Two-hundred and forty years ago, American colonists asserted their independence from Great Britain. For a decade the colonists had battled with Parliament over who could legislate for and tax them, with the colonists resorting to ever more open resistance and Parliament resorting to ever more oppressive attempts at enforcing its authority. By July of 1776, Americans had been openly fighting British troops for over a year, leading Americans to the uncomfortable realization that the colonies and Great Britain were at a point of separation.
Up until the Declaration of Independence, many Americans, even those resisting Parliament, expressed their devotion to the British Crown and their reluctance to separate from it. If the political issue of representation could be solved, they said, they would happily continue as subjects of the King. It was only after Parliament persisted in its claims of authority over the colonies and King George took Parliament’s side that the colonists decided it was time to separate.
Ultimately the political incompatibility between the colonies and Great Britain led to the Declaration of Independence.
Fast forward 240 years, and it is increasingly clear that Americans are hurtling towards another point of separation. The political differences in the country, which have always been significant, are today more inflammatory and the disagreements more rancorous than perhaps ever before. While the heightened emotions and posturing of a presidential election year amplify these disagreements, their existence is no passing trend. They are the direct result of hopelessly opposed visions of government and society competing for control of the national government – that is, for the power to mandate one vision or the other for all Americans.
These disagreements are many and varied:
One group wants to protect religious freedom, the other does not.
One group wants to codify forced association into law, the other does not.
One group wants to make it illegal for citizens to own guns, the other does not.
One group wants to cut welfare programs, the other does not.
One group wants to increase taxes, the other does not.
One group wants large-scale government involvement in all areas of society, the other does not.
And on and on.
In this environment, electoral results, tied as they are to the ascendance of policy preferences, are the cause of either jubilation or despair. A microcosm of this is the current presidential race. By November 8th, over 120 million Americans will have cast votes for a presidential candidate, and nearly half of these voters will be disappointed in the results, many to the point of desperation. In their minds, if not in reality, the opposing vision will have prevailed and they will be forced to live under the oppression of ideas they disagree with, at least for a four-year term.
But despite an annual occasion to recall their secessionist past, Americans never seem to consider if the current structure of government meets their needs or if the country is at a political impasse, one that would be best solved by separation. No, in modern America separation is off the table, not so much because it’s a bad idea but because it’s assumed, without much consideration, to be a crazy one.
It’s not clear why this is the case. Historically, secession is a uniquely American idea. America’s founding generation quite obviously seceded from Great Britain. Do modern Americans consider themselves to politically superior to their forefathers (and, if so, why do they celebrate Independence Day)?
Neither is the logic of separation obviously lacking. Is the idea of 535 legislators making laws for 300 million people so obviously superior or so clearly emanating from on high that no alternatives can be considered? Does the fact that one congressman represents an average of nearly 700,000 people leave nothing to be desired? Does this improve if we reduce the number of government representatives to nine judges or one president?
In short, can we truly expect the varied political preferences of the entire U.S. population to be adequately represented by fewer than 600 people? Can a political system that homogenizes 300 million individuals irrespective of their region, culture or overarching worldview qualify as being representative, much less moral? Can the same government adequately legislate for a Portland hipster, an Alabama country boy, a Broadway actress and a Montana mountain man?
The answer to these questions is obviously no. But not only do precious few Americans reach this conclusion, almost none even bother to ask the questions. Instead they continue to butt heads over irreconcilable political differences in the vain attempt to secure long-term political victories at the national level.
Much as Americans in 1776 reluctantly found themselves in the necessary position of declaring their independence, the time is fast approaching for a new generation of Americans to peacefully part ways in the realization that political freedom and happiness isn’t predicated on a union that holds no more utility for them.
They may realize that independence is preferable to the continual childish bickering of today’s political landscape. Rather than try to control each other, it’s time for Americans to once again prioritize governing themselves.