David French has written an engaging book about the threat of American secession, without satisfactorily explaining why that would be so terrible. In fact, he makes it sound rather attractive when he describes the angry passions which divide us. There is not “a single important cultural, religious, political, or social force that is pulling Americans together more than it is pushing us apart.” That was written before the Black Lives Matter protests and riots. It’s gotten worse since then. A lot worse.
There’s not much left of a common American culture. We watch different networks, read different websites, and have a different set of Facebook friends. Politics has come to shape our identities, for both left and right. Tell me who you vote for and I’ll tell you what sports you like, what music you listen to, what blogs you read, and even where you buy your groceries.
Sorting ourselves into different groups like that produces a groupthink which excludes dissenting views. It also intensifies partisan rancor and amplifies the most extreme voices on either side. It’s like a bidding war, in which people vie to voice the angriest beliefs and justify the most mean-spirited punishments. In isolation, we’ll have one reaction to the death of George Floyd, but surrounded by progressives we’ll quickly become enraged and see the police as our enemy and the riots as justified.
When the separation between political groups is complete, the other side is seen as evil. And what then? “One does not respect evil. One defeats evil. Justice demands nothing less.” Don’t be surprised at Portland, therefore. The rioters have simply embraced the logic of the “resistance.”
What would spark a secession movement is civil disorder and violence, says French, and he describes several ways in which that might happen. He couldn’t have foreseen the riots sparked by the George Floyd incident, and if he had, he might think we’ve already reached the boiling point. In a sense, it’s even worse today than in 1968, since no serious politician would have defended lawlessness 52 years ago. There was also a silent majority in 1968 that elected Richard Nixon, and I’m not sure it exists today. On the left, violence is increasingly seen as a legitimate form of political expression: It’s happening. Deal with it. You deserve it. On French’s thinking, that might make secession less likely, if more desirable.
If we’re so divided, then, what would keep us together? I should have thought it would be nationalism, love of country. If we all felt about America as we did not so long ago, there could never be a breakup. French dislikes the word nationalism, however. He prefers to speak of patriotism. That’s a semantic quibble, but there’s little enough in French’s book about either nationalism or patriotism. If someone asked me why we should stay united, I’d want to talk about glorious moments in our history, about American arts and letters, and ask “do you really want to give that up?”
Sadly, for many on the left, the answer is yes. That’s the point of the 1619 Project. So French reasonably doesn’t go there. Instead, he worries about the loss of American military might that would follow a breakup, and what this would mean for the rest of the world. That’s what one might expect from Bill Kristol’s candidate for president in 2016, and it’s not a concern to be dismissed. Pro-Trump conservatives should prepare for Trump-free politics, sooner or later, and when that happens they must seek to unite the right. They might admit that America has a stake in global stability and recall that most Republicans were on board with the invasion of Iraq in 2002, if not with the idea we could remake the Middle East in our image.