On December 8, 2020, conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh answered a caller’s question by stating that he believed that the United States is trending toward a secession process. Referring to the ongoing culture war, he postulated the following: “There cannot be a peaceful coexistence of two completely different theories of life, theories of government, theories of how we manage our affairs. We can’t be in this dire a conflict without something giving somewhere along the way.”
Predictably, national media outlets and social media users unleashed on Mr. Limbaugh. He is the most prominent national voice to articulate the concern although Congressmen have done so in the past year. The media outlets and social media, however, twisted his words and accused him of advocating for secession. He, however, never did. His offense was mentioning a taboo subject.
Mr. Limbaugh’s concern is not one that we should take lightly. The state of American politics is slowly approaching the state of politics prior to the Civil War. Political disagreements are no longer disagreements of ideology and logic. They are now disagreements of morality and emotion. Even though we are far removed from the pre-Civil War political era, history still teaches us that the political disagreement over slavery was driven by morality rather than ideology. In other words, holding the opposite position is considered evil and unacceptable regardless of whether you can logically articulate arguments to support your position.
When two sides cannot engage on logic and resort to an attritional battle of good versus evil, one side will ultimately gain the ascendancy, and it will render the other side’s existence in a union untenable. Secession is the natural solution when those sides are regionally concentrated.
Despite its obviousness as the solution, secession is taboo in American society because it conjures up visions of a bloody Civil War. War, however, is a choice just like secession is. Secession does not automatically trigger war.
Historically and legally speaking, I am a strong defender of a state’s right to succeed from the United States of America. If I faced the decision that my Confederate ancestors did in 1860, I would likely have made the same choice and fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War. Why?
When the states joined together to form the United States, they were independent sovereigns – a testament to how the British settled America. After the American Revolutionary War, the states were jealous guardians of that sovereignty. Thus, after the British were expelled from America, the United States did not exist until more than 5 years after the war ended. Instead, during the war and afterwards, the states formed a Confederacy that favored their sovereignty. That Confederacy, however, was weak and ineffective as a form of national government. The states solved that problem by surrendering some of their sovereignty to a national government under our modern Constitution.
The key, however, is that they only surrendered some of their sovereignty, not all of it. Provisions like the 9th and 10th Amendments made it abundantly clear that the states still retained the majority of their pre-constitutional sovereignty. The United States in a constitutional sense, therefore, was a union of individual sovereign states. Those individual sovereign states retain their sovereignty to leave the Union when they so desire.
1860-1864 only proved one thing. Might makes right. Despite the Southern states having a clear right to withdraw from the union by secession, the Northern states chose to fight a war to compel them to remain in the Union. The reasons for the Northern states’ actions are legion. Underlying their actions though was the inescapable moral conflict over whether slavery was evil or not.
The difference between the pre-Civil War period and our current plight is that the nation spent decades since its rebirth as a constitutional republic fighting over one issue: slavery. Now, we have been fighting over many issues for decades. It’s a lot harder to spot which one will be the one that sets off the powder keg, but we are dangerously close to a similar moral conflict that led to secession the first time and a long and bloody Civil War.
Thus, we shouldn’t attach a taboo to an expression of concern over whether we are headed in the direction of secession right now. It’s not an implausible concern to express, and wise citizens would be well-advised to thoughtfully consider the subject with all of the seriousness that it is entitled to.
History demands it.