Observed from some angles, the United States is falling apart. All over, we’re seeing signs of fragmentation.
At the smallest scale, the tony community of Buckhead, Ga., may be seceding from Atlanta. Mayor Keisha Bottoms’ anti-anti-crime strategy has led to a predictable criminal surge. Buckhead wants escape from dysfunction — via self-rule.
The same thing is happening within states. Last month, several communities in eastern Oregon voted to secede and join Idaho. The region’s farmers don’t want to be ruled from their state’s weed- and Antifa-plagued coastal regions.
Parts of New Mexico want to join Texas. A huge swath of downstate Illinois talks of splitting from Chicagoland. Some upstate New Yorkers have been talking for years of splitting away from Gotham. Then there are various plans for splitting California into two, three or even six new states. All are gaining attention.
These plans would be hard to pull off. Splitting a state requires consent from both its own legislature and Congress, and unless Congress is ruled by a one-sided majority, it will be hard to get anything through that changes the balance in the Senate. (It has really only happened once, when West Virginia split from Virginia during the Civil War.) But the growing interest in this sort of separation does signal something.
For most of US history, the trend has been toward bigness and consolidation. But now people are wanting to make things smaller.
States are also asserting themselves. First we had “sanctuary” laws involving illegal immigration. Then we had states legalizing marijuana and essentially daring the feds to do something about it. (The feds, for the most part, backed down). Now cities and states are declaring “sanctuary” status for gun rights, pledging not to cooperate with the enforcement of federal gun laws.
Left and right, in other words, are resisting federal rule when it comes to their pet issues.
And recently it’s gone beyond resistance. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is sending law enforcers to assist Texas and Arizona. Faced with the Biden administration’s reluctance to secure the border, threatened states are cooperating with one another to do a job once left to federal authorities.
Any one of these developments might be unimportant, maybe even amusing. But put together, they have a certain late-Roman-Empire flavor. And there’s more.
As Charles Murray writes in his new book, “Facing Reality,” the federal government is at a low point in terms of perceived legitimacy. In 1964, 77 percent of Americans said they trust the federal government to do the right thing all or most of the time, according to Gallup. That number dropped to 15 percent in 2011 and has hovered between 15 and 20 percent since.
A government distrusted by more than 80 percent of its population has a legitimacy problem.
The federal government makes more and more laws and regulations but has no real ability to enforce them without cooperation from state and local governments and from the people themselves. When people see the government as less legitimate, they are less likely to go along.
Given that according to a recent Rasmussen poll more than 40 percent of Americans believe the 2020 election was stolen (and that number is no doubt highest in the red states) legitimacy is in short supply. Writes Murray, “The continued ability of the federal government to enforce its edicts in the reddest portions of the nation will be thrown into question. The prospect of legal secession may be remote, but the prospect of reduced governability from Washington is not.”
This could be bad, but there’s a bright side. When we talk about the late Roman Empire (at least the Western part), we’re talking about a centrally governed state. In America, we have a federal system.
The federal government might collapse or go broke — current spending and debt numbers suggest the latter — but the states have their own credit ratings, their own bureaucracy, their own police and quasi-military forces, their own reservoirs of legitimacy. We’re already seeing that.
Even if the federal government fails, the states will remain. Think of it as a backup system that we hope we won’t need — but increasingly might.
Glenn Harlan Reynolds is a professor of law at the University of Tennessee and founder of the InstaPundit.com blog.