The Framers of the Constitution recognized that in a country as extensive as the United States, compromise between partisan groups was the price of Union. The zone of acceptable compromise had constantly to be calculated and reconsidered because Americans put the Constitution to practical use by using it as a partisan instrument to win substantive policy conflicts.
You may have noticed that not much is said in this space about what goes on in other countries. It’s not that I don’t have opinions; it’s just I don’t imagine mine are worth much. I conspicuously didn’t take a stand on Brexit. It seemed to me there was a good case to be made for Britain’s leaving the European Union and a good case to be made for its staying in. I thought I’d leave it up to them. If I were British, I would have been more psyched up about the whole thing.
The outcome surprised me, because the past history of secessionist movements—such as Quebec and Scotland—has been of a petering out at the end. Just enough people get all prudent and make a safe choice. Not only that, all the factions of the respectably British cognitive elite—top politicians, public intellectuals, the business leaders, celebrities, the unions, and so forth—advocated making the Progressive choice. “Progressive” here means stay the course when it comes to evolving beyond the nation-state in the direction of larger and more cosmopolitan unions. We aspire to be citizens of the world, politics being that pathology that we shed as we move, as Tyler Cowen puts it, from being brutish to being nice.
In further demonstration that this is a forum for vigorous debate among friends: I strenuously disagree with Brother McGinnis’s post on Scottish independence. As usual he gets the analytics right: no matter how the vote turns out, it will embolden independence movements elsewhere. John is also right in suggesting that the EU has by design and institutional logic fostered such movements. It has done so by design (for example, through regional transfer payments) on the theory that anything that is bad for nation-states must therefore be good for the EU’s federalism project. It has done so by logic because the overall umbrella of free trade (by and large) reduces the expected price of secession. They’ve come a long way. There’s no longer a point in obsessing over a Belgium without a functional government because there is no longer a reason to have a Belgium in the first place.
Why did the Southern states choose to secede when Abraham Lincoln was elected president in November of 1860? At the time, Southerners attributed “secession winter” to the fear that Lincoln and the Republicans fully intended to make war on slavery, bypassing the Constitution, which left the issue of slavery to the states. Thus, they believed, their only option was to separate from the Union.
Northern Democrats agreed, contending that Republicans intended to circumvent the Constitution’s prohibition against direct federal action against slavery. Agitation by the “Black Republicans” was responsible for the crisis. The Democrats felt vindicated when Republicans refused to compromise on the extension of slavery into the territories. In addition, the Democrats charged, the Republicans intended to refuse to enforce the fugitive slave law that had been passed in 1850 as part of the Great Compromise.