Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Whinging Secessionists

Like my colleague Steve Saideman, with whom I have written stuff about secessionist movements, I feel the need to comment on the spate of secessionist petitions drawn up in the wake of Obama's election victory last week. Prior to the election I predicted that there would be plenty of whinging (as the Brits put it) and gnashing of teeth by whichever side lost, and I have not been disappointed.

That the whinging should take the form of calls from various groups to secede from the union should not surprise us very much. These efforts - to the extent that there is much effort at all involved - are laughably silly, but they also raise some significant questions about the American body politic.

The laughable part is easy. As Steve points out, the amount of actual energy behind these petitions is almost immeasurably small. They are a testament to the fact that the internet can trivialize anything - just type your name and click a button and presto! you've signed a petition. That these signatures require nothing more strenuous than leaving Facebook for a minute or two, and entail absolutely no risk, gives us a pretty good indication as to how likely any actual secessions are.

The numbers involved are also ridiculously small. But the sentiment behind those tiny numbers is interesting. These are people who are essentially expressing a kindergarten view of politics: if I don't get my way, I'm gonna take my ball and go home. It's the same sentiment behind the "Obama is not my President" bumper sticker, rendered ironic when occasionally paired with an "America: Love It Or Leave It" sticker on the same car.

Now, normally I'm very sympathetic to secessionist movements. I cheer when the East Timorese, or the South Sudanese, or the Kosovar Albanians, finally get to have their own country which they have fought long and hard for. I think that, for all the trouble it's caused, Woodrow Wilson was onto something with his call for national self-determination. People should be governed by folks within their own tribe or clan or nation, not by foreigners - if for no other reason than the foreigners will always be distrusted, which leads to lousy government (was there ever good colonial rule?)

But the folks signing these online secessionist petitions have a problem. They don't have a nation or a tribe on which to base a real polity. They are no different from the rest of us - they speak the same language, wear the same clothes, attend the same range of churches, eat the same foods. Their history is our history. There's no nation here - just a bunch of whiny, pissed-off people who lost an election.

And this is where there's a kernel of a dangerous idea floating around inside this otherwise-silly sewage. The problem is not that we are in danger of breaking up into separate nations - we have too much in common and no enough to base genuinely separate identities on. The problem is that these petitions represent an attack on the core of pluralistic politics in a democracy.

Under pluralism, you win some and you lose some. If your response to losing is to either escalate or leave, the system isn't going to last very long - pretty soon we'll have a million different tiny little municipalities, each populated by four or five people who agree with each other. Worse, you'll get a "winner-take-all" politics where the only response to losing is to escalate the fight.

In the real world, grown-ups learn how to work out their differences and get things done through a combination of compromise, accommodation, ongoing dialogue, and occasionally just tolerating each other's existence. Sometimes there are vociferous arguments, and sometimes people lose those arguments. Sometimes they even change their minds.

A part of me would love to let these little pockets go. Like the Montana Freemen, let them set up their own independent Peoplelikeusistans. Put up customs checkpoints at the borders, make them produce passports to get in to our country, and negotiate trade agreements that include tariffs and taxes on cross-border trade. Also, make sure that they take their share of the national debt with them. That's likely to be a short-lived experiment. In the meantime, the rest of us will get on with trying to build a country together.

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