Roving thoughts and provocations

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Back Door Secession

Win McNamee/Getty Images
US Speaker of the House John Boehner, Washington, D.C., October 8, 2013

On Monday, The New York Times reported that eleven counties in Colorado are promoting efforts to secede from their state government. Of course, men like Governor Rick Perry of Texas have gone further and threatened secession from the federal government. It is not much noticed that parts of the country act as if they had already seceded from the union. They do not recognize laws and Supreme Court decisions, or constitutional guarantees of free speech. For instance seventeen states have violated the First Amendment by preventing or hindering the work of “navigators”—organizations and businesses funded by the federal government to educate people on ways to follow the rules of the Affordable Care Act. Some groups routinely attempt to block health centers from advising women on the legal right to contraception. Eight state legislatures this year have passed voter restrictions that may violate the Fourteenth Amendment, and similar measures are pending in other states.

The people behind these efforts are imitating what the Confederate States did even before they formally seceded in 1861. Already they ran a parallel government, in which the laws of the national government were blatantly disregarded. They denied the right of abolitionists to voice their arguments, killing or riding out of town over three hundred of them in the years before the Civil War. They confiscated or destroyed abolitionist tracts sent to Southern states by United States mail. In the United States Congress, they instituted “gag rules” that automatically tabled (excluded from discussion) anti-slavery petitions, in flagrant abuse of the First Amendment’s right of petition.

The Southern states were able to live in such open disregard for national law because of two things. First, the states were disproportionately represented in Congress because they got three extra votes for seats in the House of Representatives for every five slaves owned in the state—giving them 98 seats instead of 73 in 1833, and similar margins up to the war. Second, the national Democratic-Republican Party needed the Southern part of its coalition so badly that it colluded with the Southern states’ violations of the Constitution. In 1835, for instance, President Andrew Jackson did not enforce the sacredness of the US mail, allowing states to refuse delivery of anti-slave mailings unless a recipient revealed his identity, requested delivery, and had his name published for vilification.

Just as the Old South compelled the national party to shelter its extremism, today’s Tea Party leaders make Republicans toe their line. Most Republicans do not think laws invalid because the president is a foreign-born Muslim with a socialist agenda. But they do not renounce, or even criticize, their partners who think that. The rare Republican who dares criticize a Rush Limbaugh is quickly made to repent and apologize. John Boehner holds the nation hostage because the Tea Party holds him hostage. The problem with modern Republicans is not fanaticism in the few but cowardice in the many, who let their fellows live in virtual secession from laws they disagree with.

Library of Congress
Dividing the National Map, 1860

Republican leaders in Congress are too cowardly to say that the voting restrictions being enacted by Republican-controlled state legislatures are racially motivated. They accept the blatant lie that they are aimed only at non-existent “fraud.” They will not crack the open code by which their partners claim to object to Obama because he is a “foreign-born Muslim” when they really mean “a black man.” They will not admit that the many procedural laws adopted to prevent abortion are in violation of the law as defined by the Supreme Court. They go along with the pretence that all the new rules are “for women’s health.” De facto acts of secession are given a pseudo-legal cover.

Thus we get people who say they do not want the government in control of women’s health under Obamacare—just after they order doctors to give women vaginal probes the doctors do not consider medically necessary. Or that they do not want the government telling Americans what they should do about their health—just before they prohibit “navigators” from even discussing choices about their health. The same people who oppose background checks for gun purchases now want background checks for anyone the government authorizes to explain the law to people. This is a gag rule to rank with antebellum bans on the discussion of slavery.

So we have one condition that resembles the pre-Civil War virtual secessionism—the holding of a whole party hostage to its most extreme members. We also have the other antebellum condition—the disproportionate representation of the extreme faction. In state after state in the 2012 election, there was a large vote for President Obama, but a majority of House seats went to Republicans. In Pennsylvania, for instance, Obama won 52 percent of the votes cast, but Republicans got over twice as many seats (13 to 5), thanks to carefully planned gerrymandering of districts by Republican state legislatures. This advantage will be set in stone if all the voter restriction laws now being advanced block voters who might upset the disproportion.

The presiding spirit of this neo-secessionism is a resistance to majority rule. We see this in the Senate, where a Democratic majority is resisted at every turn by automatic recourses to the filibuster. We see it in the attempt to repeal the seventeenth amendment, which allows a majority of voters to choose a state’s senators. The repealers want that choice to go back to the state legislatures, where they rule thanks to anti-majority gerrymandering.

The Old South went from virtual to actual secession only when the addition of non-slave Western states threatened their disproportionate hold on the Congress and the Court (which had been Southern in makeup when ruling on Dred Scott). It is difficult to conjecture what will happen if the modern virtual seceders do not get their way. Their anti-government rhetoric is reaching new intensity. Some would clearly rather ruin than be ruled by a “foreign-born Muslim.” What will the Republicans who are not fanatics, only cowards, do in that case?

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