A Union of Consent

I read about British politics primarily as a hobby, but it’s also a source of useful perspective. One example of the latter is the recurring and explicit reference to the United Kingdom as “a union of consent,” in discussions of internal political fractures.

It’s a vague principle, but an important one: that political unions are not shackles for eternity, and societies which profess respect for fairness and self-determination need to allow some form of peaceful divorce.

I recently wrote my federal elected officials to advise that our own country (re)establish this principle in some explicit way, now, because I think that in future we will wish we had done so during relatively amicable and orderly times.

Obviously I don’t expect a presidential speech or Congressional resolution or committee to say, to our fractious empire, that Americans have a right to go their own way, however hypothetical or conditional. It would seem like opening a can of worms. I would submit that in this case, the can is so corroded that it’s going to fall apart on its own, and since we’re going to end up with an open can of worms, better that it be relatively planned and orderly.

I post about this all the time but I really don’t see a scenario for things to “settle down” politically in America as constituted. The problem of the Republican tribal enclave does not seem like it can be resolved by policy. It has stopped acting as a participant in governing, and it’s big enough that its toxic sabotage impulses will make stable, constructive collective action (i.e. governing) impossible whether it’s in control through rigged rules, excluded from power, or invited to participate in a coalition. This is not a temporary condition or a phase, nor is it a house of cards about to topple.

I don’t think policy can really solve this problem, any more than walls can contain folk migrations. Even if that were possible in theory, we don’t really have working systems of policymaking. What passes for national processes of debate and dispute-resolution, in this country, is something like 40% corruption and institutionalized cheating, 25% hollow pomp, and 30% screaming contest. This doesn’t resolve disputes because it can’t, and pushing harder on the rope won’t change that. The rules of the system make their own reform so difficult as to be impossible in practical terms. Redress of grievances is increasingly unattainable, whether for grievances which I regard as valid, or for grievances which I regard as deranged fantasies run amok but which are held by many nonetheless.

Given that I don’t think policy, as such, can make a union like this work anyway, and that all options for changing the rules from within the rules seems unrealistic, it seems like we might as well discuss the unrealistic option of an amicable breakup now, while such a discussion could be relatively amicable compared with some future time when the discussion forces itself upon us.

This shouldn’t even be that unrealistic. Obviously, America’s first founding document opens with recognition that some times “in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another‚Ķ” United States territory has gone its own way, and the principle is still recognized. There is no rational reason why admission of states to the union should be irreversible, or for that matter why the borders of states should be regarded as fixed, given that the United States recognized the breakaway of West Virginia.

Of course, that occurred during the attempted secession of Virginia as a whole, but the United States did not at any point recognize this; a juxtaposition which demonstrates that there is no rational system of rules operating here.

There should be, and I think there could be. The potential for reductio ad absurdum, e.g. ranchers declaring themselves an independent nation so that they can evade taxes and federal laws, is as much a reason for discussing now how divorce might work as for avoiding the discussion entirely. It’s also very plausibly a discussion which would not have to break down instantly upon the partisan lines of our cold war. At least not yet. America should have this discussion now, while some possibility of shaping concepts intentionally and productively yet exists.

It would also require a number of individuals to come up with vision and realism and leadership. (Interestingly there is actually quite a bit of lively discussion about this subject, but almost entirely outside the forums of elites who determine official policy.)

So I’ve done my part. I’ve made the suggestion. On with the screaming contest.

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