Hanging Separately Doesn’t Sound so Bad
In his latest book, David French is worried we're a divided nation in danger of splitting. Maybe that's right.
Divided We Fall: America’s Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation, by David French (St. Martin’s Press: 2021), 288 pages.
David French should write TV shows. He’d be good at it. And I think he’d like it. His work is full of references to popular television and movies, from Game of Thrones to the Marvel franchise. He writes about pop culture as a fan, and for fans. The middle section of his latest book, Divided We Fall: America’s Secession Threat and How to Restore our Nation, is made up of two pieces of speculative fiction—“Calexit” and “Texit,”—that beg for the prestige streaming service treatment. I’d watch them with great enjoyment. I hope he sells the options.
French is speculating about exit because he worries that we are, as James Madison warned against in Federalist no. 10, a factious country, and increasingly so. We may break apart, if we do not come together. But there is hope, for as Madison wrote, “There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects.” The trouble is that the first cure is not an option, for:
There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.
Two bad answers, those, so we are stuck with faction, and must control its effects. So far, so Madisonian. Control of effects, then and now, means federalism. This being a polemical book, French can be aspirational, so we’re talking about healthy federalism here.
Healthy federalism means that if Americans will fix what ails them, they could have “guaranteed civil liberties that didn’t waver or vary from state to state and they would enjoy a much greater degree of local control.” Sounds pretty good. That means a Texas for (self-identified) Texans and a California for (self-identified) Californians, but all of us Americans, so that “[t]he fundamental social compact would remain intact for all citizens, but public policy would be variable, customized for local interests and local values.” What stands in the way is a “quest for ultimate ideological victory” by America’s factions, left and right (but not the center, as suggested by a John Rawls epigraph and generous sprinkling of “reasonable person” throughout). French fears we’re forgetting we are “a pluralistic, liberal republic,” necessarily, as a national project. If you want to keep it up, “you need to defend the rights of others that you would like to exercise yourself—even when others seek to use those rights to advance ideas you may dislike or even find repugnant,” and you also need to “defend the rights of communities and associations to govern themselves according to their values and their beliefs—so long as they don’t violate the fundamental rights of their dissenting members.” There’s your medicine.
French is concerned that if we don’t take our medicine then the fever pitch of our politics will continue higher and higher, until the United States of America as we know it passes away, victim, to brutally mix my metaphors, of a national divorce. But for a game participant in the long conservative tradition of Jeremiads—French mentions his pessimism and the unlikeliness of reconciliation regularly throughout—the book left me surprisingly uplifted and optimistic. Most of the first part of Divided We Fall is an enumeration of how much bitterly divides us and how likely secession seems, and leads up to that aforementioned middle section, sketching out two scenarios for the split. They’re both very compelling stories; they sound like reasonable speculation; and best of all they’re not too bad. Neither includes a protracted, bloody civil war. In our sickness, we’ll get sick enough of each other to let the other side go; our bureaucratic sclerosis and various legal complexities, as well as nuclear weapons, making it impossible for anything more devastatingly decisive to occur.
The American Revolution, French reminds us, “was an effort at cultural preservation, with the colonists’ rights grounded in their understanding of the rights of English citizens and their rage rooted in the denial of those rights.” It’s along similar lines a near-future California or Texas might decide to pack it up, according to French, inviting whomever wants to join them to come along. French is evenhanded enough to show us how both sides could be fulfilling parts of the liberal creed of the Founding in pursuing separation. He describes roads to dissolution that are full of high politics and moral intensity; it’s exciting and grand. Indeed, it seems as if the only objection possible to mostly peaceful secession of this kind would be that there is an organic historical continuity that should be maintained out of obligation to our ancestors. But if we do not all in fact share those American ancestors, and if America is really an idea anyway, an essentially liberal project, then putting a particularly Texan or Californian spin on that idea, in pursuit of fuller expression of that liberalism as red-staters or blue-staters understand it, seems not just understandable but perhaps even noble. The real spirit of the Founding could be made alive again in the creation of new republics, liberal and pluralistic in a way that might be more similar in their limits to the 18th-century colonies.
But, French asks, if we do eventually, sort-of amicably, file the divorce papers, then who will be the world police? No one. This seems to be the real motivation for objecting to secession. We’d be resigning ourselves and everyone else to a multipolar globe, a nuclear power among others: Russia and Germany will seek to balance each other in Europe; Japan, Taiwan, and Korea will have to hem China in themselves, with Australian and Indian help; Israel will have to bomb Iran all alone. And nuclear peace theory will apparently prevail, proliferation proving stabilizing as no one will risk mutually assured destruction. Like I said before, for prophecies of doom and gloom it all left me pretty cheered. After all, we’ve entered a multipolar world already; establishment incompetence and selfishness over the last 30 years bungled our chance at sustainable domination and bogged us down in stupid attempts to deny human nature, geography, and history (our hubris in Iraq has left its ancient Christian community nearly exterminated). As far as returns to normal or imperial declines go, the one French describes isn’t half bad. He anticipates this response, writing:
Truth be told, there were Americans who liked the new world. They had always resented international dependence on American arms and American lives. They were glad to pull back to their new borders and had little interest in crises overseas. They saw the new nations as more in keeping with the intentions of the original Founders of the old United States, avoiding foreign entanglements and staying out of foreign wars. Freed from the burden of defending the world, the new nations believed they could pour their resources into their own people.
To which all I can say is, yes. I’d like that new world just fine.
* * *
French says that if you were to read just one chapter of Divided We Fall it should be the one about Cass Sunstein and social science. No matter how on-the-nose that sounds, I’m not making that up: “If you understand only one concept in this book, understand Sunstein’s argument.” Doing a bit of law and economics in 1999, Sunstein concluded that, in French’s summary, “when people of like mind gather, they tend to become more extreme.” A “predeliberation tendency” can result in a “cascade” of shared opinion, as what started as a deliberative process becomes one of social conformity and identity affirmation. But like so much social science this confuses a description of behavior with understanding of human beings—yes, of course not everyone in a given group reasoned or discussed their way to a shared opinion by something that resembles economic logic; most people know most of what they think they know because they are, in the words of Alasdair MacIntyre, dependent rational animals aware of their status in a community and willing to be taught.
What does it mean that we are polarized? Like many Americans, French feels politically homeless now. Also like many Americans, he has a narrative of his eviction that blames one party more than the other. As he puts it, “Republicans don’t embrace Republican policies so much as they despise Democrats and Democratic policies. Democrats don’t embrace Democratic policies as much as they vote to defend themselves from Republicans.” There’s more social science for this in the concept of the Overton window. The frame, French says, has been expanded on both sides by these cascades of self-reinforcing group extremism. But it hasn’t. As a National Review alumnus he should know conservatives yell stop, as the left unspools the thread of progress. The left side of the window moves; those on the right are called reactionaries for a reason. But if you are glued, by disposition or by choice, to being in the center, the leftward march would make it look like the right is moving, too, a kind of redshift. Perhaps it’s best not to think of a window at all, but a sliding door; while one side wants to open it, the other side knows—though not with experts or studies to back up instinct and tradition—that it should stay closed against whatever is outside.
The American right is not driving this supposed group polarization. A clown extremist like Richard Spencer is functionally an employee of Mother Jones and the New York Times. Conservatives are trying to hold their ground, making an appeal to heaven. Some means are being reconsidered—there’s that old line about insanity, doing the same thing and expecting different results—but the ends have stayed the same: a commitment to human nature and human order. That rhetoric from parts of the right can be cruel and vile is undeniable, and I can’t and won’t condone the abuse the French family has received, but it was ever thus—the Founding generation had abominable things to say to each other, too, and politics is not a TV show—and these are cruel and vile times. The issues are substantive and the stakes matter. Policies are not just ideas to be talked about. Children are dying, or being maimed for life.
About a third of the way through Divided We Fall, French describes a secret bipartisan discussion he was invited to participate in, one of those classic establishment ones that sets out to chat its way to a saved republic. He writes, “To preserve the peace, we left the substantive issues by the wayside—there were no debates about abortion, LGBT rights, or gun control. Instead, we asked if there was a way to fight about those issues without the nature of the debate itself further fracturing the country.” They got nowhere, and realized it when he brought up transgenderism. Yet gun control is the only one of those three French explores in any depth in his book; to preserve the possibility of peace, it seems, he leaves the substantive issues, debates about abortion and transgenderism, largely by the wayside.
As French reminds his readers, “Adams famously wrote that ‘our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.’” Everyone involved in American public life agrees, whether they would use that language or not; the question is what religion and what morality will form the common people capable of being governed by our Constitution. These substantive issues are religious questions. It is a religious question, a fundamental one, to ask whether a child can be killed licitly, sacrificed on an altar to autonomy. It is a religious question, a fundamental one, to ask whether someone can be denied the full expression of who they are, can have their humanity diminished, constrained by old ignorance and bigotry and custom or even biology, when technology and progress make the affirmation and celebration of their true self possible. These religious questions meet in another one, whether a child can consent to puberty blockers that may well sterilize him or her, a gelded, consecrated acolyte to liberty. “I am deprived of my fundamental rights if that state squelches my ability to practice my faith, speak about my deepest beliefs, or enjoy the most basic rights of due process,” French writes. “Breaching the Bill of Rights breaks the compact between citizen and state.” It seems it’s hard to see, from the careful center, that this is exactly the claim being made on all sides; the left and right of “group polarization” believe this is exactly the threat, exactly the violation—they do not use the language of abolition and civil rights by accident.
Most voices crying in the wilderness are just a guy. The voice of reason, an adult in the room, can be wrong. French isn’t wrong that we are a bitterly factious country, or that Madison anticipated this. He isn’t wrong when he writes, “A nation with a strong common culture could perhaps survive a crisis like this. More accurately, a nation with a strong common culture likely wouldn’t reach such a crisis.” He is wrong, though, when he suggests proceduralism and discussion can itself be “a strong common culture” that can guide us through a fundamentally religious crisis. And because of that, he is wrong to think his proposal that “Google should be welcoming for dragonkin and conservatives—so long as the dragonkin and conservative do their jobs well and treat colleagues with dignity and respect,” has legs, or that moderation will restore healthy federalism. The federalism French wants is actively undermined by the very global dominance he believes America must maintain and stay united to maintain; the three losers in federalism are D.C. bureaucracy, the military industrial complex, and national and multinational corporations who want consistent regulation and convenient access for lobbying. Against power such as that, left or right, red or blue, we must indeed, as Ben Franklin said, “all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”
I want federalism, too. I don’t want America to break up. But if we do go through a national divorce, I hope David French is right about it. It doesn’t sound too bad.