Never is a very, very long time in politics. Yet whenever the topic of secession or so-called national divorce comes up, how often do we hear that “secession will never happen.”
It’s difficult to tell if people using the term “never” actually mean it. If they mean “not in the next ten or twenty years,” that’s plausible. But if they truly mean “not in the next 100 (or more) years,” it’s clear they’re working on the level of absolutely pure, unfounded speculation. Such statements reflect little more than personal hopes and dreams.
Experience is clear that the state of most polities often changes enormously in the span of a few decades. Imagine Russia in 1900 versus Russia in 1920. Or perhaps China in 1930 versus China in 1950. If someone had told the Austrian emperor in 1850 that his empire would be completely dismembered by 1919, he probably would have refused to believe it. Few British subjects in 1945 expected the empire to be all but gone by 1970. In the 1970s, the long-term survival of the Soviet Union appeared to be a fait accompli. For a visual sense of this, simply compare world maps from 1900 and 1950. In less than the span of a human lifetime, the political map of the world often changes so as to be unrecognizable.
Yet there are always those who are quite comfortable with the status quo and who tell themselves it will continue indefinitely. Many find comfort in the hope that their favorite national regime will be a thousand-year reich, living on indefinitely into the rosy future of “progress.” Claims to political immortality are also frequently important as rallying cries in support of the state. As French Marxist philosopher Régis Debray noted, the idea that “France is eternal” may be empirically untrue, but the sentiment nonetheless serves to motivate the French soldier or French nationalist to preserve his regime.
Meanwhile, the opposite impulse, a recognition of the regime’s mortality is seen by many as a kind of heresy against the national political idols. It may be obviously true, but to say it out loud is “treason.” The cry of “traitor,” of course, has long been the go-to strategy for those with an emotional attachment to the regime. Like many heresies before it, this one must not go unpunished. Thus, “traitor” was the cry of the French republican who thought it better to butcher women and children in the Vendée rather than allow that portion of France to be independent. It was the cry of the Turkish imperialist who carried out a genocide against Armenian separatists.
The reality is that the current shape of any regime is more tenuous than many hope. The debate is not whether the US regime will fundamentally change in size and nature. The question is when and in what way. Those who are willing to examine the possibility of gradually unwinding state power peacefully through decentralization—rather than letting internal national conflicts explode into violence and revolution eventually—display a far better grasp of political history than the knee-jerk unionists.
The emotional nature of this opposition to secession can be seen in the fact that the opposition grants no middle ground in the debate. The only allowable options are the status quo or war.
Options for the “middle ground” include a confederation built on a consensus model in the style of the old Dutch Republic. There is the model of the very loose confederation in the style of the old Swiss confederation. There is the option of a customs union with voluntary membership, such as the European Union. There is the option of a mutual defense compact among independent polities, as we find in a multitude of defense leagues. None of these options require a state that imposes nationwide regulation and taxation in the manner of the enormous administrative state that we have today.
Yet most of those who oppose secession also oppose all of these options. We don’t hear, “Well, secession is too far, so let’s move toward a much more decentralized model.” Why do we never get this olive branch from the centralizers? Because their opposition to secession is more about supporting the status quo. They want a national government to impose nationwide policy in a way that reflects the national ruling class’s values. It’s the colonialist mindset all over again: “Oh, we can’t let those people in state X set their own rules for elections/abortion/trade. Those people are too unenlightened/racist/stupid to be allowed local autonomy.”
This intransigence can also be found in the way that the opposition often delights in the idea of using violence against potential separatists. Congressman Eric Swalwell, for instance, suggested the US government use nuclear weapons against internal separatists. And then there are those who make light of the idea of a second blood-soaked civil war. Indeed, the insistence on tying twenty-first-century decentralization to a war in the mid-nineteenth century (160 years ago) implies that the unionist “solution” back then justifies the same solution now. Note the emphasis is always on the American Civil War and not on the many examples of peaceful secession movements: Iceland from Denmark, Norway from Sweden, Singapore from Malaysia, Malta from the British Empire, and the Baltic states from the Soviet Union (to name a few). Instead, the average American antisecessionist is apparently obsessed with making war against this own neighbors.
Of course, that sort of thing can only be carried out today if modern Americans are willing to die and kill—or have their children die and kill—in the name of “preserving the union.” How many are willing to do this? Hopefully not many. Those who are willing to do it can only be described as fanatics.
The presence of these proviolence antisecessionists does remind us of the continued danger of political union, however. Those who favor union may interpret mere discussions of disunity as a sign of the need for ever-greater federal control over the population. This is also the strategy preferred by states: tendencies toward disunion are countered by an ever-stronger and ever-more-unyielding state. The strategy is tried and true. This is how a fragmenting Roman Empire was preserved for another 150 years after a breakup seemed all but assured during the third century. The emperor turned the empire into a military dictatorship. The same method of imposing unity has been employed countless times across countless polities—and at great cost to human rights and self-determination. Yet not even Diocletian’s dictatorship could ultimately prevent the secession of the western regions of the empire. (Justinian’s later attempts at reunifying Italy with the empire failed as well, and only brought enormous and unnecessary death and destruction.) Secession and disintegration have always been inevitable for large diverse states. The Romans were not immune. The Americans are not immune.
The answer lies not in doubling down on political unity, maintained through endless violence or threats of violence. Rather, the answer lies in peaceful separation through expanded self-determination, regional autonomy, confederation, and consensus. The choice we now face is between a rearguard attempt at preserving political unity “forever” and facing the inevitable reality. On one side, there are the unionists with their devotion to the status quo and their colonialist mindset. On the other side are those who seek to temper the power of the central state and pursue local self-determination. The centralizers are on the wrong side and will ultimately be on the losing side as well.