Tuesday, November 20, 2012

American Separatists

Is there anything intelligent that can be said about the movement -- on the part of several hundred thousand Americans -- to petition for their state to peacefully leave the US? I will confess that I don't really follow American public life with anything like the attention that I should. Like most Canadians, I watch the odd news report and move on, usually with a quick "thank you" to the powers that be that I am Canadian and live in Canada. Said differently, while I teach my students not to stereotype Americans, to recognize the country for its diversity and its positive characteristics (to not treat Fox News as if it were the US but recognize the honesty, hard work, and principles of most of Americans), I fall into the Canadian trap of making broad assumptions about the US, as much as anyone else.

With regard to the petitions set up for individual states to separate from the US, the stereotype is easy … almost too easy. Those setting up the stereotype seem to be (from what I can tell) by and large white, extremely right wing, and prejudiced. Their concern seems to be not with the United States but with the fact that they have a black President and they do not like it … not one bit. To follow the stereotype, the problem these people have is not with their freedom (which is no different today than it was yesterday or the day before) but with the fact that they see a black leader as somehow an infringement on their freedom. The fact that these petitions are coming, by and large, from southern states with a history of virulent racism seems only to confirm this stereotype. Disturbing stuff.

For us in Canada, however, there might be other ways we can look at this movement that are more profitable because we have our own history of separatism (leaving aside that the US does as well, and far more violent). Here is a first effort to say something intelligent about the US separatist movement, acknowledging that I might fail (I might not say something intelligent at all). There are several things we might learn from this movement.

First, a lot of people do not like democracy. Sure, they like it when their "side" wins. But, in this case, losing an election seems to be considered tantamount to something that is horrible, a disaster of unusual proportions, a threat to the very fabric of society, freedom and democracy. This can happy. Populations can elect authoritarian governments and even totalitarian ones. But, it is unusual and I do not think anyone could reasonably argue that the last American election produced an authoritarian government. After all, the Democrats won the presidency but the Republicans won the House of Representatives. The Democrats won the Senate but hardly swept it and two independent members (not members of either major party) now have Senate seats. The Republicans, moreover, outpoll the Democrats in terms of state governors. So, even if one does not like Obama, there is no evidence that the US is drifting to authoritarianism, much less totalitarianism. Indeed, the election produced results that might have made the US "founding fathers" smile: checks and balances. The Congress has to negotiate with each other and the president; the president has to negotiate with the Congress to pass laws. This is what the founding fathers wanted. They did not want one group (one party, let's say) to control everything. They wanted divisions that forced negotiations. And, in this sense, the election produced exactly the results that it was supposed to produce (at least according to a best-case scenario interpretation of the US Constitution).

One can have a debate about democracy -- its meaning, social and economic dimensions, etc. -- but no one would doubt that a representative democracy is a legitimate form of state organization (legitimate understood in a colloquial way). So, why do not some people like this result? Why do they dislike it so much that they are willing to leave the US? The conclusion I am putting forward is that they do not actually like democracy. If their side wins … great, something to celebrate. If their side loses, they want to take their toys and go home. The first thing that we should learn, then, about this movement is that a small percentage of Americans do not like democracy and so their commitment to the US is contingent on getting what they want out of it. One might wonder whether or not these are good citizens. After all, citizens are not supposed to make their loyalty to the nation contingent upon getting exactly what they want out of it and leaving if they do not, are they? If I did  that, I would have set up my own separatist movement ages ago.

The second thing to learn is that setting up petitions is easy to do and so people do it (it is particularly easy in this day and age. I sign a number of electronic petitions each year). The ease of signing an electronic petition might have led some signatories to not consider what they were doing: a sort of heat of the moment type of thing. Why? Because there is an odd contradiction between their rationale for rejecting Obama and questioning his legitimacy and their own actions. You might recall (see a former blog) that some Republicans have claimed that the Democrats won the election because Obama promised Latina/o and black and youth voters "things." In other words, Obama voters only voted for him because they go things and this is supposedly bad and illegitimate. (I'd argue that providing services to citizens is part of the job of the state, but that is another story and another blog.) Yet, when these signatories don't get what they want … the argument is reversed. Democratic voters are bad for voting to get what they want; they are right to leave (destroy their country) when they don't get what they want. If they had won, on the other hand, they would have gotten what they wanted and so would not separate. You see where I am going. The very thing separatist signatories fault Democratic voters for is the thing they are doing. We can learn, than, not that these people are irrational but that the logic of American separatism is oddly contradictory.

Third, we can learn that so-called "moral issues" are important to these people. Now, I do not agree with the definition of moral issue (gay marriage, abortion) because it leave out other issues (equality, rule of law, environmental protection, care of the poor) that strike me as moral issues as well. Said differently, I think the division between "moral issues" and environmental and economic issues is artificial. Be that as it may, what seems to animate these people are "moral issues" and not economic issues. The state intervening in the economy to protect, say, the poor is treated as bad; the state intervening in the society to prevent women's choice is treated as good. We can agree or disagree with this logic (for the record, I disagree) but we should learn that for a certain sector of society (again, I think small, I think jobs and education and health care are the issues of import to most Americans), these issues count and count more then other issues.

Finally, I think we learn about the dangers of heightened rhetoric. For the last several years, the extreme wing of the Republican Party has ramped up the rhetoric against Obama. Ramping up rhetoric can be a good political tactic. It helped Chretien win his second majority; kept Martin in power longer than he otherwise would have been. Harper's crew deployed it against both Dion and Ignatieff (vote for Dion and the economy will be destroyed; do not vote for Ignatieff because he is a tourist Canadian). But, the fact that something is a good political tactic does not mean that it has no other implications. By ramping up the rhetoric, the Tea Party made the last election -- again, for a certain section of Americans -- a life and death battle between truth and God (on the one side) lined up with freedom and democracy against totalitarianism (remember all those Obama "death committees" and Obama = Hitler signs) -- and it is no wonder that those people are now deeply worried.

The truth, of course, is that policy disagreements are rarely about this type of Holy Order versus the reign of Satan type of thing. As I said, daily life in the US has not changed a great deal since Obama came to power (which might be a reason to be concerned about him if you were a Democrat), the American constitution is working the way it was designed, there is nothing unusual with citizens wanting a state to provide services, etc. But, the important point is what Obama came to symbols to those opposed to him. He symbolized not alternative policies that one can like or dislike, but night and day.

So, that is my first effort. Is there anything I am not considering? My argument is that we should look past the stereotypes and silliness of separatist signatories and, when we do, we do not find hard and fast conclusions (for instance, that this is motivated by racism) but instead, a series of issues that might be worth considering in a comparative perspective; things that we can learn about the way in which democratic societies function and the problems this functioning encounters.
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