Andrew Bjelland: Secession is now thinkable, even in the Intermountain West

Will we remember the better angels of our nature, or die by suicide?

(Carolyn Kaster | AP photo) In this Jan. 6, 2021, photo, supporters of President Donald Trump march towards the Capitol holding flags during rally in Washington. War-like imagery has begun to take hold in mainstream Republican political circles in the wake of the deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol, with some elected officials and party leaders rejecting calls to tone down their rhetoric contemplating a second civil war.

Two national polls indicate current tensions have again triggered secessionist impulses. The poll results are perhaps less significant than the pollsters’ decisions to address this issue.

According to a Bright Line Watch survey, within the Intermountain West 43% of Republicans, 35% of Independents and 17% of Democrats support their own state’s “secession from the United States to join a [regional] union.” In a University of Virginia Center for Politics poll, Biden voters register 43% support for secession, with 18% expressing strong support; Trump voters respond 52% and 25%.

Respondents to these polls no doubt express their grievances rather than their considered judgments. A moment’s reflection indicates even peaceful secession would prove suicidal.

Consider the impracticality of a land-locked United Intermountain States — a nation-state dependent upon inland ports such as the 16,000 acre facility planned for Salt Lake City. Dr. Brian Moench recently warned such ports would further deplete dwindling water resources; lower water tables; trigger dust storms that pollute the air with neurotoxins; increase air pollution due to heavy railway and truck traffic; and result in skyrocketing water bills for households and businesses.

Further, division into regional nation-states would entail a disastrous dilution of America’s economic power and military might — a dilution that would ensure the ascendancy of America’s arch-rival, the People’s Republic of China. What could be more self-defeating?

Many other major concerns divide Americans. A recent Georgetown University poll invited participants to rank the state of our nation on a scale from 0 to 100, with “0″ signifying political unity and “100″ signifying an America on the brink of civil war. The mean score: 70. A Zogby poll indicates 16% of respondents strongly believe the cold civil war between America’s right and left might soon heat up; an additional 30% consider that eventuality likely.

A June 1, 2022, Southern Poverty Law Center poll indicates Americans are sharply divided on: Great Replacement Theory; acceptance of diversity; gender roles; faith in democratic institutions; and the place of violence in politics.

Americans are also divided concerning: appropriate responses to mass shootings, the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s presidency and the lasting import of the January 6 assault on our nation’s Capitol.

Such marked divisions are symptoms of a social-psychological disease: thoughtlessness. This disease has its superspreaders: masters of mendacious propaganda and emotive manipulation who target aggrieved citizens, stoke their fears and channel their animosities. The targeted audience, once enflamed, in turn further empowers their masters. This feedback-loop expands, intensifies and increasingly undermines social cohesion.

Thoughtlessness currently enables a widespread assault on liberal democracy. In Viktor Orban’s Hungary and in the other illiberal democracies of Eastern Europe, demagogues wage war on truth. They endorse religious fundamentalism and present themselves as the sole guardians of family values. They instill hostility toward outsiders and erode confidence in democratic institutions. Oligarchs fill their coffers. Citizens become increasingly cynical. Cynicism gives way to apathy. Apathy further emboldens masters of deceit.

Will we Americans unite to combat the threats posed by the demagogues in our midst?

Southern secession was well underway on the day of President Abraham Lincoln’s first inauguration, March 4, 1861. In his address Lincoln appealed to the “better angels of our nature.” He expressed faith in citizens’ abilities to reflect, embrace common ideals, sympathize, empathize, and creatively imagine. He hoped these gifts would quell enmity, restore bonds of affection and preserve the Union. His hope proved in vain.

We are revisiting Lincoln’s world — a decentered world in which things fall apart. Will our better angels counter present prospects of disunion? Reduce the likelihood of sedition? Arrest our nation’s drift toward authoritarianism?

In 1838 Lincoln warned: A free people must unite in support of the rule of law “or die by suicide.” As we approach the 2022 midterm elections, we should each ask: Do I support candidates who inspire “the better angels of our nature” or those who evoke the demons of division?

Andrew G. Bjelland

Andrew G. Bjelland, Ph.D., is a professor emeritus, Department of Philosophy, Seattle University. He resides in Salt Lake City.