Secession Politics

05/22/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Mike Lux Co-Founder, Democracy Partners

It's always fun to see conservatives openly discussing the whole secession from the union option, as Gov. Rick Perry did last week. Or to see conservative politicians with associations to openly secessionist groups, like Sarah and Todd Palin, become national icons for the conservative movement. I know a lot of people are surprised by secession talk -- one friend said to me, "I thought that was settled in 1865" -- but they shouldn't be. Conservatives have never given up on the states' rights ideas that drove us into the Civil War in 1861.

In fact, as I argue in my book, The Progressive Revolution: How the Best in America Came to Be, John C. Calhoun -- with his fiery philosophy of states' rights -- was in fact the founder of the political movement that became modern American conservatism. Calhoun argued that the rights and prerogatives of the individual states were more important than that of the federal government. He argued that states had originally joined the union of their own free will, and had every right to -- at any time and for any reason -- nullify national laws for that state, to refuse to enforce laws passed by the federal government, and to secede from the union.

It was the perfect philosophy for justifying the Civil War, and -- a century later -- for the defiant opposition to the federal Supreme Court decisions and civil rights laws that ended Jim Crow.

Now you would have thought that fighting the horrible and bloody Civil War, and being thoroughly crushed in that endeavor, would have ended the states' rights followers hopes and power in the American political system. Not so much. In fact, as I write in the Progressive Revolution:

Southern elites actually expected that all would return to the way things were before the war: that they would still have the catbird's seat in terms of congressional power, and that they would still have the right to control the lives of their former slaves despite emancipation.

While the radical Republicans were able to push through three outstanding progressive constitutional amendments immediately following the Civil War, and give freed slaves some civil rights in Reconstruction, after 1877 Southerners were able to regain their political power and put Jim Crow in place. 80 years later, the ideological heirs to those conservative states' rights leaders used the doctrine once again to bitterly, and in some cases violently, fight to preserve Jim Crow. And even after they lost that fight, conservatives continued to pay obeisance to the philosophy and rhetoric of states' rights. The ultimate example of this was a campaign stop in 1980. Again from The Progressive Revolution:

The most symbolically weighted moment of the new partnership between the South and the conservatives in the Republican Party occurred on August 3, 1980. Ronald Regan, in the official kickoff of his general election campaign, went to a little town called Philadelphia, Mississippi. Philadelphia was an odd choice in a whole lot of ways: it was a small town, kind of hard to get to, and not close to any major media markets. Mississippi was a small state with only seven electoral votes, and it certainly wasn't a swing state in the general election, as Regan was expected to carry it easily. And he sure wasn't there to hearken back to Bobby Kennedy's famous tour of destitute homes in the poor African American region of the Mississippi Delta.

The only thing Philadelphia, Mississippi, was noteworthy for in its history was that it was the town where the civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner has been murdered during Freedom Summer, fifteen years prior.

Reagan wasn't there to talk about Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner's deaths - he didn't mention them at all. What he did do was talk about states' rights: "I believe in states' rights; I believe in people doing as much as they can for themselves at the community level and at the private level. And I believe that we've distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended in the Constitution to that federal establishment."

Reagan was there to seal the deal between the modern conservative movement and the old South. Going to the town where these courageous civil rights activists had been murdered in cold blood and talking about states' rights was one of the most shameful symbolic political acts in modern American history, but it was effective.

To this day, Conservatives continue to beat the dead horse of Calhoun's states' rights philosophy. Rejected by George Washington, James Madison, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, the Warren Court, Martin Luther King, but beloved still by the conservative movement, the states' rights philosophy is one of the bedrocks of modern conservative thought. That philosophy has been embraced by conservative intellectuals like Russell Kirk and William Buckley, and politicians like Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, Jesse Helms, and Newt Gingrich. It is as much a fundamental cornerstone of American conservatism as any other idea. So when Gov. Perry of Texas, or the Palins of Alaska associate themselves with something as crazy sounding as secession, don't be surprised: it really is what they believe.