The question has been raised more than once in this election: Given the deep, wrenching divisions in this country, is it possible that the 2016 election results, regardless of the victor, will draw some states closer to secession?
The Yes California Independence Campaign, whose Facebook page already has garnered 11,000 likes, announced that it will hold a get-acquainted session on the steps of the California State Capitol tomorrow, regardless of the election outcome. Meanwhile, secessionist sentiment in Texas appears to be growing and will likely undergo a significant spike following a Hillary Clinton victory.
A Short History of American Secession
Of course, as a recent feature article in the Boston Globe observes, there have been several notable precedents, one of which actually led to the formal secession of eleven Southern states and that culminated in the bloodiest war in U.S. history. But this only scratches the surface. Delegates to the Hartford Convention of 1814 vented their outrage over Virginia President James Madison’s signing of a highly restrictive embargo act, which rendered grievous harm to New England shipping interests. Moderate delegates ultimately carried the day, though a few of the more hotheaded ones advocated secession and a separate piece with Britain.
Some twenty years later, South Carolinian rage over what they perceived as economically punitive tariffs led to the Nullification Crisis, which prompted many to wonder if South Carolina and other Southern states ultimately would bolt the Union.
And in the years leading up to the Civil War, a number of abolitionists, claiming that U.S. Constitution amounted to a pact with the Devil, called for dissolution of the Union.
While I used to be favorably disposed to peaceful secession earlier in my life, I’ve reached the middle-aged conclusion vast advantages of the American market and the benefit of mutual defense significantly outweigh the benefits of secession. But that’s not to say that wrenching, far-reaching reform in unneeded.
As I see it, the United States is in desperate need of thoroughgoing constitutional reform in at least three areas.
Downsize the U.S. Presidency
First, we are encumbered with a presidency that has grown far beyond the scope conceived by the Founders. It is bloated, politicized, imperial and demands a level of omnicompetence that is far beyond the capacity of anyone to supply. Sooner or later, the American presidency will have to be redesigned based on the ceremonial presidential models of Germany, Ireland or Israel or the hybridized French model in which the president is head of state and responsible for foreign affairs, leaving a prime minister (perhaps our case, the vice president) to manage domestic affairs.
Downsize the Federal Judiciary
Second, in filling the breach left by the erosion of national consensus, reflected primarily in the erosion of congressional authority and effectiveness, the American judiciary has grown increasingly powerful and unaccountable – a development that the Founders scarcely could have conceived and undoubtedly would regard with profound alarm. This growth in the power and influence of the U.S. judiciary has produced several deleterious effects. For starters, the immense growth of the federal judiciary, which has occurred in tandem with the growth of the presidency, has created an unusually desperate high-stakes political environment evident in every presidential election cycle. Presidential elections are bound up not only in the selection of a chief executive but also in the judicial appointments that will be made over the next 4 to 8 years, which afford the chief executive a sort of second presidential life.
Scale Down the Federal Union
Third, but certainly not least, this country is too damned big and diverse to govern from Washington, D.C. It’s growing increasingly impossible to govern this nation through a one-size-fits-all system. The current centralized federal system may have worked reasonably well a century ago when it was conceived by centralist progressives such as Woodrow Wilson, but it is ill-equipped to serve the increasingly diversified, digitized economic and political order that emerged in the late 20th century. This realization already is becoming evident among growing numbers of Americans, particularly in megastates such as Californiaand Texas that possess the people and resources to go it alone.
Much like the U.S. presidency, the federal system either must be scaled downed, or we will see increasing eruptions of popular dissent similar to those that gripped the country in 1814 and 1860.