TRR: Secession Fever

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Secessionist sentiment sweeps the nation in the wake of a controversial presidential election. The country has been down that road before, and it didn’t work out well.

Secession-minded citizens have been busy posting petitions on White House “We the People” web page. The page bills itself as “Your Voice in Our Government” and was established as a public relations gimmick to bolster Mr. Obama’s questionable populist credentials. The administration says it will consider any measure that amasses 25,000 signatures, which gives the illusion that they are responsive to matters of public concern. However most of the posted petitions – such as petitioning to have Mr. Obama do the hokey-pokey — have attracted scant attention and the site was little-known and rarely visited until this week.

Now a grass roots effort has posted 69 petitions for secession representing all 50 states. The measures have attracted nearly 700,000 signatures, with 7 state petitions passing the 25,000 mark. Presumably this means the White House will be committed to say something about it, though don’t count on them taking the issue seriously. Secession opponents have also piled on with proposals to strip citizenship from those seeking separation, or for communities within potentially seceding states to secede from the secession.

Secessionist sentiment is more than sour grapes from sore-losers. It reflects the evolution of the United States into two (or more) increasingly distinct communities. The national government is more divided than at any time since the post-Civil war period, which reflects the deepening splits in society. The United States is becoming a country of niche cultures with widely divergent views of the role of the state in the peoples’ daily lives. This would not be a problem except that the national government is expanding its power to order the republic according to a fixed central plan. This top-down vision of government is buttressed by sweeping legislative acts like Obamacare and enforced by power-hungry, out-of-control bureaucratic regulators. By seeking innovative ways to impose his will by fiat rather than do the hard work of forging compromise, Mr. Obama has severely diminished the legitimacy of his office, and himself.

Secession appeals to those who think there is no way to avoid the train wreck forced on the country by irresponsible Washington politicians and bureaucrats. They feel that separating their communities from the collective Federal suicide pact is the only solution left. But the problem is that it is illegal. Secession is sedition. In Constitutional terms the matter is settled. States do not have the right to secede. Even if state governments believe they have that right there is no Constitutional mechanism for doing so. This was established in the Supreme Court in the 1860s in several cases, most prominently Texas v. White in 1868. There was also the minor matter of the Civil War, which the court might have forestalled had it acted in a more timely fashion.

Secession would only be legally sanctioned if the Constitution was amended to allow it. It is unlikely a secession amendment would pass the current Congress with the requisite two-thirds vote. A more promising path would be to call a convention of states under Article V. This requires two-thirds, or 34 states to convene, and three-fourths, or 38 states to approve proposed amendments. It is unclear how many states have active calls for an Article V convention, but the number is believed to be close to the mark. So rather than posting vain appeals to a scornful White House, secession proponents — if they are serious — should work for legal means to make their dream a reality. Otherwise they are just whistling Dixie. 

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About the Author

James S. Robbins

James S. Robbins, Ph.D., former Senior Editorial Writer for Foreign Affairs, was formerly professor of international relations at the National Defense University, associate professor of international relations at the U.S. Marine Corps Command and Staff College and special assistant in the Office of the Secretary of Defense under Donald Rumsfeld. Dr. Robbins is author of the recently released "This Time ...

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