In his underrated classic The Cousins’ Wars, Kevin Phillips proves something most Americans would not like to contemplate. Rather than just a one-off conflict over slavery, the Civil War was actually the third phase of a massive conflict among British people and their descendants. The English Civil War laid the groundwork for the American Revolution—which, in most states, was a civil war of its own, played out county by county—and the American Revolution laid the groundwork for the U.S. Civil War.
The patterns of thought shaped through centuries of this ethnic and religious conflict live on, as Scotland’s recent bid for independence reminds us. And here in America, the spirit of secession is gaining strength too. As modern social and cultural forces continue to make most of us more interchangeable, interest in leaving the Union has spread out from coast to coast with remarkable regularity.
As a rigorous new Reuters poll reveals, at least 19 percent of respondents in America’s eight major regions support the idea of their state “peacefully withdrawing from the United States of America and the federal government.” In the Great Lakes, Mid-Atlantic, Plains, and Far West, secession sympathizers top out at 22 percent of the population. In the Southeast, the group counts 1 of every 4 respondents. In the Rockies, the number climbs to 26 percent, and in the Southwest, fully a third are on board.
Perhaps predictably, support is stronger among Republicans than Democrats, and among Tea Party respondents, support for secession hit 53 percent. But those details pale in comparison to the conclusions drawn by Reuters analysts themselves.
“Those we spoke to seemed to have answered as they did as a form of protest that was neither red nor blue but a polychromatic riot,” Reuters’ Jim Gaines explains. Respondents vented their grevances, he wrote, “against a recovery that has yet to produce jobs, against jobs that don’t pay, against mistreatment of veterans, against war, against deficits, against hyper-partisanship, against political corruption, against illegal immigration, against the assault on marriage, against the assault on same-sex marriage, against government in the bedroom, against government in general—the president, Congress, the courts and both political parties.”
These grudges are not new to us. But very few of us have imagined that they could fuel a generalized positive view of secession. We like to think that the Civil War and its aftermath limited secessionism to a narrow, backward, and most of all shrinking population of ingrate Southern nostalgists. What a quaint myth that turns out to be.
As Phillips observes, “as late as the 1950s, rural and small-town Americans were still broadly voting as their great-grandfathers had shot.” But the acceleration of the modern forces that made us all more interchangeably similar undid those cross-generational bonds as the 1960s set in. As Phillips puts it, the “cultural, religious, and ethnic quilt of Civil War and post-Civil War politics, four generations old, was finally unraveling,” which led him to predict “a new, dominant, trans-Mason-Dixon line, conservative coalition.”
He was, to put it mildly, absolutely right. But we are now far behind the years of the Silent Majority, the Reagan Revolution, the Republican Revolution of ’94, and the George W. Bush administration. Barack Obama has shown America that crony corporatism, patronage politics, and limitless government know no party. Some of us, on balance, are okay with that fact. Others are not—but many of the anxious and jaded would sooner just fade out of civic life than step up to the challenge of secession, with the higher-stakes effort of state and local governance that awaits.
Because the federal government has become so ubiquitous and voracious, there seems to be no negotiating with its size and scope. The struggles over taxes, budgets, surveillance, incarceration, and related matters have soured Americans on the prospects of methodical, measured reform. Increasingly, the radical alternatives of giving up on politics or giving up on the United States seem like the only alternatives.
And the more disconnected we become from the era of the Civil War, the more abstract and plausible the idea of secession becomes. Not only is secession becoming delinked from the memory of the Confederate States; it’s even coming unglued from the national conservative coalition that controlled much of federal politics in the last years of the 20th century. According to Reuters, current Democrat support for secession is hovering around 20 percent.
What secessionists forget, however—and what the Reuters poll helped them to ignore—is that quitting the Union will not happen “peacefully.” Perhaps the most durable lesson of the Civil War is that the states cannot remain united if a handful make a break for the exits. Much of the fervor for war in 1860 was driven by a moral crusade against slavery. Some of it was fueled by patriotism, and some by state, local, and even just family affinities.
At the highest level, however, Lincoln recognized that the cosmopolitan North—teeming with immigrants, churning with class conflict, surging into the prairie and mountain west—would have lacked a logic of unity if the South were permitted to break off in peace. The Southerners had history, ethnicity, culture, slavery, religion, and a quasi-aristocratic honor society to hold them together.
What did the North have?
Not much more than we have today. Although the spell of American superpower and an almighty government is in some ways more dominant than ever, the moment that spell is broken, many will find themselves in a kind of freefall of political principle. Thomas Hobbes, who fled to France during the English Civil War, made a wager that haunts us to this day: without a Leviathan to overawe us all, will we slip swiftly into rancor and chaos?
The larger the pro-secession minority becomes, the more the majority opposed to secession will believe that Hobbes was right.