In polarized America, many believe that the sad state of the union has reached the point of a serious threat of secession. It is a topic of great affliction for those who do not wish to see the nation split asunder. Many seek insight and analysis to get to the core of the problem.
Such understanding is unfortunately not found in F. H. Buckley’s American Secession: The Looming Threat of a National Breakup. The short essay (it is not quite a book) promises yet disappoints, affirms but wanders, and speculates while leaving things unsolved. The Canadian-born law professor certainly knows his American history, but he misses much of the American soul.
It is a soulless commentary that overlooks the spiritual attachment that Americans have for the nation and their native states. The author makes no attempts to get to the bottom of the division that haunts and afflicts the country. He only provides easy escape routes. He holds that instead of engaging in another civil war to rein in errant states, it is better to subsidize U-Haul trailers to facilitate those wishing to relocate from a shattered America.
Bigness Is Badness
The work’s central thesis is more geographical than political. America is in crisis because it is so big. The theme echoes throughout the book and is drilled into the reader: “Bigness is badness,” “small is beautiful.” In fact, a big part of this small book is documented evidence that affirms small states make people happier, less corrupt, freer and wealthier. A small country makes it less likely it will throw around its military might. Indeed, things would be much better if America could just be Finland and not a vast superpower.
The argument of size is equivalent to saying that people in small houses are happier than those in large homes. If unhappy people in large houses have problems, partition the house to make everyone happy. The problem is centered on the house, not the people.
The author further assumes that the American house can be neatly partitioned into political entities where inhabitants will get along. What he misses completely is that the country has long been involved in a struggle between two spiritual nations that live physically intermingled. Uproot the wheat and the cockle will prove traumatic.
Tired Classical Liberal Notions
What is dividing America are two clashing mentalities. Their differences are not resolved by size or U-Haul trailers.
That reality does not fit into the author’s stubborn adherence to tired classical liberal notions of the state as a mere system of legal norms to ensure individual happiness. This perspective makes the nation a purely accidental place, where one might be happy. America is a place where Americans happen to live to advance their own happiness. Liberal and conservative are unfortunate labels that complicate living together.
This vision fails to see the state as a moral organism with cultural, social, economic, and political unity. Its goal is not only the furthering of each individual’s good but also the common good of all. This common good assures peace in the community, allows virtuous co-existence and healthy patriotism, and favors everyone’s material and spiritual benefit. Thus, core moral tenets, derived from natural law, need to be embraced for society to flourish. Grave moral issues, like procured abortion and same-sex “marriage,” are causes for great divisions, and they need to be addressed. They cannot be partitioned out.
However, these moral fractures remain unaddressed in Dr. Buckley’s anti-metaphysical narrative and morally neutral states.
The book’s dramatic subtitle promises to explore “the looming threat of a national breakup.” However, the self-described How-to manual for secession manages to underwhelm. No one is taught to cry, “Give me liberty or give me death!” in this primer.
The author’s options tend to be a U-Haul-friendly “secession lite.” He recommends many ways of striking a deal in which regions might have home rule while leaving other functions to a small federal government.
Usually, a review should not have spoilers, but this ending has so little to spoil. In the final pages, the author dismisses the likelihood of American secession and calls upon both sides to try harder to get along.
Such wishful thinking might work in Finland but not in a polarized America.