those on Wall Street or in Hollywood. Six Californias appealed to some Silicon Valley progressives, but also to more conservative Californians in rural and agricultural areas, who resent that their well-being has been subordinated to that of the delta smelt.
Scotland may make a kamikaze run at what it believes to be independence. But that is not really an option for Texas, the proposed state of Jefferson, the Upper West Side, or libertarian-leaning techno-utopians. We are going to have to figure out — to keep figuring out — how to live together, “with liberty and justice for all” without “one size fits all.”