Wednesday, May 13, 2020

The Greatness of Bigness: Buckley’s American Secession

Guest Blogger

For the Symposium on Timothy William Waters's Boxing Pandora: Rethinking Borders, States, and Secession in a Democratic World (Yale University Press, 2020) and F. H. Buckley's American Secession: The Looming Threat of a National Breakup (Encounter Books, 2020).

Timothy William Waters

It’s page 131, opening his closing chapter, and riffing on Billy Holiday, F.H. Buckley hints he “was only dreaming. . . .” Three pages later, in the final paragraph, he reveals he’s a unionist, albeit one favoring devolution and a chance for Americans to further sort themselves by ideological zip code. America’s a glorious country, why break it up? Even if the 130 pages before hadn’t convinced you about secession, you might feel it’s a bait and switch.

But let’s look at the bait. If you write a book, even a short one, you should expect to be taken seriously. Besides, on a close read, there’s no switch: Buckley’s been clear enough all along.

Pathways to Division

The best of the book, near the beginning, is the brief excursus into the constitutional possibilities for secession – a thing orthodox opinion has assumed is right out, but Buckley shows is entirely possible.

Buckley places greatest emphasis on a constitutional convention, because it allows states to reform without federal involvement, as amendment requires. Both convention and amendment are capacious, possibilitative arguments; there’s nothing they couldn’t do, which isn’t the same as saying they’re likely to do this. Still, the existing constitutional order, taken in full, doesn’t prohibit secession; it just doesn’t provide for it yet.

His plausible originalist reading would allow secession anyway. In antebellum America, ‘compact theory’ was an available and probably better reading: it would be hard to explain abolitionists’ calls to exit the Union without admitting that secession was legally plausible and morally defensible. Texas v. White ended the argument, but that’s a judicial interpretation, and could be unmade by a court intent on reading the original.

That’s unlikely – at least, if conditions arose in which a case actually made it to the court, it’s anyone’s guess whether those conditions would incline the justices to Quebec Reference-style pragmatism or redoubled perpetual union. It would be a matter of the passions, and our last pre-secession crisis – which, as Buckley points out, had chances for compromise right until the shells began to thud into Fort Sumter – offers a cautionary tale about what radicalized moments do to reasoned possibilities.

A reminder, too, that secession works best if it works in peacetime. We typically analyze secession in light of the violence used to suppress it, drawing insensible conclusions about their causal relationship. It’s a shame we don’t allow advisory opinions, because the principle needs to be validated before it’s needed – before we start naming places the Sunken Cul-de-Sac or the Bloody Strip Mall.

Bigness and the Real Source of Greatness

Apropos those as-yet-unhallowed shopping centers and suburban tracts: America sure is a big country. 3rd in population, 4th in size, world’s largest economy, military superior to any other. BIG! It’s glorious.

The center, and perhaps the heart, of American Secession is all about bigness: mostly the problems  – greater corruption, less wealth, less happiness, disproportionate military spending, shrinking freedoms – though also the ill-defined shared thrill, the thing Buckley repeatedly calls ‘glory.’

It’s understandable that Buckley runs right at the problems of bigness. Many prejudices about secession assume the dangers and undesirability of small units, and that’s well worth scrutinizing. But while secession makes smaller units, it isn’t about them, and neither is its justification. Secession isn’t about size, but separation: dividing a community so its parts might govern themselves as they wish. That secession makes things smaller is true, but incidental. (And not always true: Irredentists join larger national units.)

So it’s not surprising that, despite criticizing bigness across 60 pages and an appendix – half the book – he succumbs to its dubious glories. The critique, like the problem, wasn’t really about size. Although some of Buckley’s arguments are about the effects of being big, for the ones he sees exercising conservatives and liberals, ‘bigness’ is really a proxy for diversity.

It’s America’s polarized ideological adversaries who drive Buckley to contemplate secession, just as it’s America’s bigness – its glory – that ultimately keeps him in, despite all the problems and all the troublesome liberals sharing the space who vex our author (as he vexes them).

America is exceptionally big, and perhaps a few smaller Americas would gain the advantages Buckley sees. But for that to make sense to the people themselves, they’d have to no longer be convinced of what, for all the dysfunction and polarization, Buckley himself still is: that this is a glorious nation based on ideals worth living for – together.

Particular Complaints – Contingent Moments

America is divided – more than at any time since the Civil War, which seems really significant when talking about secession. Polarization has increased on many measures, including just sticking your finger in the air, but does it add up to increased likelihood of division? I’m not an optimist, but that’s exactly why I’m less concerned and unconvinced: the serenity that comes from watching everyone act out Yeats’ “Second Coming.” I prefer to temper the fierce urgency of now with the longue durée, remembering that the past wasn’t Golden and the present isn’t Iron.

The proofs don’t ring true – for many readers, they’ll just confirm their suspicion that the references to California secession are a conservative cat’s paw – and they don’t feel serious enough.

But that’s actually the point: If the complaints don’t seem to justify division (and as it turns out, they aren’t enough for Buckley), they don’t have to. The proper grounding for secession is not objective proof but subjective desire. If a significant segment of our glorious nation no longer believes in our common destiny, that’s a problem for the project called America, whatever their reasons are. Since we’re human, they’re likely to be petty, venal and self-dealing. And principled – our reasons are always some admixture of high sentiment and self-dealing: a few cents on tea imports and unalienable rights.

In concrete cases, principles don’t decide, circumstance does; that was Holmes’ point, and it’s true for secession, something Holmes – who kept his uniform until he died – knew as well as anyone. Perhaps Buckley focuses on the particulars because he’s making a case for this country, not thinking about the general question. Even if you establish a right of secession, you still have to convince the voters, to find some intrusive court ruling or infuriating federal regulation that riles up the base. It would be great if that feeling were based on facts, but what matters is the feeling.

Because actually, what Holmes said decides cases is judgment or intuition. Behind the decision to separate is the felt sense of being a different community. It’s not reducible to or justified by a rational calculus or objective measure of well-being – and whether an ‘objective’ harm matters depends on how much the harmed see themselves as part of some broader polity. Secession springs from an intuition about diverse – divergent – identity: The key – at least, the reason we ought to concern ourselves with the idea – is not that a community will be better off on some empirical metric, but that that it feels itself to be different, which makes the differences matter.

Regressing to the Founding Fathers

One of the most singular qualities of American Secession is its curious dual proofing mechanism, which relies equally on statistical regressions and quotes from the Enlightenment.

Those thinkers, including the Founding Fathers, thought a lot about size, but we risk mistranslation if we apply their terms to our world. Even ‘small’ countries today are vastly larger than the units they knew. Buckley calls Burundi a small country. It is – and has nearly three times the population of the original United States. Let’s not bother comparing it with Athens: I like quoting Aristotle too (even more than reading him), but I sometimes wonder if all the distinctions between different polities are apposite.

Buckley wonders too, from time to time. He notes that Madison’s fears about majoritarian dominance looked very different when populations were low and communications slow; one more reason to ask why our constitutional discourse – even the dominant branch scornful of originalism – continues to read so religiously and anachronistically from the Founders, a kind of secular scholasticism.

Buckley’s antidote is statistics, so we can actually measure what the Ancients and Fathers merely speculated on. But the problem reappears: even if his measures are right, what do they have to do with our case?

Buckley’s statistics are all about the problems of bigness (thankfully, he doesn’t attempt a regression to measure ‘glory’), which draw attention from the real issue. But it’s not clear an American secession would make units small enough to secure the supposed benefits.

An American secession would create giants. California would be the world’s fifth largest economy; today’s Confederacy would be even bigger. You could divide America in half and both parts would be among the ten largest countries by population and size. Divide it into three, and all three would be in the top fifteen. (Ahead of Argentina, Kazakhstan and Algeria in size, or Ethiopia, the Philippines and Egypt by population, if you’re wondering how much happiness, corruption or wealth you’d get.) American secession wouldn’t produce the small-polity Scandinavian benefits Buckley’s regressions seem to reveal, let alone a government that might make us consult Jefferson or Aristotle.

Concrete but Unknowable

Even if one were convinced by the proofs in general, satisfied that a New Confederacy would be smaller in statistically significant ways, it’s not clear what they tell us about the concrete, Holmesian case.

Perhaps another day we’ll have a symposium on the limits of empirical data; here, just this: obviously statistics can tell us a lot about governance, but they’re only as good as the data, and international relations offers among the worst data out there. We should be cautious, lest these enchanting tools rule their master.

These models, even if right, suggest tendencies, not concrete particularities, and the exceptions don’t so much prove the rule as devour it. Statistics are good for disproving negative assumptions about smallness, less so for giving precise policy guidance. I study secession and war crimes, and my readings of Yugoslavia and Rwanda suggest how hard it is to know what seemingly rational choices will lead to. We should have the courage and humility to imagine that all these models may be accurate and that none of them explain any given country, or recommend its path.

Besides, they distract us from the real reason we ought to support a right of secession: not because we know with mathematical certainty that it will make us better off, but precisely because we don’t. We don’t know if we’re better off large or small, together or apart, and it’s in that state of ignorance we must act. Our better angels do not offer knowledge, but wisdom: In a world of irreducible uncertainty, we can do no better than to give voice and validation to people’s beliefs about who they are, and let them govern themselves as they may. That is the radical grace Buckley belatedly discovers and proclaims: to bless union or disunion, whichever we ourselves – our multiple, striving, competing selves – desire, and then work, together, to make whichever good.

Timothy William Waters is Professor of Law at Indiana University Maurer School of Law. You can reach him by e-mail at

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