The Alcove

How Global Is the Crisis of Secession?

Is the U.S. experiencing its own version of the Brexit controversy?

By Nathan Pippenger

Back in the United States after traveling abroad, Sanford Levinson reflects in Balkinization on whether this country is immune from the apparently global spread of constitutional crackup:

I note with interest that Doug Bandow, of the Cato Institute, is advocating secession and, therefore, the breaking up of the United States. Will the “mystic chords of memory” be enough to keep Pacifica or Cascadia (or, for that matter, Texas and lower Dixie) in the Union if, from their perspective, an utter scoundrel is elected President? Why exactly should those chords continue to resonate. Who would have imagined 30 years ago the breakup of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics or, even five years ago, of the United Kingdom? Why is the U.S. necessarily exempt from the “disruptions” that are endemic in the international political order these days?

The conclusion suggested by this provocative connection of seemingly-unrelated events is that no, there is no reason to assume the United States is exempt. But if that framing clarifies certain aspects of our present moment (and provides a bracing warning to Americans against complacency), it may occlude real distinctions between American and British politics at this moment.

One important such difference, recently articulated by writers like Yascha Mounk and Richard Tuck, is that whatever your view on the wisdom of Brexit, there are powerful democratic arguments in favor of disunion. In his left-wing case for Brexit, Tuck laments the British left’s pro-EU stance, which “risks throwing away the one institution which it has, historically, been able to use effectively—the democratic state—in favor of a constitutional order tailor-made for the interests of global capitalism and managerial politics.” In Mounk’s terms, the technocratic EU represents “undemocratic liberalism,” and its critics on the populist and nationalist far right offer the unappealing alternative of “illiberal democracy.” The ideal of liberal democracy—a political order that respects individual rights and is responsive to the public—seems lost in the debate.

This indicates why, despite some disturbing parallels, the Brexit dispute doesn’t perfectly map onto the American analogy that Levinson describes. There is no good argument, democratic or otherwise, for secession by any state or region of the United States. One can argue, as Tuck does, that the interests of the left and of democracy in general would be well-served by Britain’s withdrawal from the EU. But there is nothing in the historical experience of American secessionism, or in the motivations of its proponents, to suggest that this would be true in our case. To the contrary: the success of a defensible, progressive vision of American democracy has advanced alongside the rejection of sectional withdrawal and the embrace of a broad conception of shared nationhood. And this historical point would be true even if it weren’t generally undemocratic to unilaterally withdraw from a political order—whose legitimacy you’ve previously accepted—simply because it produces, after a fairly-contested process, an outcome you dislike.

There are limits, then, to our ability to make sense of our domestic political fracture in terms of the Brexit debate. Trump clearly doesn’t offer EU-style undemocratic liberalism, but neither does he offer illiberal democracy: His rise is predicated on the rhetorical expulsion of countless groups from the civic sphere—so many, in fact, that his vision of America could not include a majority of actually-existing Americans. It therefore fails even as a vision of illiberal majoritarianism.

Instead, Trumpism should be seen as a call for rule by a small, resentful cadre composed of the few groups in society Trump hasn’t insulted (yet). And any pro-Trump regions that seceded in reaction to a Clinton presidency would only be affirming that undemocratic vision, in addition to (obviously) invalidating the will of all the Clinton voters living among them. This year has produced worrying political tremors, both here and abroad—but their unsettling similarities shouldn’t overshadow their important differences.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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