Memo to the South: Go Ahead, Secede Already!

Lee Siegel on why the South should get the hell out of the union.

Matt Rourke/AP

Let’s not be fooled by all the bipartisan rhetoric that has been streaming out of the GOP since Romney’s self-destruction. Hundreds of thousands of petitioners in a handful of red states still want to secede? Well, don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

A solid block of Southern states continues to refuse to expand Medicaid, thus squashing one of the linchpins of the president’s health-care reform. The South will likely be the last and most stubborn battleground in the fight for gay marriage. Gun control? The more the two sides seem to get cozier with each other, the faster gun-control legislation gets watered down—and more and more red states are passing laws making it legal to carry a concealed weapon. As for immigration, the red states seem to be relaxing their anti-immigrant fervor, but nothing approaching new legislation is even on the horizon.

The sad truth is that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” can only be achieved at this point if the nation is split in half. Far from being fanciful or fanatical, the proponents of secession have a stronger grasp of political reality than just about anyone else. In fact, there are serious reasons why the North itself should take the lead in a secessionist movement.

Just think what America would look like without its mostly Southern states. (We could retain “America”: they could call themselves “Smith & Wesson” or “Coca-Cola” or something like that.) Universal health care. No guns. Strong unions. A humane minimum wage. A humane immigration policy. High revenues from a fair tax structure. A massive public-works program. Legal gay marriage. A ban on carbon emissions. Electric cars. Stronger workplace protections. Extended family leave from work in case of pregnancy or illness. Longer unemployment benefits. In short, a society on a par with most of the rest of the industrialized world—a place whose politics have finally caught up with its social and economic realities.

But I don’t want to appear blindly partisan—a sundering of the union would make the other half of America equally fulfilled. The red-state republic could finally establish a theocracy in which the fundamentalist Christian church would legislate all the important aspects of civic life. It could either send its illegal and/or legal immigrants northward or reinstitute a reformed system of indenture whereby immigrants are purchased by bona fide citizens who have a fully modernized respect for private property. It could, taking the lead from the pioneering Kansas legislature, abolish the income tax, raising revenue from, for example, a “pay to work” program. It could ban abortion in all instances, including rape and incest, and use the growing population of orphans to establish an impressive standing army.

The red-state nation, giddy with new mobility, could make the 1958 Chevy its official car, and use the cutting-edge resources of cable television and the Internet to broadcast postwar situation comedies 24 hours a day. It could arm all of its citizens, and thus relieve itself of the financial burden of maintaining law-enforcement agencies. And without any type of regulation, it could finally compete with similarly unhampered societies all over the world. Without the FDA, a new red-state republic could use refined transfats to develop ever tastier delicacies, perhaps energizing its economy by instituting a toxic-food-for-toxic-toys program with China.

Bitter sarcasm aside, both regions of the country would, in a word, have conferred on them the fundamental freedoms they each believe the other side is denying them.

Instead, we are stuck living in an America whose politics hang suspended somewhere in the 1850s, when the almost symmetrical divide in the country kept one half of it mired in a barbaric system of slavery—itself rooted in ancient customs and conventions—and the other half moving quickly, along scientific and technological lines, into the modern era. Almost 150 years after the end of the Civil War, when it comes to basic issues and fundamental values, America is still split right down the middle.


Liberal pundits, especially, refuse to see this, perhaps because their livelihood depends on their ability to cheer readers and viewers through the deepening gloom with ever brighter optimistic prognostication. Nonetheless, the country is still as neatly divided as quinoa pilaf with mushrooms on one side and roasted pork belly on the other, and will continue to be. The presidency will swing one way and Congress—then, or two years later—will swing another. No matter the current state of the Republican Party, the iron law of “throw the bums out” will kick in, and the outsiders will once again have the White House. And still nothing will have changed.

It boggles the mind that, even as I write this, the so-called sequester, imposed by law in lieu of a balanced budget, has kicked in and is about to cause misery for millions of the most vulnerable Americans on both sides of the divide. Other countries suffer strife or war or anarchy or real economic terrors. We, on the other hand, the most prosperous and most powerful nation on the face of the earth, squabble like young newlyweds over how to pay the household bills.

The conventional, almost formulaic description of this political psychosis is that the Democrats and Republicans cannot “agree” on a solution, which they would be able to do if only the two sides would act rationally and “listen to” each other. The fact that they cannot “negotiate” results in a “stalemate,” which summons to mind the happy delusion of a demanding chess match at the end of which the two competing parties can at least take solace in a game beautifully and intelligently played. Or we hear on Fox that the Democrats are ideologically blind and fanatical in their pursuit of a totalitarian government. Or we hear on MSNBC that the Republicans are ideologically blind and fanatical in their pursuit of a Darwinian dystopia.

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The. Country. Is. Split. Right. Down. The. Middle. May I, with the subtlety of cannonballs falling upon Fort Sumter, suggest that we stop using the anodyne categories of red and blue, and start calling the two sides “Confederate” and “Union,” which is what they really are?

The association of North with modernity and South with regression is so prominent, so visible, so all-encompassing that its familiarity has made it invisible. Here are the facts—with important exceptions in every category. The great research universities are in the blue states. So are the great medical schools, the great hospitals, and the great law schools. The great art and history museums are in the blue part of the country.

The most important popular and “high” art is produced by blue people, in blue places. Even the best comedians—with the exception of Stephen Colbert—are, you might say, from free as opposed to slave states.

By contrast, the South leads in all the negative trends. The South has the highest infant mortality rate. It has the most traffic deaths. It leads the country in gun deaths. It has the greatest number of obese people. It has the highest rate of diabetes. It has the largest number of people dying from stroke—a broad swath of the southeastern United States is known as the “stroke belt.” The South has the highest rates of cognitive decline.

Interestingly, though the South is home to the major tobacco companies and to carcinogenic Coca-Cola, the highest incidence of many types of cancer happens to be in the North. Which just proves that the stress of living alongside the Confederacy is now seriously affecting our health.

And the country’s great, recent Southern presidents? Jimmy Carter did more damage to the liberal agenda, which had been heroically advanced by that arch-fiend Richard Nixon, than any other modern president. In 1993, Arkansan Bill Clinton proposed a budget nearly devoid of social investment and almost identical to Reagan’s years earlier. Even when they find themselves in the vanguard of mainstream American politics, Southern politicians heed their atavistic instincts—and their gift for nimble expedience—and turn, like flowers straining toward the setting sun, back to the 19th century.

As for the great numbers of enlightened men and women in the South, let me cut through all the nuances of history and polemic and invite them all to flee northward. To paraphrase Swift, I am opposed to the Southern tribe as a voting, obstructing, retarding whole, but not to the countless individuals who make up the tribe, some of whom of course are exemplars of decency, humanity, wit, sophistication, and charm. Let them come north, and enrich us with their grace and charm. (And maybe if CNN moved their headquarters to New York or Philadelphia or Boston, the network could save its plummeting ratings simply by changing its employees’ diets.)


I used to take sharp issue with the argument, advanced by Tom Frank, that red-state citizens are rubes deceived into voting against their own material interests by wily Republican elites. My feeling was that people who lead a hardscrabble existence, like so many in the South, don’t define their lives in economic terms since the economy has failed them, and always will. Instead, they set the spiritual wealth of their cultural values—God and country—against the liberal domination of national culture; against liberal elites who are every bit as rich as their Republican counterparts but who seem to have no sympathy for the ordinary lives of the hard-pressed who abide by a different system of values.

By this point, I could care less about such people. All I know is that they stand opposed to every social and economic arrangement that would make an increasingly harsh and exponentially more complicated America more bearable for those with little or no material resources. I don’t really care what the matter is with the so-called average American. My attitude now is somewhat less cerebral. Fuck Kansas, and fuck the horse it rode (into the Union) on.

Perhaps my newfound sense of explicit disgust with America’s backside is why I cannot join in the ongoing celebration of Abraham Lincoln that seems to have seized the country since Obama’s first election. Never mind the perhaps 1 million lives that Lincoln destroyed for the sake of preserving the Union—not for the sake of abolishing slavery, which was Lincoln’s sacred pretext. Slavery was an abomination and it had to be wiped out. But how many slaves would have been destroyed, spiritually or physically, by the time the South fell if it had been allowed to secede? Would it have been 1 million? Who has the audacity to compare agonies?

These days I sometimes fall into a counter-historical revelry in which Lincoln allowed the South to remove itself from the Union. Within months, hundreds of Underground Railroads would have sprung up, slowly draining the South of its shackled manpower. The thriving Northern economy, galvanized by technological advances, would have made it possible to boycott Southern goods that could then have been bought from other countries. Northern economic and political might would have purchased important foreign alliances, which could have been used to isolate the South. In maybe 10 years, with the help of Northern and foreign arms, Southern blacks would have overthrown a feeble, decaying government run mostly by alcoholics lost in a haze of deluded grandeur.

Who knows? By the 1870s, we might have had a black republic; by the 1880s, the first free and equal pair of interracial countries; by 1890, cool jazz. On the eve of the Second World War, the pact between the North American nation and the Southern American nation might have established such a powerful and enlightened pair of biracial republics that Nazi and Japanese theories of racial superiority would never have gotten off the ground.

Or not.

But it hardly matters what might have been. What exists now is unworkable, untenable, and damn near unendurable. We are living in a permanently forked land. If you’re reading this website, you’re most likely one of “us.” And what “we” often write about, with scathing exasperation, is the retrograde stubbornness of “them.” Just as the German playwright Gustav Freitag famously reduced all drama to a single five-act structure, all of “our” political writing can be reduced to a few themes or tropes. We are for high taxes. They are for no taxes. We are for prohibiting, in various degrees, the private ownership of guns. They are for the universal ownership of guns. We are for choice on abortion. They are against it. We are for stem-cell research. They are against it. We are for universal health care paid for by taxes. They are for excluding government from health care (except when it comes to Medicare). We are for legal immigration in generous numbers. They are for a small trickle of legal immigration. We are for a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, materialist, rationalist, secular society in which gay people marry and raise adopted children, and women more often than not rule a roost that has two electric cars in every garage and a small bottle of morning-after pills in every purse. How about them?

Let us, along with the secessionists, get real. Maybe, by turning our unacknowledged, absolute division into a recognized aggression—by liberating the two irreconcilable halves of the country into two frankly contending rivals—just maybe, we can, at last, play ball.

Little Czechoslovakia split itself in two; why can’t we?