The Alcove

Secession: Still a Bad Idea

The ugly attitudes behind half-serious calls for a “Bluexit.”

By Nathan Pippenger

Tagged Donald TrumppoliticsThe South

Here’s a game: Compare the following two passages about American politics, both from writers associated with the New Republic, and see if you can identify which is more recent:

[T]he separation of the democratic idea from the national principle and organization has issued not merely in sterility, but in moral and political mischief.

and

Dear Red-State Trump Voter, Let’s face it, guys: We’re done.… What I mean is that it’s time for blue states and cities to effectively abandon the American national enterprise, as it is currently constituted. Call it the New Federalism. Or Virtual Secession. Or Conscious Uncoupling—though that’s already been used. Or maybe Bluexit.

The first quote comes from 1909’s The Promise of American Life, the major statement of political thought from TNR co-founder Herbert Croly. The second comes from a piece that ran last week in his magazine. Okay: this is not a terribly fun (or challenging) game. But it suffices to convey the gap between Croly’s democratic-nationalist form of liberalism and the 4,500-word sneer that his magazine just published in favor of blue-state secessionism.

Cathartic venting for shellshocked leftists is, it apparently bears repeating, not about politics. Successful democracies require a willingness among citizens to accept losses today in order to preserve the same forum of contestation that makes victory possible tomorrow. Democracy is poorly served by a “take my ball and go home” attitude, since democratic citizens have to assume shared responsibility for the political system under which they all live.

None of this is to dismiss the legitimate questions raised by Trump’s unusual accession to the presidency, but Baker’s recommendations go far beyond resistance to Trump, advocating divorce from Red America for reasons that largely predate his rise. But, insofar as his essay reflects the temptations of left-wing political engagement in the Trump era, it illustrates (at least) two impulses that it would be wise to avoid:

Misguided contractualism: Yascha Mounk recently noted in these pages that today, “we are further away from [T.H.] Marshall’s vision than at any point since World War II.” He was referring to the British sociologist’s postwar vision of “social citizenship,” which, as Mounk writes, envisioned for all citizens a “social safety net that would help people as a matter of right, regardless of the reasons for their misfortune.” (Emphasis added.) Contemporary sociologists note that, in contrast, today’s citizenship discourse is rife with the language of contracts—indicating that we’ve moved away from the idea that all citizens, qua citizens, should enjoy meaningful membership in society, in favor of a market-oriented conception that asks citizens: “What have you done for us lately?” Normally, these changes map onto right-wing politics, but Baker (in a left-wing magazine!) chides “you red states” for not “pulling your weight” while reserving plenty of self-congratulation for what he calls “self-supporting America.” (That this latter phrase could have come from the mouth of Bill O’Reilly or Newt Gingrich is just one example of the essay’s bizarro-world quality. At one point, he says: “We’ll focus on getting our own house in order, while yours falls into disrepair and ruin.”)

A politics of insularity: Baker makes the following argument about the rebuilding of the left under Trump: “This, sadly, is not a time for connecting or reaching out. It is a time for retrenchment and rebuilding. If we in the blue states want to make America great again, we must first demonstrate that we can make our own states into models of civic participation and economic equality.” This statement strangely implies an opposition between “rebuilding” and “reaching out,” as if successful politics in a large, pluralistic democracy were at odds with the work of persuasion and coalition-building. At some point, the left is going to have to face the fact that, despite a popular-vote victory, Democrats lost the election—in part because they lost voters who have, in the past pulled the lever for them. Turning away from the project of persuasion, especially in winnable states like Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Florida, and Wisconsin, is the exact opposite of “rebuilding.” Writing off people who voted for the other party as irredeemable or no longer worthy of engagement is bad enough from the perspective of the democratic ethos; as a political strategy for a party that controls neither the White House, nor Congress, nor the majority of state houses, it is sheer madness.

These assembled arguments for Baker’s (only partly sarcastic) Bluexit proposal have, in totality, a strange quality. First, there’s the contemptuous language of contractual citizenship. (Perhaps the most cringe-inducing passage, which would rightly be regarded as morally horrid if it were directed against an underdeveloped country, reads: “Take Mississippi (please!), famous for being 49th or 50th in just about everything that matters. When it comes to sucking at the federal teat, the Magnolia State is the undisputed champ.”) Add to that the inward political turn, giving up on the project of persuasion in favor of ideological fortress-building. A political movement that amounts to saying “to hell with you” to about half of the country cannot avoid the stain of what amounts to undemocratic populism: the designation of certain fellow-citizens as not really part of our political concern, not really partners in our democratic life. And is it surprising that this should be paired with mockery of the disadvantaged and dispossessed? (As other critics of the piece have noted, the piece’s half-in-jest tone doesn’t excuse its basic nastiness.)

In other words, this amounts to little more than inverted Trumpism. The left ought to be resisting, rather than assisting, attempts to reduce citizenship to the language of contract. It should be choosing the hard work of argument and persuasion over the temptations of ideological bubbles. Above all, it should never sneer at the poor, the sick, and the left behind, whatever their politics. In other words, we should oppose what the modern conservative movement has become—not refashion ourselves as its left-wing mirror image.

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

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