Joe Mathews: The case for unity can be overstated

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Senate Chamber at the California State Capitol Photo by BenFranske / CC BY-SA

Sometimes progress depends on states going their own way.

In our sharply divided political landscape, we are bombarded by calls for unity. Usually when one side is trying to make the case for everyone to go along with its point of view. National unity can yield great things, but Zocalo commentator Joe Mathews says it can also impede progress, especially on social issues. Because one thing history has taught us is that the federal government is often a lousy guardian of Americans’ rights.

Read Mathews’ column below: 

Dividing lines

Do you trust your state officials more than feds or dream of California independence?

Then you’re a traditional American patriot.

Or do you cling to hopes of national unity and compromise to preserve our union?

Then you’re part of the problem.

The frightening 2020 election is disrupting how we think about America and California’s place in it—and thank goodness for that. Perhaps now, Americans might see national unity as a dangerous pursuit, and embrace our divisions in service of building a better future.

This powerful argument fuels two smart new books. One is an American history, Break It Up: Secession, Division, and the Secret History of America’s Imperfect Union by The Nation writer Richard Kreitner. The other is a California-inspired analysis of the present and future, Citizenship Reimagined: A New Framework for States’ Rights in the United States, by Arizona State University political scientist Allan Colbern and UC Riverside Center for Social Innovation director S. Karthick Ramakrishnan.

The two books share a crucial insight: that the federal government is not a reliable protector of Americans’ rights. Indeed when Americans unify and compromise, we often do awful things—enshrining slavery in the Constitution, launching Jim Crow, incarcerating minorities , and starting wars. Instead, actual progress often results from states going their own way, from fighting slavery to expanding suffrage.

The good news is that Americans aren’t often cursed with national unity. Division is our natural state, as befits a country that venerates its founding divorce filing, the Declaration of Independence. “Secession is the only kind of revolution we Americans have ever known and the only kind we’re ever likely to see,” Kreitner writes. 

Kreitner shows how breaking up the country has been sought by every region, across every era. From the Civil War to civil rights, division and conflict—“one of our only truly national ideas,” he writes—have inspired big changes. “Disunion startles a man to thought,” said the 19th-century abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who believed the North should leave a Union compromised by slavery. “[Disunion] takes a lazy abolitionist by the throat, and thunders in his ear, ‘Thou are the slaveholder!’”

How to use division to better America is a subject of Colbern and Ramakrishnan’s book. These two scholars argue that, to counter toxic federal regimes and expand rights, states should exercise powers that we typically think of as federal.

They call this approach “progressive state citizenship” and cite 21st century California and its many laws to expand the rights of undocumented residents, as a model. But they also note that California, in previous decades, eroded rights for immigrants and minorities. To prevent such regressions, the authors argue that the nation needs robust enforcement of the 14th Amendment, to ensure a “federal floor” of rights.

“Progressive state governments can provide rights and protections to citizens and noncitizens that exceed the federal floor, temporarily anchoring the country to progressive values and ideals during times of restrictive national regimes,” Colbern and Ramakrishnan write.

The pandemic, with the federal government’s failure forcing states to step up, may accelerate state leadership, the authors suggest. And any post-election conflict may also hold possibilities for the states.

Going forward, the country doesn’t need more compromise to preserve false unity, but rather an honest accounting of the costs and benefits of keeping the national marriage together. Breaking up the country might prove the least divisive way to make American life more just.

“If the day should ever come… when the affections of the people of these states shall be alienated from each other, when the fraternal spirit shall give away to cold indifference or collisions of interest shall fester into hatred,” John Quincy Adams said, as quoted by Kreitner, “far better will it be for the people of the disunited states to part in friendship from each other, than to be held together by constraint.”

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. Authors of books mentioned here will appear at an online Zócalo event Thursday, Oct. 22, at 1p.

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