White Coat Underground

Democracy—you’re doing it wrong

OK, OK, so the U.S. isn’t a democracy per se but really a representative democracy, with a federalist set up. Still, most of us understand the basic idea of a democratic, federalist republic, right? The ultimate power resides with the citizens, who vote for representatives who, well, represent our interests in the seat of federal power. If we don’t like the way we are being represented, we usually vote out the offending representatives. We also elect a chief executive, albeit a bit indirectly, and, like our representatives, if we don’t like the job they’re doing, we vote them out at the next opportunity. It’s all set out in the Constitution, and if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it.

This founding document has served us quite well. Sure, it’s had its problems, like its hyperfederalistic support for slavery, but we fixed that. It’s just flexible enough not to break when bent a little. And when we had a tough election back in 2000, rather than blowing each other up, we managed to turn over the office of the President peacefully (although as Jeff Toobin has said, maybe not having tanks in the streets is not the only measure of a democracy).

There was this one time though that was a real problem. Some of the states didn’t like how the federal government was going about things. In fact, there was a national election, and the guy who was democratically elected was so offensive to some that a lot of folks started to talk about seceding from the Union. Here, let me quote some of them, just to remind you:

I believe the federal government has become oppressive. It’s become oppressive in its size, its intrusion in the lives of its citizens, and its interference with the affairs of our state.
Texans need to ask themselves a question. Do they side with those in Washington who are pursuing this unprecedented expansion of power, or do they believe in individual rights and responsibilities laid down in our foundational documents.
Where’re you gonna’ stand? With an ever-growing Washington bureaucracy, or are you going to stand with the people of this state who understand the importance of state’s rights.
Texans need to stand up. They need to be heard, because the state of affairs that we find ourselves in cannot continue indefinitely…
…We think it’s time to draw the line in the sand and tell Washington that no longer are we going to accept their oppressive hand in the state of Texas. That’s what this press conference, that’s what these Texans are standing up for. There is a point in time where you stand up and say enough is enough, and I think Americans, and Texans especially have reached that point.

So the question is, do states have the right to secede anymore? Because it was a compact. It’s not perpetual. In fact, in the Declaration of Independence it says it is our right, it is our responsibility to get away from a government who doesn’t listen to us any more.

Do you even have a right to do that as a state anymore?

Although this rhetoric closely resembles that of the immediately-antebellum South, it is actually from the last couple of weeks. Note to Glenn Beck: no, the individual states never had the right to secede. If you’ll remember, the last time that happened, the fields ran red with blood for four long years. And Glenn, the Declaration declared independence from a distant central government in which the citizens had no representation—they did not elect the King, and they did not have seats in Parliament.

Here’s the deal: if you don’t like your elected leaders, be patient. You’ll have a chance to make yourself heard again very soon. Your overheated rhetoric is going to get someone killed. When it does, it’s going to be on you.

Comments

  1. #1 Stephanie Z
    April 15, 2009

    Hear, hear!

    All this talk of secession says nothing so much as that conservative Texans were only playing at democracy to begin with. It was a fun game as long as they were ahead, but when the other side starts winning, they want to take their toys and their oil fields and go home.

    Does this mean Austin can secede from Texas too? After all, the state as a whole doesn’t represent their every interest either.

  2. #2 Matt Springer
    April 15, 2009

    “Note to Glenn Beck: no, the individual states never had the right to secede. If you’ll remember, the last time that happened, the fields ran red with blood for four long years.”

    This is an is/ought error. You could just as easily replace “states” with “blacks” and “secede” with “be free men” and you’d also have a true antebellum statement – but that wouldn’t mean it was morally right. Even if there isn’t a legal right to secession in the constitution, that doesn’t mean that there can’t ever be a moral case for secession.

  3. #3 PalMD
    April 15, 2009

    I’m not saying your premise is incorrect based on your statement, but you’re conflating individuals and states.

  4. #4 PalMD
    April 15, 2009

    Let me clarify…complaining about, and even protesting, taxes is as American as TexMex cuisine. The fact that the traditional tax protest movt is populated by wackos does not detract from legitimate protest.

    The “sore loser” talk of secession is a wacko, reactionary, well, reaction to the perceived injustice of a liberal actually having won an election, and without the intervention of the Supreme Court.

  5. #5 Stephanie Z
    April 15, 2009

    Actually, Matt, the Constitution places a number of restrictions on the states, laying out several ways in which they are subject to the broader authority of the country. Nowhere there or in the Bill of Rights, which was specifically enacted to limit federal power, is there any indication of any intent to allow states to secede. In fact, the language of the Constitution in regard to things like the counting of free persons is shaped by a compromise between the interests of differing states. We’re pretty clearly meant to all get along whether we want to or not.

    That, and to the best of my knowledge, no country anywhere ever has set up or allowed a mechanism by which part of the country could decide to opt out. Decide not to opt in when a country is being formed? Yes. But once you’re in, you’re in, unless you’re willing to die–and to kill–to get out. Breaking a country apart only happens as a means to end ongoing bloodshed.

  6. #6 Stephanie Z
    April 15, 2009

    Or in the case of colonial carving up of territory, of course, but we haven’t reached those extremes yet.

  7. #7 adina
    April 15, 2009

    The benefit of state’s rights is that it allows people to vote with their feet.
    But forget about states. Democracy is often a means for allowing tyranny of the majority to trample on the rights of individuals.
    Until the democracy decided otherwhise, slavery was legal in this country. If the majority voted that doctors are required to provide homeopathic care, would that seem justified to you?

  8. #8 Brian X
    April 15, 2009

    “State’s rights” has almost never been a legitimate argument — it almost always seems to be a smokescreen for some conservative or another to justify mistreating someone else. (You will notice how conservatives, when beaten on the state level, almost always throw state’s rights under the bus and run for federal intervention.) There is a certain somewhat fuzzy dividing line between state and federal jurisdiction, but if there was ever any question of federal primacy it was settled by the 14th Amendment, and reinforced with the somewhat *ahem* creative uses of the commerce cause now enshrined in common law precedent.

    In any case, if there’s one tactic conservatives seem to like when it comes to the word “democracy”, it’s obfuscating the various senses of the word. The US is a democracy, but it’s one specific type of it — a constitutional representative democracy with separation of powers and a strong jucidiary. (It is also a republic, in the sense that it’s a representative government with rule of law as its main principle of law.) I merely bring this up to emphasize how badly *all* of the above terms are often abused in debates on American politics.

  9. #9 Matt Springer
    April 16, 2009

    “That, and to the best of my knowledge, no country anywhere ever has set up or allowed a mechanism by which part of the country could decide to opt out. Decide not to opt in when a country is being formed? Yes. But once you’re in, you’re in, unless you’re willing to die–and to kill–to get out. Breaking a country apart only happens as a means to end ongoing bloodshed.”

    Peaceful devolution has happened plenty of times. The post-WWII British Empire ended more or less without bloodshed in most places, for instance. The breakup of the USSR is another example. There is even an active secession movement in Hawaii now, which has to some extent been supported by senator Akaka.

    Again I don’t support secession obviously, but I am not morally opposed to the idea if some very good reason presented itself. Lack of current constitutionality need not be a problem, since if popular support for devolution for some reason ever became widespread an amendment laying out devolution procedures could be adopted.

  10. #10 t
    April 16, 2009

    Your overheated rhetoric is going to get someone killed. When it does, it’s going to be on you.

    The Pittsburgh police were shot by a young man who apparently believed “Obama is coming to take your guns” ranting.

    But the ranters are disclaiming responsibility for their part of the incident because they never directly told him to shoot cops. They may have mumbles “would no one rid me of this meddlesome president” a few times, but that’s all.

  11. #11 Stephanie Z
    April 16, 2009

    Matt, now you’re conflating countries and empires. Two different beasties.

  12. #12 Coriolis
    April 16, 2009

    Yeah in both of your examples, there was always a fairly clear distinction between the people who separated – ethnic, religious or otherwise. None of them really felt that they were one country. That’s not the case for different states of the USA. And infact even if it was, the vast majority of the time an attempt to separate along ethnic lines does result in civil war. As the very recent examples of Kosovo and Iraq so plainly demonstrate. Don’t even have to drag in any historical examples.

    Anyways, talk about being sore losers though. I guess they are still at the mental level of the kids who won’t play if the others don’t let them win all the time.

  13. #13 Eric Lund
    April 16, 2009

    There is even an active secession movement in Hawaii

    And also in Alaska. But are they actually doing anything about it, or are they just talking? If the latter, then they are nothing but gasbags. If they actually start to do something about it, then they can expect armed opposition from the government.

    Sometimes, the central government concludes that holding the breakaway province isn’t worth the effort. This was the case with the British Empire: not only had they just been through WWII, they also remembered WWI, the Boer war, and various imperial misadventures in India (which then included Pakistan and Bangladesh) and Afghanistan. This was also true when Czechoslovakia split up (which is a better example of what you had in mind). But more often the central government will try to hold on by force, as France tried unsuccessfully in both Vietnam and Algeria. It was only after the latter war that France decided their empire wasn’t worth keeping, as they did not have the living memory experience of imperial wars (WWI was not an imperial war) that the British had.

  14. #14 Dave Hammon
    April 16, 2009

    I’m an asshole spamming the blog with adds for drugs, probably obtained in a less-than-usual fashion. Please email me frequently, and feel free to add my email to spam lists.

    greghouse@univision.com

  15. #15 Phoenix Woman
    April 16, 2009

    Remember, these are the same people currently whining that a DHS study ordered up during the Bush administration pegged right-wing extremist nutjobs as terror risks. I mean, geez, just because they build cyanide and suitcase bombs that they deliver to like-minded folks nationwide, or (if they’re rich enough) try to make dirty bombs, that’s no reason to keep an eye on these patriots, right?

  16. #16 Greg Laden
    April 16, 2009

    that doesn’t mean that there can’t ever be a moral case for secession.

    …. so, Matt, are you on board with this idea that since we have a black president it is time to get out of the Union? That surprises me.

  17. #17 catgirl
    April 17, 2009

    I say we should stop complaining and just let them go already, as long as they agree to pay moving expenses for the Americans who still want to be part of this country. Oh, and it has to be permanent. They can’t change their minds and come back as soon as we get a Republican president.

  18. #18 Michael Simpson
    April 18, 2009

    Other than Alec Baldwin and a couple of other loudmouths, there wasn’t a huge outcry for California and New York to secede when Bush II stole the election in 2000. I was angry, and I, along with a large number of progressives, made sure that he didn’t win in 2004. That didn’t work so well, thank you Swift Boat.

    Now that we have a liberal (although, as a liberal, I’m having quite a difficult time seeing how liberal Obama really is, but that happens in politics) in the White House, the right wing is saying things that are plainly anti-American, vile, and, let’s be honest, a bit treasonous. Let them go on teabagging each other. Oops. I hope that doesn’t violate HONcode regulations.

  19. #19 tcmJOE
    April 19, 2009

    While I’m very firmly on the liberal side, I agree with what Matt is saying. There could be circumstances when a state should have the right to leave–say if the Continental US suddenly decided to deny Alaska all rights of representation in the US Congress and took over the Alaskan state government. But that’s not what’s happening, nor do I really think it will happen. And “seceding” because of a tax policy you degree with? Pathetic.

    Also, I wouldn’t use the break-up of the USSR as an example of a peaceful breakup. Things worked out reasonably well in Eastern Europe, but consider the situation in Chechnya, the Tajik civil war, and fighting between Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan over the Ferghana valley.

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