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Will Red America secede?

In this essay, a liberal journalist asks a conservative intellectual probing questions about whether America has a future.

I’ll start with my own caveat:

No one, not even the smartest and best educated among us, knows the future with certainty. We who read about history quickly realize that events take many unexpected twists and turns. Fate, chance, luck — whatever you want to call it — often plays a role in outcomes. In short, future history is a dice roll.

We have a very good thing here in America. Many turns of historical luck have given us history’s safest, most prosperous, and freest society to live in. It’s tempting to take all this for granted, but it’s fragile, and we could lose it, if we’re not careful.

Now let me introduce the panel. Intellectuals are smart people who think about things and develop deeper understandings than casual thinkers (some of us) or non-thinkers (most of us). David French is a Harvard Law graduate, author, and commentator (bio here). Ezra Klein is a political journalist and commentator (bio here). Read their Q&A exchange here.

As I will weigh in, let me briefly describe myself. I went to college, graduate school, and law school. I’ve been a journalist and lawyer, and have been involved in politics nearly 60 years. I’m an avid reader and think about far more than making money or how to enjoy life (most people’s pursuits); and it occurs to me that none of us will do much of either if the U.S.A. violently breaks up over political differences.

Mr. French has studied that possibility in depth. He looked at the two previous secessions in American history to figure out what conditions existed for that to happen.

“One is the Revolutionary War, which was a secession from the British Empire. And then you had the Confederacy, a secession from the United States. There were some common strands there. One was this notion that you have a geographically contiguous area that has a shared, independent culture that it views as being under threat. With the Confederacy, what they viewed as under threat was the continued viability of slavery. But what was needed to really set the spark was not just a sense of our culture is under threat but our lives are under threat. So prior to the American Revolution, you had the British regulars quartering in people’s homes in Boston and marching out to raid the surrounding countryside. And … the South had whipped itself into a frenzy believing that … abolitionists were trying to foment a genocidal kind of slave rebellion.”

Note: This is why many historians believe John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, a federal armory, the object of which was to seize weapons to arm a slave rebellion, was the spark that ignited the Civil War.

“So you had this sense of shared geography, shared culture, and a sense of mortal threat that together made the unthinkable thinkable. And my central proposition is there are many regions where you have the shared geography and the shared culture, but we don’t yet have the sense of mortal threat or the total loss of confidence in democracy. But you can [see it] emerging. That’s why … we just can’t assume everything’s going to be okay and continue to behave as we’re behaving when the way we’re behaving is making the unthinkable eventually thinkable.”

Mr. French obviously doesn’t believe we’re there yet, and the fact we have neither serious political violence nor secession talk (outside of fringe politics) clearly indicates we’re some distance way from that right now. But the problem is we’re moving in that direction; we’ve become more, not less, polarized, and our politics are growing angrier, not calmer.

Politics and political tone are extremely important because we resolve our differences in our political system. That process depends on negotiation and compromise, and the fact that political processes in Washington D.C. have largely abandoned negotiation and compromise in favor of confrontation and power plays is deeply concerning. We depend on these political processes to mediate our differences and maintain the unity that holds our nation together. This is why divisive politicians come under the intense scrutiny they do.

Thus Trump, and his stoking of hatred and anger, is dangerous; and in these tense times, a calmer voice like Biden’s is helpful. Of course, this argument won’t persuade Trump supporters, and I’m not trying to do that here, nor do I believe I can make any of them understand the peril our country is sliding into. What Mr. French is saying, as I said above, is that we can’t take for granted the U.S.A. will endure. This rests on our shared values, if we still have any, and realizing it takes continual effort to preserve what we have.

In the short term, a crisis could be right around the corner. Klein says,

“I see an election coming that [could] end in a scenario where one side will not accept the legitimacy of the outcome and there’s not really going to be a way to resolve that. We don’t really have a way to resolve it now. We do if both parties act responsibly, but I have not found that the Republican Party has been all that responsible around reining in what their base wants …. What if we have an election where it looks on election night like Donald Trump won? Then the mail-in ballots slowly begin overturning that. But there’s an effort to disqualify a bunch of them. And then, soon enough, you have a situation where the two sides think they won and the other side disagrees.”

This is exactly how things are shaping up. Trump is demanding a winner be declared on Nov 3. That’s an illegitimate demand, because it would leave millions of ballots uncounted, and disenfranchise a large chunk of the American electorate, who can’t be expected to accept an election in which their votes were arbitrarily not counted. It will be seen as, and is, cheating by Trump, flowing from his belief that poll voting will lean toward him, while mail voting will heavily favor Biden (although some studies suggest it’s unclear that mail voting favors anybody). In any case, there’s no logical or legal basis whatsoever for declaring a winner on Election Night. Unless you abandon rule of law and govern the country by outright thuggery, state election laws determine how ballots are counted and when results are finalized. Satisfying Trump’s demands requires ignoring those laws, and that would make any election victory obtained that way illegal.

The disputed Washington State 2004 governor’s election, which was extremely close, is analogous. The two candidates were Rossi (Republican) and Gregoire (Democrat). Washington counts its paper ballots with optical scanning machines, which can’t read damaged ballots or sloppily filled out ballots. Thus, a machine count doesn’t tally all the votes. This doesn’t matter in most elections, but it does in a very close election, where the uncounted ballots could change the result. They did in that case. The Election Night tally favored Rossi, but he hadn’t won, because the results weren’t certified yet. When Rossi claimed victory based on the Election Night results, that claim was bogus. State law prescribed an automatic recount, also done by machine, after which Rossi still led but by a much smaller margin. He again declared victory, but still prematurely. The Democrats exercised their right under state law to request a hand recount, and Gregoire won after that tally. The Republicans exercised their right to contest that result in court, and lost. Gregoire became governor, defeated Rossi again in 2008, and served two terms.

After all the counting was over and the election was officially certified, Rossi supporters demanded he, not Gregoire, be sworn in, saying he’d “won twice,” and arguing he’d won “two out of three.” Neither is true. There was only one election, and one official result. The first count and first recount were set aside by operation of law, having been superseded by the second recount. The law say whoever wins the most ballot tallies wins the election; it says whoever wins the final certified tally wins the election. Rossi’s supporters also demanded a new election, a “do over,” which the law also doesn’t provide for. Under existing laws, whoever gets the most votes, even if only by 1 vote, wins the election; and there is no provision for redoing close elections, nor would that make any sense.

It will work the same way in the 50 elections of presidential electors held on November 3, 2020. Many of the votes will have been mailed in before that date, but will not be tallied and reported until after the polls close on Election Day; some will come in after Election Day, and still be counted in states that go by postmark date instead of receipt date (this varies among states). Like Rossi and his supporters, Trump and his supporters can cry all they want about counting ballots after midnight on November 3, 2020, but the laws governing all 50 of those elections require counting those ballots, and those voters are legally and morally entitled to have their votes counted.

But perceptions are always important, and propaganda creates false perceptions, so the Trump camp is setting the stage for making a lot of people very angry over a legitimate election result by falsely arguing they’re illegitimate and a result of cheating. If you want to tear America apart, this is how you do it. It’s beyond dishonest and irresponsible; it stokes the fires of secession and civil war. Mr. French (remember, he’s a conservative) says,

“Let’s take a scenario where we have this incredible polarization around mail-in ballots and you have Trump leading after Election Day on the counted ballots from people who voted in person. Then, as the mail-in vote is coming in, you’re noticing that an unacceptably high percentage of these mail-in ballots are being disqualified. We’re already seeing disturbing levels of disqualification in North Carolina, a swing state. You’re then creating a situation where there’s a very real fear that we may not ever know who was supposed to have won the state, and the people we trust the least in life are declaring the victor. And then let’s say the Supreme Court ratifies the result.”

Mr. French doesn’t think that would lead to a breakup of the U.S.A., but he says it would raise the temperature, and Trump in a second term could be expected to exacerbate the situation:

“And that’s, again, where I see that we’re in a dangerous situation — the last person on earth who’s willing to lower the temperature happens to be … the president of the United States.”

Mr. Klein asked Mr. French to compare today to the 1960s, when political violence was greater than now. (Remember that RFK and Martin Luther King Jr. were assassinated in the spring of 1968, and there were rowdy antiwar demonstrations and race riots then.) French replied,

“The short answer is that in the 1960s, you didn’t have the same kind of red and blue dynamic that you have today. Violence was scattered around the country. It was definitely more serious than it is now, but it was scattered. And you had the political conditions that existed for a strong majoritarian rejection of that violence. There’s a couple of things today that are quite different. One is this incredibly polarized geographic and political separation that we have where we don’t have that ability to engage in that huge majoritarian rejection. And, at the same time, we have a social media environment and news environment that amplifies every single violent incident that occurs. There might have been a mail bomb in Des Moines in 1968, and if you’re growing up in Kentucky, you would never hear of it. Now, if you’re politically active and somebody knocks a MAGA hat off a kid’s head at a Des Moines Burger King, you immediately know about it in Kentucky and are talking about how horrible and intolerant they are. So you have a very different geographic situation. You have a very different political polarization, and you have a very much greater ability to amplify each violent act and amplify public knowledge of each violent act. And it creates, in my view, more instability.”

I agree with Mr. French’s assessment that today’s political divisions are more destabilizing. He doesn’t know where this will lead, and neither do I, it’s speculation, but it’s informed and thoughtful speculation based on observable facts and logical reasoning. I think it will take a lot more than what’s happened so far to destroy the U.S.A., but I believe the U.S.A. can be destroyed, and we must be careful not to let our political divisions get out of control. Life will become much worse — perhaps awful — for all of us if the political framework of our nation disintegrates.

As I’ve said before, this isn’t about conservative vs. liberal, or specific public policies. I have no problem with the other side governing, if they’ve been chosen by the people to govern, and I’m governed by reputable people of decent character. This election, in my view, isn’t about policy issues. It will call on the American people to reject Trump’s lack of character and bad behavior. He’s not someone you want leading a political movement of any stripe, conservative or liberal or in-between.

I don’t see us at the cliff edge yet, but like Mr. French, I think we’re walking (he says sprinting) toward it. We have the opportunity to step back. It isn’t hard. That only requires letting the election process play out the way it should, in orderly fashion, by letting our trained election officials do their jobs, waiting for the ballots to be counted under legally-prescribed procedures, setting aside trivial grievances over the election’s inevitable minor imperfections, and accepting the certified results.

Trump has no intention of doing that. He will reject any election he doesn’t win. And he has repeatedly refused to commit to a peaceful transition of power. Anyone marching with him under that flag will be waging war on our political system, and has no business calling himself American, because that could lead to there being no America.

Like Mr. French, I can’t predict whether there will be a third secession. That’s up in the air. I hope this essay has outlined a possible way it could happen, how to avoid it, and I fervently hope we will avoid it. I hope you do, too. That requires consciously rejecting secession as our future, and rejecting those who would lead us into such a future.

Photos: (Top left) David French, (top right) Ezra Klein. Why do the smartest people always need glasses and have beards?

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0 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. Mark Adams #
    1

    The challenge is that if things are messy in some states, they need to resolve the messiness by December 14, 2020 when the electoral college meets. If a states election goes uncertified then that states electors cannot meet and vote. The governor of such a state would be sending accreditation letters with no votes cast.
    If no candidate receives 270 votes for President or Vice President then the House and Senate vote for President and vice President. This is the fail safe in the US Constitution in case things go sideways.
    It might be well that Trump gets his wish and a candidate is a clear winner as of November 3rd, but it was well into the night after election day 2016 that Trump emerged the winner.
    Even if messy it is unlikely that it will lead to succession. The three times the House has picked a President were hard on the American politic, but never came close to tearing the country apart. That took the election of Abraham Lincoln. The Southern and northern Democrats divided and put forth candidates and Lincoln won outright.

  2. Roger Rabbit #
    2

    If neither candidate gets 270 electoral votes, only the House votes, with each state getting 1 vote. “Congress” would choose an acting president only if there was a 25-25 tie. After Jan. 20 until that person was chosen, the Speaker would be acting president.



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