Divided We Fall:
America’s Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation
by david french
st. martin’s, 288 pages, $28.99
Thanks to the pugnacious editor of the New York Post opinion page, Sohrab Ahmari, David French became one of the more unlikely “isms” ever formulated. In a much-discussed 2019 essay for First Things, Ahmari argued that everything wrong with establishment conservatism could be summed up as “David French–ism.” French, as you might imagine, was not altogether pleased. In his new book, Divided We Fall, French seeks to reclaim his name. He argues that pluralism and tolerance can save the nation in this divisive era.
French begins with an arresting claim: The continued unity of the United States of America is not certain. America may break apart into two or more nations, because Americans are no longer one people. We lack a common culture, we live separately, we believe in different things, we increasingly loathe our political opponents. And things are only getting worse. Geographical and digital self-sorting feeds extremism, which leads to greater fear and division. This summer’s protests and riots, which took place after the book’s completion, make French’s picture even more timely.
French uses social science research to document America’s increasing polarization. In 1992, only 38 percent of American voters lived in a “landslide county,” a county that one party wins by at least twenty points. In 2016, that number hit a record 60 percent. Religion increasingly divides us: States with the lowest church attendance vote Democratic; those with the highest, Republican. Blue states and red states don’t even watch the same television shows. Game of Thrones was popular in Blue America, but Red America watches The Walking Dead. Sports, especially the NFL, used to be unifiers, but now they are politicized and yet another cause of fragmentation.
Polarization alone may not be harmful, but when coupled with existential fear, it can threaten national stability. It’s one thing if your opponent attempts to defeat you at the ballot box; it’s something else altogether if you believe he seeks to destroy you. This is why conservatives in particular have been alarmed by a “cancel culture” that penalizes politically incorrect speech, action, and belief. They fear that it reflects the left’s shift from comfortable control of elite institutions (media, Hollywood, universities) to a fervent zeal to purify them.
Given a sufficient level of fear and distrust, French suggests, a triggering event could lead to secession. The book’s most engaging section contains two scenarios to dramatize the possibility. “Calexit” ensues after federal overreach on gun control and immigration. In this scenario, the West Coast and Northeastern states leave the union because of progressive fears of minority rule via the Senate and Electoral College, coupled with right-wing extremism. “Texit” has Texas and neighboring states seceding on account of a lethal combination of recession, abortion politics, tech blackouts, and incompetent FBI action. After a summer of unrest and a fall full of talk about the legitimacy of our elections, these far-fetched scenarios sound more plausible.
To stave off secession and save America, French argues that we need to “chart James Madison’s course,” which he identifies with pluralism. Citizens of a pluralistic liberal republic commit themselves to defending the fundamental rights of others even when others use those rights in ways they dislike. Pluralistic citizens also defend the rights of communities and associations to govern themselves according to their own values and beliefs, as long as they don’t violate fundamental rights. French’s leading civic virtue is tolerance in the old-fashioned understanding of the term, forbearance and restraint toward beliefs and behaviors with which one disagrees.
French seeks to reinvigorate federalism and de-escalate national politics. America would be a much better place, he sensibly reasons, if Nancy Pelosi were less relevant to Tennesseans and Ted Cruz less relevant to Californians. French does recognize the racial failures of American federalism, but he insists that the South is different now. Federalism today, he claims, “would be fundamentally different from the perverted federalism of the Jim Crow past.”
There is much to admire in French’s call for more self-government at the local level. He is almost certainly correct to say that, under such an arrangement, we would “spend less time in a state of crisis—a posture of self-defense—that poisons our feelings for our fellow citizens.” And no doubt, we need more tolerance for those with whom we disagree.
The book’s counsel for America, however, ultimately fails. French’s prescription for reinvigorating federalism is welcome as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough. This would be fine if he presented his recommendations as incremental steps, necessary but insufficient. But he suggests that his recommendations are capable of achieving things that in fact require much more extensive action.
For example, French thinks that California’s desire to adopt universal, comprehensive healthcare coverage might offer a historic opportunity to break apart the immense national-government social-welfare superstructure. California could implement its own single-payer state experiment only by declaring independence from the national system. If California were allowed to go its own way, other states would probably do likewise. Federalism in healthcare, French contends, would be “one of the most consequential political, economic, and cultural decisions in modern American politics.” But it would still leave the people of each state unable to govern themselves in other significant matters. Abortion, same-sex marriage, and church-state relations would still be governed by federal judicial fiat and education by Washington bureaucrats.
A bolder book, one more serious about federalism and local self-government, would recognize that preserving American freedom requires the repeal of entire federal bureaucracies, including the Department of Education, and a curtailment of tech oligopolies. An even bolder book would follow Christopher Caldwell in calling for the repeal of federal non-discrimination law, or at least a return to its original limited colorblind intentions. At minimum, one might have expected more from French, who made his mark as a constitutional lawyer, on the necessity of overturning the Supreme Court precedents that dictate American life. But French is not particularly interested in judicial supremacy or in how the Supreme Court has prevented the American people from governing themselves. He supports First Amendment precedents on speech and religion that deny local communities the ability to govern according to their own moral standards.
Though he often invokes James Madison, French’s underlying political theory is shaped more by Rawlsian liberalism than by the Founders’ natural rights republicanism. Following Rawls, French “recognize[s] pluralism as a permanent fact of American life and seek[s] to foster a political culture that protects the autonomy and dignity of competing American ideological and religious communities.”
French champions First Amendment protections for drag queen story hour because he is committed to a constitutional relativism that holds all perspectives to be politically equal. He lauds Justice Jackson’s dictum in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943): “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”
One might agree that the state cannot constitutionally force school children to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, the legal issue at hand in Barnette, and yet reject Jackson’s suggestion that American constitutionalism has no underlying “orthodoxies.” Indeed, most conservatives praise the American Founders for articulating the principles of the American regime: that all individuals are created equal, that all individuals are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, and that just government exists by consent and to protect individuals’ natural rights. These principles do not constitute one perspective among many; they are the moral foundation of American republicanism. They are—at least, they used to be—our common political creed. They explain the foundation of our constitutional rights, and also their limits.
Like Rawls, French eschews the natural law foundations of American republicanism, and thus he is unable to recognize the limits of freedom. His legal relativism led him into moral relativism when he told a writer for the New Yorker that drag queen story hour was one of the “blessings of liberty.”
What French seems not to see, and what led Ahmari to launch his spirited attack, is that America is being radically remade. Drag queen story hour at the local library is just the beginning. The progressive left’s stated end is the destruction of “heteronormativity,” the legal restriction of traditional religious communities, and the destruction of the nuclear family. This utopian political vision rejects any natural standard of right and wrong. It rejects the idea that we live within a moral order created by God. When it was relegated to university cultural studies departments, it could perhaps be overlooked. Now it is overtaking corporate America, the federal bureaucracy, and the Democratic Party. Appeals to pluralism and tolerance are too feeble to confront such a foe.
French’s federalism-enhanced procedural liberalism does not recognize the threat to America for what it is. The recommendations offered in Divided We Fall make sense for a prior time; they are insufficient today. The progressives remaking American institutions will not be deterred by winsomeness. They will not abide by procedure. They have no illusion that America ever was or ever could be based on procedural neutrality. If America is to remain the home of people who share David French’s theological convictions, we will need something more than his political strategy.
Vincent Phillip Muñoz is Tocqueville Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame.
Photo by Gage Skidmore via Creative Commons. Image cropped.