Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The New Secesh

As someone who gets deeply invested in politics, I understand the despair that can set in when one's candidate loses. My first three votes for president went to losing candidates, and despite better luck recently, I'm still batting under .500 in presidential elections (4 wins, 5 losses).

So I'm fairly tolerant when anyone says something along the lines of "If [opposing candidate] wins, I'm moving to [Canada, Costa Rica, etc.]." I'm tolerant of it because the sentiment is roughly this: "My side lost, so I must either accept the will of the majority or separate myself from the country." In short, despite the frustration, it accepts the legitimacy of the process.

These thoughts were prompted by the secession petitions which have popped up ever since President Obama's re-election. Evidently petitions requesting peaceful secession coming from all 50 states now have been started on the White House website.

These are not serious proposals, of course. They are the equivalents of temper tantrums by spoiled children angry that they did not get their way.

But they are, I'd argue, different from the "I'm leaving the country" response. They question the legitimacy of the process based on a particular outcome, and that is an extremely dangerous idea.

I've noted in numerous posts (for example, here, here, and here) that today's Republicans increasingly evoke the mindset of the pre-Civil War secessionists. The point is not that they are neo-Confederates (though a few are), but rather that they take the same approach to politics: confrontational, refusing to compromise, and--as the secession sentiment makes crystal clear--more interested in achieving preferred outcomes than in preserving the democratic process.

This silly secession talk is part of a pattern among far too many Republicans: we can't win with the rules as they are, so let's change the rules. Too many young people and minority voters are voting? Pass laws making voting more difficult. Don't have a majority in the Senate? Filibuster every substantive proposal the majority puts forward, effectively requiring 60 votes to pass anything.

But the impulse toward secession is by far the worst. It is, at its essence, a repudiation of democracy--particularly coming, as it did, only after losing an election. Just like the secessionists of 1860, these tens of thousands of Americans who have signed the petitions are reacting simply to the fact that their guy lost. They are repudiating the process because it produced a result they do not like. What they are saying, in effect, is that if they do not win, the process itself is illegitimate.

After Lincoln's election in 1860, a Georgia secessionist argued that since Lincoln's policy was (in his mind) "treasonable and revolutionary," the election itself was "void." The states that had given him their electoral votes had become--by virtue of their political beliefs--"disenfranchised of all constitutional right to cast them." Secessionists claimed to themselves exclusive right to determine which elections were legitimate and which were not. And it just so happened that ones which they lost were not legitimate. Had that very same process produced a victory for their preferred candidate, John C. Breckinridge, there would have been no talk of secession.

That's what makes all this loose talk, even among some ostensibly serious people, so dangerous. It is not just the emotional outburst of disappointed partisans. It goes to the heart of what makes our system work: the willingness to accept outcomes that we do not like because we agree beforehand on the rules and that the process is fair.

The secessionist mind values results over process. It believes that our constitutional processes are not valuable in and of themselves, but only insofar as they produce the correct results. It says that the policies we favor are more important than maintaining a fair process that is equally open to all. It says that if the majority disagrees with us, we do not need to accept their judgment--instead, we can withdraw entirely from the process and create a new political unit that will do what we want it to do.

Once we start down that road, the republic truly is in danger.

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