This is an excerpt from Michael Anton’s new book, The Stakes: America at the Point of No Return, available now from Regnery Books.
A widely repeated aphorism holds that anything that can’t go on forever won’t.
Since I expect to be accused of wishing for one or another of the possibilities sketched below, I may as well answer that charge now: My fondest political dream is for a restoration of the American constitutional order—an order under relentless attack by the Left for decades and defended fecklessly (if at all) by the Right. My purpose here is to deliver a warning to anyone who will listen.
Most will immediately dismiss secession as impossible: it’s not 1860, there’s no single issue dividing the country, our differences are not as strictly sectional, the state governments aren’t unified enough, the feds would never allow it, 1865 settled that forever and so on.
Certainly, there are very grave obstacles to secession ever being successfully enacted—in or by any part of the country. Blues and reds alike are widely scattered across a great deal of territory and still intermixed in most, if not all, metro areas. The relatively few places where reds form a clear majority tend to be sparsely populated and remote, while the more developed red regions tend to have significant blue populations that won’t want to break off from the blue coasts—especially if doing so means placing themselves under red sovereignty. Blue interests still own or control large, valuable assets all over red America, including land, homes, buildings, factories and other infrastructure; they will use all their power to prevent the loss of even one dime of revenue from those assets. Reds and blues alike are all but certain to disagree among themselves about something or other, preventing the emergence of a unified movement on either side.
There are too many complicating factors, we are told, too many issues to determine and things to divvy up: land, water, contiguity, coastal access, commingled and cross-border assets, natural resources and mineral rights, the currency and debt, and, finally, the military. And, of course, the federal government would do everything in its power to prevent, or halt, a breakup. As a political matter, no one in charge of a large territory with a big population, robust economy and vast trove of resources ever wants to let any part of it go. Losing any part of America would lessen our elites’ power and wealth, both at home and abroad, and they know it.
But “this can’t work” is a different claim than “this won’t be attempted.” All kinds of long-term unfeasible projects get started because the people who start them don’t believe they’re unfeasible. And not every endeavor that fails does so because it was unfeasible; human error, malfeasance and even bad luck can play decisive roles.
Even if secession were impossible, that fact alone would not necessarily prevent states, counties, cities, towns or some combination from trying. Indeed, the overconfident assertion that “secession can never happen” may inadvertently give rise to secessionist sentiment. All the while, elites of both parties won’t even know what’s happening because they have no idea how flyover people think.
Secession, were it to arise, might begin from the Left or the Right. It might unfold amicably, or at least nonviolently, or lead to war, or something in between. It might go smoothly or cause considerable uncertainty—even chaos. Examples of all types abound, from the “Velvet Divorce” of Slovakia and the Czech Republic to the dissolution of the USSR, from the breakup of Yugoslavia to the partition of India and our own Civil War. All of which, and more, should be studied for the lessons they teach, although those lessons cannot be our focus here.
The most obvious trigger for blue secession would be if some rightist figure were to seize power—stage a coup, refuse to leave office after losing an election, extend his term beyond the constitutional limit or something along those lines. Even if something like that were attempted, the blues would almost certainly quickly run the usurper out of power: Coups are dangerous, difficult and uncertain, and in the present moment, blues control virtually every powerful institution in the country. But if somehow they could not stop a red seizure of power, there’s no way the blue states would want to stay in that union.
A less certain, but possible, trigger for blue secession would be another electoral “surprise” like 2016, but more shocking because more unexpected. Especially if the win came solely from the Electoral College, tied to a popular vote loss—which it almost certainly would—a majority of blue America would likely not accept the outcome as legitimate. Indeed, it’s already hard to imagine blue America accepting a Trump win in 2020 on any terms whatsoever. If the election were not able to be overturned—in the courts, through boxes of “found” ballots, or by some other means—that alone might trigger “Calexit,” followed by other states. The “state compacts” forged between contiguous groupings of blue states during the coronavirus crisis could form the nuclei.
But whether it happens in 2020 or 2024 or even later, should blue America once again find the federal government in the hands of a red president they despise and whose authority they do not recognize, and further find that they can’t easily or immediately get rid of him, that could be a spark that causes some to say, “We’re out.”
Suppose, on the other hand, that a blue effort to remove a lawfully elected red president were to succeed. That president’s red base would be just as likely to accept his removal as the blues had been to accept the outcome of his election.
Possible triggers for red secession are numerous, and there’s no reason to try to imagine them all. The basic dynamic would be bluetopians continuing to force their will on red counties and states and getting more and more aggressive as time wears on. Then, at some point, a specific provocation (it hardly matters what) breaks the dam of pent-up red resentment and prompts some to say, “To hell with this, we get nothing out of this marriage anymore; we want a divorce.” From there, some red-state legislatures, and perhaps red-county supervisors in blue states, might pass declarations of independence, cease to enforce many federal edicts and even defy some of them outright.
Whichever side went first, would the other let them go? If blues were the ones to file the papers, red America’s likely reaction would be “good riddance.” Some might worry about lack of access to the coasts, a relative paucity of deepwater ports, and losing connectivity to the massive wealth and productivity in blue America’s richest zones. But I doubt that would be majority sentiment among the reds.
If red America attempted to split off from blue, the logic of the blues’ elevated sense of self-worth should lead them to a similar conclusion: Just go, already! If red-staters are as dumb, poor, backward and useless as the coastal elites like to assert, why should blue America want anything to do with them? Why not self-quarantine?
Yet as much as blue America hates red, I don’t think they want to let their errant cousins go. They want to tax, lecture, chastise, punish and humiliate red America. But they intuitively fear that they can’t run this thing on their own, that the blue metros are not quite as self-sufficiently independent of the red prairies as their boasting would have one think. On some level, leftism knows that it is parasitic on conservatism—just as vice is parasitic on virtue, incompetence on competence, consumers on producers and disorder on order—which makes separation frightening indeed to many of the masters of wealth and tech concentrated in the blue cities.
Perhaps the deepest reason, though, that blue America wouldn’t let red America go is that the blues are hell-bent on punishing it. To the Left, it would be fundamentally unjust to let red America, or any part of it, go without forcing it to answer for its “crimes.” Which, in practical terms, means redistributing remaining red wealth to blue constituencies.
One hopes, nonetheless, that if things ever do come to that awful pass, both sides will be wise, calm and moderate enough not to initiate a conflict. Our differences, while profound, are resolvable without recourse to force—if only those with real power can be coolheaded enough to step back from the brink.
Michael Anton is a lecturer and research fellow at Hillsdale College, a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute and a former national security official in the Trump administration. His most recent book, The Stakes: America at the Point of No Return, is available now from Regnery Books.
The views expressed in this excerpt are the writer’s own.