A political quake to break up California is just what residents could need.
The Constitution invites us—and politics compels us—to consider redrawing state and local borders.
In September of 2020, I published a book entitled The Stakes. It was billed as a “current events” or election-year title. The election behind us, the candidate I recommended is no longer president. But the analysis which led me to that recommendation is very much still “current.”
To recap briefly (but read the whole thing!), the book explains how every prominent and powerful American institution, including the federal government, has been taken over by a hostile elite who use their vast powers to attack, despoil, and insult about half the nation. In the sixth chapter (excerpted here), I outline what I think America will look like if the present ruling class refuses to moderate, cannot be forced to share power, and has the wherewithal to keep its regime going. In the seventh chapter, I sketch several possibilities—from secession to Caesarism to collapse—that might result if it turns out that our overlords are a lot less competent than they think. And in the final chapter (excerpted here), I offer policy and other ideas that might enable America to avoid those fates.
That chapter (from which this essay is adapted) culminated with a proposal now being talked about widely, namely, to allow counties, cities, and towns unhappy with their current state government to join another. This would be a practical, and practicable, way to ease Blue and Red Americans’ present discontent and exasperation with each other.
There are precedents. The counties that became Maine split from Massachusetts in 1820, and—more famously—those that became West Virginia left Virginia during the Civil War. Fittingly, when I wrote the chapter, West Virginia had generously offered to welcome western Virginia counties unhappy with rule from newly, aggressively Blue Richmond. Today, a year later, West Virginia’s governor says the offer still stands.
There are similar movements throughout the country—most, though not all, driven by disaffected Reds. The most recent, news-making example was five Oregon counties joining two others in voting to leave the Beaver State and become part of Idaho.
So far nothing has come of any of this. But why shouldn’t these efforts be allowed to proceed if both the welcoming state and the exiting counties want it? Wouldn’t that be “democracy”?
Democracy, Then and Now
You might think so, but those who own the authoritative interpretation of the sacred word disagree.
The word is, of course, Greek and literally means “rule” (kratos) by the “common people” (demos). That is to say, democracy is rule of the whole political community (polis) by a part of that community. There are other parts: principally the few—whether understood as the rich, the powerful, the moral, the wise, the brave, the strong, or some combination thereof. There also may be a “one,” in the de jure sense of a monarch or the de facto sense of someone so preeminent in virtue that all, or nearly all, recognize his innate superiority—for instance, Pericles in nominally democratic Athens.
Classical philosophers and historians alike condemn democracy as a bad form of government, in part because of its partiality but mostly because of the specific nature of the demos, which they contend is the polis’s least wise and least moderate part.
I would here add that it’s both sad and hilarious to see classically-trained academics and intellectuals bleat on about the sanctity of “democracy.” The worst offenders are the Straussians, who really should know better. Haven’t we all read Republic VIII and Politics VI, to say nothing of the warnings from Strauss himself on the dangers and shortcomings of democracy? Their failure as analysts is worse. The present American regime that they celebrate as “our democracy” is all but identical to classical oligarchy (discussed in those same books) while the “populism” that gives them the vapors is much closer to the democracy they claim to revere. But even more embarrassing, the Straussians’ central boast is to stand above, in Olympian detachment and even disdain, all regime pieties and see through them as self-serving rationalizations. Yet when extolling “democracy,” they sound no different than an Assistant Secretary of State, foundation president, or CNN host.
Anyway, the classics instead recommend what Aristotle calls a “mixed” regime, in which no one part of the political community has a permanent upper hand but all share power, each contributing its particular strength(s) and checking the others’ particular weaknesses.
An updated version of this “mixed regime” is more or less what America’s founders worked to create. Sovereignty would rest with the people as a whole, but “the common people” as a class would not predominate. Power would be shared across regional, factional, social, and economic lines, with no one constituency ever gaining total control.
Our founders avoided the word “democracy,” in part because of its bad reputation, but also because they didn’t believe the government they built was—strictly speaking—democratic. Yet over time, “democracy” came to mean something like their solution to the political problem: popular sovereignty, a government whose fundamental course is set by voting, yet whose authorities are limited by natural rights, enumerated powers, checks and balances, the separation of powers, federal versus state and local spheres of authority, and so on.
More recently, “democracy” has come to mean one thing and one thing only: majority rule. Of course, the core purpose of democratic—and republican—rule is to ensure a voice for the collectivity, to prevent the state from becoming an instrument that serves only the few, or the one.
But pure majority rule takes us back to the original meaning of “democracy”: the rule of a part over the whole. Which is essentially what “democracy” means in Blue cities and states now. Sure, all the Red folk get to vote. For the ruling class, this alone satisfies the requirements of justice, of “democracy.” That the Reds are outvoted every time, their preferences never considered, their interests never respected, is not merely irrelevant but a positive good. If those people had their way, we know what they’d do! “Progress” and “justice” require that they never get the chance.
This is why fundamentally republican but not purely democratic institutions such as the Electoral College are so viciously attacked and despised. They hinder the operation of “democracy.” In this understanding, the 2016 election was illegitimate simply because Hillary won the popular vote. But consider: she won California alone by 4.3 million votes—and lost the other 49 states by 1.4 million. Of course, the founders created the Electoral College specifically to prevent brute-force voting from crushing underfoot all regional, sectional, cultural, religious, economic, and other differences. But that matters not a whit to our overlords—except as proof that the Electoral College is “anti-democratic” and so must go.
States such as California, Colorado, Illinois, New York, and now Virginia are utterly dominated by one party, and often one city, which amounts to the same thing. This is how Virginia—cradle of the American Revolution and home to four of our first five presidents—suddenly, just like that, became implacably hostile to the first two amendments to the United States Constitution. Five cities and counties, three adjacent to Washington, D.C., essentially dictate to the other 128.
The uncomprehending angst of people who’ve lived the same way, in the same places, for generations suddenly finding themselves harassed by a hostile government—ostensibly “theirs”—is mocked by the ruling class as a lament over “lost privilege.” After Virginia flipped from purple to Blue in 2019, the state legislature immediately enacted draconian gun restrictions that flew in the face of centuries of tradition and peaceful practice. Too bad! You lost! That’s “democracy.” As Joel Kotkin has remarked, “The worst thing in the world to be is the Red part of a Blue state.”
We should not, however, give the powers-that-be too much credit for principled consistency. If and when popular majorities produce outcomes the rulers don’t like, their devotion to “democracy” instantly evaporates. Judges, administrative state agencies, private companies—whichever is most able in the moment to overturn the will of unruly voters—will intervene to restore ruling class diktats. On the other hand, when voters can be counted on to vote the right way, then voting becomes the necessary and sufficient step for sanctifying any political outcome. It doesn’t even matter where the votes (or voters) come from, so long as they vote the right way. The fact that they vote the right way is sufficient to justify and even ennoble their participation in “our democracy.”
Blues perpetually outvoting Reds and ruling unopposed: this, and only this, is what “democracy” means today.
Bad Faith Objections
Reds, increasingly, are catching on. They know the game is rigged, that they cannot win, and the veneer of their participation and consent is a sham.
This is why the gaslighting is being dialed up to the lumen levels of blue stars. Every objection to Blue despoilation is now openly ascribed to “white supremacy.” Don’t want to be late for work because regime-favored
thugs “protesters” are illegally blocking an intersection? White supremacy! Object to being beaten on the streets? White supremacy! Want to see the laws enforced equally and impartially? White supremacy!
Obviously, nothing is more susceptible to this dread charge than calls for “secession.” Hence the entirely apples-to-oranges cases of redrawing state lines better to reflect residents’ preferences and interests will be—already is being—compared to the events of 1860-61.
As much as America’s ruling class professes to hate the Confederacy, only a fool or a liar can deny its enormous utility to their continued rule. If there hadn’t been a Confederacy, our masters would have been forced to invent one. Expect, then, as these interstate reorganization movements gain steam, to hear them denounced as fiery rebirths of the spirit of Old Dixie.
But only those started in Red states. If (hard as this may be to imagine) Donald Trump were to win the 2024 election and “Calexit” or some other movement to escape the Orange Tyranny got rolling, it would be treated with kid gloves. That’s not to say that the regime would support the effort; it will exert all its power to hold its empire together. But it will reserve its demonization propaganda for Reds trying to get out from under Blues.
In no instance will this double standard be more obvious than in the contrasting treatment of a genuine attempt to form a new sovereign state such as “Calexit” versus mere attempts to redraw state lines within the existing USA. The former really would be comparable to 1861; the latter obviously would not. Yet only the latter will be so called.
Some opponents of Red attempts to leave Blue states will disingenuously point to Lincoln’s first inaugural address, the ne plus ultra anti-secession argument. But there Lincoln was talking about replacing ballots with bullets throughout a sovereign state—overturning not merely the outcome of one election but the form of government itself. The peaceful rearrangement of political and administrative boundaries within a sovereign state is an entirely different act, with far lesser—and less grave—consequences. Indeed, in the latter case the consequences may be entirely salutary: there is ample precedent in history and around the world of countries redrawing internal lines to suit shifts in population and interests.
Others will try to muddy the waters by facilely equating the peculiarly American use of the word “state” for our 50 regional governments with the far more common meaning of state as “sovereign and independent country.” Lincoln said secession was unlawful, unconstitutional, and immoral—but this hypocrite Anton who claims to be a Lincolnite is endorsing the very practice! The argument is false and will be offered in bad faith. If you wish to waste a moment of your time, which I don’t recommend, remind such liars that the anti-secessionist Lincoln not only supported but presided over the division of Virginia. The decisive point is that this proposal is here proffered for precisely Lincolnite reasons: to save the Union and keep the current territory and population of the United States together.
Is It Constitutional?
I can feel eyes rolling at the question. But, as the kids say, boomers gonna boom. Lots of people, including many on our side, care deeply about the answer to this question. And since the answer is “yes,” why give an inch?
Article IV, Section 3 states that “no new State shall be formed or erected within the Jurisdiction of any other State; nor any State be formed by the Junction of two or more States, or Parts of States, without the Consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned as well as of the Congress.”
In the Maine and West Virginia cases, new states were formed, hence the legislatures of the original and prospective states, plus the Congress, had to consent. (In the case of Virginia, then in rebellion against the government of the United States, two competing state governments existed. The Unionist government, recognized by the federal government, voted to allow the separation.)
The Constitution is, however, silent on the question of transferring a county from one state to another. No doubt should rural Virginia counties seek to join Charleston, Richmond wouldn’t like it—all that lost tax revenue! Look how many fewer people to boss around! Fewer Electoral votes!
But, constitutionally speaking, the state government’s power to stop it would be dubious. As would, if we want to speculate along such lines, the means. It could, and almost certainly would, take the issue to federal court where, admittedly, any outcome is possible regardless of law, and any outcome favorable to Red interests extremely unlikely. There’s little question that a Blue state capital could easily join with the federal judiciary and the Biden administration to block any such action. That may or may not be “constitutional” as you and I understand the term, but we don’t rule.
Or suppose we interpret Article IV, Section 3 to mean that moving just one county from one state to another constitutes creating a “new state.” That makes things harder, but hardly impossible. It simply means that legislative victories would have to be won. That may seem impossible now; no empire ever seeks to become smaller. But, dare I say, the election of Donald Trump seemed impossible as late as 9 p.m. on November 3rd, 2016. Public opinion is changing fast. Reds, who’ve put up with a lot only to face repeated demands that they put up with even more, are getting fed up.
Not only do they get nothing but abuse from the political system, increasingly they don’t even get to talk. Any dissent against regime ideology is swiftly and ruthlessly censored on Blue media platforms, which is to say, all of them. Reds’ elected leaders (to the extent that they have any) are declared “domestic enemies” by the Speaker of the House. Blue wise men talk of “cleansing” Reds from the political system. Nils Gilman—a man who called for my death—declaimed that “These people need to be extirpated from politics.” To have no say and no voice, forever, means that one’s only option is exit.
It would be an act of magnanimity, and even self-interest, for a sufficient number of Blues to recognize Red concerns and let the state-county reorganization proceed. Right now, at least half of Red America feels trapped in an abusive marriage, endlessly told they’re worthless, racist, and evil—but also that under no circumstances may they even broach the topic of leaving. Stay and take your deserved punishment is Blue America’s constant message to Red, the political philosophy of Judge Smails: You’ll get nothing and like it.
Besides, as Blues never tire of reminding us, aren’t we Reds poor, weak, and dumb? Who wants such dross as fellow citizens? Imagine (say) Virginia’s glorious future without all those retrograde hicks getting in the way of NoVa’s progressive utopian vision.
If Blues cannot see their way to letting such peaceful means proceed as a way of improving civic harmony and extending the life of the republic, they’re placing a giant bet that they can, through sheer brute force, rule Reds forever. Can they? They’d also be admitting that, in New America, “democracy” just means Blues outvoting Reds, effectively nullifying their franchise.
Nothing Sacred about 50
The precedent of even one county, in any state, freeing itself of its distant solons would likely inspire many more attempts. Western Maryland joining West Virginia; downstate Illinois joining Iowa, Indiana, or Missouri; upstate New York joining Pennsylvania; eastern California joining Nevada—the possibilities are endless.
Indeed, such a movement may gain such momentum that, for the first time since the admission of Alaska and Hawaii, the country might see the attempted formation and admission of new states. Far-northern California and the southernmost part of Oregon have been trying for years to break away, join together, and form the “State of Jefferson.” They haven’t gotten anywhere yet, but the mere fact that the movement exists indicates discontent—specifically, the discontent of rural people with their urban masters. Should that discontent grow, the movement might succeed and make Jefferson, and other new states, become reality.
And why not? Fifty may be a nice round number, but there’s nothing magical about it. If rearranging the states helps the people within them live happier and get along better, why shouldn’t we do it? The flag has been redesigned before.
What About the Senate?
Both possibilities—redrawing the map among the existing 50, or breaking parts of them up in ways that yield a new number—raise the inevitable question of the composition of the Senate. Each side will try to gain the advantage—and prevent the other side from doing the same. Any “reform” that gives Blues or Reds a clear, potentially decades-long lock on control of the Senate or the Electoral College will not only be a nonstarter but would exacerbate the very problem it’s ostensibly trying to solve.
It’s worth pointing out, in this context, the utter hypocrisy of Blues who cry “Jeff Davis!” at the mere suggestion of some rural counties in a Blue State seeking refuge with fellow Reds, which almost certainly would not change the composition of the Senate, but who blithely demand that D.C. and Puerto Rico be made states so the Democrats can get four extra Senators and (likely) four more Electoral votes.
At any rate here, too, there’s precedent. It became an informal but strictly observed custom after the Missouri Compromise to admit states to the Union only in pairs—one slave, one free—so as to preserve the balance in the Senate. Modern political scientists don’t know much, but they do have a very good bead on who votes for whom. It would be easy enough to redraw state lines with senatorial balance in mind—not to guarantee any particular outcome but the opposite: to prevent either side from achieving lasting dominance.
A similar, and even easier, measure would be to allow counties and incorporated cities to break up, or merge, as they so choose. There’s ample precedent for this too—indeed, much more than there is for reorganization at the state level. The purpose would be the same: to allow like to join with like, to govern local matters in their own ways, free of top-down diktat.
Perhaps paradoxically, it is through greater pluralism that Americans can achieve greater comity. Today, every petty disagreement turns into a bitter Red-Blue fight. We could live together better if we could give each other a little more space, become a little more willing to leave one another alone. Similar changes were made in Rome, which prolonged that state as a free republic by at least two centuries. Here is how Machiavelli describes those reforms:
Because of the liberality that the Romans practiced in giving citizenship to foreigners, so many new men were born in Rome that they began to have so much share in the votes that the government began to vary, and it departed from the things and from the men with which it was accustomed to go. When Quintus Fabius, who was censor, perceived this, he put all these new men from whom this disorder derived under four tribes, so that by being shut in such small spaces they could not corrupt all Rome. This affair was well understood by Fabius, and he applied a convenient remedy without an alteration; it was so well received by the citizenry that he deserved to be called Maximus.
A reorganization of state, county, and city lines in America would be an act of statesmanship on the grandest scale since the Civil War, perhaps since the founding itself. For redeeming Roman freedom after its humiliating sack by the Gauls, Marcus Furius Camillus was bestowed the title “Second Founder of Rome.” A stateman who reordered America in the manner of Fabius, ensuring us another century or two of greatness, might earn a similar honorific. Are there any among us with the justice, moderation, courage, and wisdom to perform this great act?
If there is not—or, to be more precise, if the ruling class refuses to allow reorganization to proceed, refuses so much as to give it a fair hearing—then one day in the not-so-distant future we will look back with fondness to a time when “secession” as a future prospect meant only redrawing state lines.
The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.
The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.