There has never been a moment in American history without its secessionists. That makes sense.
We have always valorized popular sovereignty in the United States, but we’ve never lived under conditions conducive to it. Specifically, this country has always been so big and so diverse that meaningful popular sovereignty is not possible on a national level.
I love what Nathaniel Hawthorne once said: this country is “too vast by far to be taken into one small human heart.”
Americans believe that “we the people” deserve to govern, but in practice it is hard for any individual person – or group of people – to have a consequential voice in national affairs. The “disharmony” between our ideals and our institutions, as Samuel Huntington writes in a book that deserves more rereading than it gets, makes frustration a signal feature of our political lives.
To the extent that most Americans do have any feeling of belonging or participation in rule, it tends to happen on a smaller scale: through membership in community associations or municipal projects, through small-business ownership, through racial or ethnic identification, through religious affiliation, through political parties or organizations.
It is not hard for any American to feel like the truest expression of national ideals – of popular sovereignty in particular – is not found in the nation writ large, but in one of those closer corners.
That feeling has gotten expressed, over the years, in many ways. The political theorist Sheldon Wolin’s idea of “fugitive democracy” and the historian Christopher Lasch’s idea of “proprietorship,” I think, are a couple of examples. The history of black towns, which is only beginning to be recorded, is another. Many of the nation’s experiments in utopian and communal living fit the bill as well.
As does, of course, the secessionist impulse. The siren song of secessionism promises that we can undo the fundamental disharmony of American politics: that we can better realize the American dream of popular sovereignty – that we can create a “real” America – by separating from American national institutions. We can save the nation by undoing the nation.
The paradox there is part of the reason that most secessionist movements have withred. (Robert Tsai says something similar-ish in his awesome book on America’s Forgotten Constitutions, which I mention to encourage people to read it.)
Secessionism is baked into the American political system, I think. That doesn’t mean that secessionism, now or in the past, is benign. But I do think today’s secessionist chatter gives us an opportunity to reflect on the disjunction between the promise and the practice of American politics. That disjunction will remain with us, long after the shouting of the moment has ceased.