For the most part, I try to avoid reading National Review. Whatever problems I have with William F. Buckley, he was at the very least a contemplative and thoughtful individual who cared very deeply about the conservative tradition he often represented to the American public. The same cannot always be said for the magazine he started in 1955. Charles C.W. Cooke’s recent article regarding the current discussion of secession provides a useful case-in-point.
To the reflective conservative, the prospect of secession should at least be an interesting academic exercise- one that would ostensibly involve such considerations as the origins of governmental authority, the historical nature of the American Union, and whether the current constitutional order is still salvageable. Such considerations, however, are apparently lost on Cooke. There are timely and thoughtful arguments that can be made on either side of the contemporary debate about secession. Cooke’s dismissal of the issue out of hand, however, betrays the emptiness of his supposed conservatism and contributes nothing to a genuine discussion of the merits and drawbacks of secession.
Fundamentally, Cooke’s argument falls apart because he has a myopic understanding of history. More specifically, Cooke sees only a train of “light and transient causes” in the political sphere where conservatives should see a systemic pattern of compositional disintegration in the constitutional sphere. He draws from the language of the Declaration of Independence to illustrate the differences between the historical circumstances of the American Framers on one hand and modern proponents of secession on the other:
If modern secessionists were to accept the premise that “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation,” what would be on their account? Which “facts” would “be submitted to a candid world”? Obamacare? Dodd-Frank? The amnesty executive order? The HHS mandate? Please. These are serious problems to be sure, but they are political problems, not problems of structure.
This underlies a chronic vice of the type of conservative that the National Review regularly employs: the disassociation of contemporary political issues from their broader philosophical and historical contexts. The common understanding of history as “one damn thing after another” arises from this perversion of history into an unending parade of unrelated- and thus apparently transient- factual occurrences.
An honest examination of the current dilapidated state of the American constitutional order tells a different story. Consider for a moment:
- The branches of the Federal government seem more interested in colluding than in checking each other’s constitutional transgressions.
- The states have virtually no political power with which to check their agents in Washington.
- The President wages war at his own dictatorial whim.
- The rightful law-making power of Congress has been delegated to an ever-increasing executive bureaucracy, facilitating the decline from republic to technocracy.
- The American electorate that once vigorously guarded their constitutional rights now willingly surrender them without so much as a second thought.
- That most sacred of all First Amendment prohibitions, that against prohibiting the “free exercise of religion”- has recently been shown to be little more than a “parchment barrier” as James Madison predicted it would.
In short, if Mr. Cooke does not see structural problems in the American constitutional order, either he is not looking or the term is as utterly devoid of meaning as his understanding of history. By the standards of the 18th Century, the current American government is completely bereft of internal mechanisms of restraint and is thereby a de facto dictatorship.
Whether or not Texas or Georgia or any other state should secede from the Union remains to be argued. But the stakes are much higher than Cooke indicates. The current structure of government has proved itself, up until this point, to be untenable.
If Mr. Cooke is correct in calling the United States “the greatest force for good in the history of the world”, then it is surely because of the great constitutional order that we have built upon over the centuries. That order is based not upon national boundaries but upon the resonance of that order within the populace it governs. That that resonance is weaker now than ever before seems evident: as Cooke points out, the President can still say he governs by virtue of the “consent” of the American people writ large. What he cannot say, however, is that he governs by the “consent” of the people of Wyoming.
Perhaps the best chance at preserving that which is best about America- our political culture, our constitutional order, our respect for the rule of law and the Western cultural inheritance- is through the dissolution of the American state. A dismantling of the American state might not be a dismantling of the constitutional order; rather, it might be a preemptive step toward restoring an order now dead.
Mr. Cooke is correct: secession is no matter to be taken up lightly. But when the alternative is the further disintegration of the best of America, the prospect of secession deserves honest consideration.