Do you trust your state officials more than feds, dream of California independence, or support breaking the U.S. into regional republics? 

Then you’re a traditional American patriot.

Or do you cling to hopes of national unity, or believe in compromise to preserve our union of 330 million? 

Then you’re part of the problem.

The frightening 2020 election is disrupting how we think about America and California’s place in it—and thank goodness for that. Perhaps now, Americans might see national unity as a dangerous pursuit, and embrace our divisions in service of protecting our rights and building a better future.

This powerful argument fuels two smart new books. One is an American history, Break It Up: Secession, Division, and the Secret History of America’s Imperfect Union by The Nation writer Richard Kreitner. The other is a deep, California-inspired analysis of the present and future, Citizenship Reimagined: A New Framework for States’ Rights in the United States, by Arizona State University political scientist Allan Colbern and UC Riverside Center for Social Innovation director S. Karthick Ramakrishnan. 

The two books share a crucial insight: that the federal government is not a reliable protector of Americans’ rights. When Americans unify through national compromise, we do awful things—enshrining slavery in the Constitution, launching Jim Crow, incarcerating minorities en masse, and starting wars. Instead, actual progress often results from states leading the way, from fighting slavery to advancing suffrage.

The good news is that we Americans aren’t often cursed with national unity. Division and cold civil war are our natural states, as befits a country that venerates its founding divorce filing, the Declaration of Independence. 

“Secession is the only kind of revolution we Americans have ever known and the only kind we’re ever likely to see,” Kreitner writes.

Kreitner shows how breaking up the country—an idea typically associated only with the Civil War—has been sought by every region, across every American era. He offers memorable tidbits, from President Zachary Taylor’s 1849 opinion that California should be independent to the American diplomat George Kennan’s 1993 argument that the U.S. is “a monster country” that should be divided into a dozen republics. 

“Paradoxically,” Kreitner writes, “disunion has been one of our only truly national ideas.” 

From the Civil War to the civil rights movement, division and conflict have inspired big changes in America. “Disunion startles a man to thought,” said the 19th-century abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who believed the North should leave a Union compromised by slavery. “[Disunion] takes a lazy abolitionist by the throat, and thunders in his ear, ‘Thou are the slaveholder!’”

How to use division to better America is a subject of Colbern and Ramakrishnan’s book, Citizenship Reimagined. These two scholars argue that, to counter toxic federal regimes and expand people’s, states should exercise powers that we typically think of as federal.

They call this approach “progressive state citizenship” and cite 21st century California, and especially recent legislation to extend and protect the citizenship rights of undocumented residents, as a model. These advances make California a turnaround story—in previous decades, the state practiced “regressive state citizenship,” eroding rights for immigrants and minorities. To prevent such regressions, the authors argue that the nation needs robust enforcement of the 14th Amendment, to ensure a “federal floor” of rights.

“Progressive state governments can provide rights and protections to citizens and noncitizens that exceed the federal floor, temporarily anchoring the country to progressive values and ideals during times of restrictive national regimes,” Colbern and Ramakrishnan write.

The pandemic, with the federal government’s failure forcing states to take on new duties, may accelerate the trend of state leadership, the authors suggest. And any post-election conflict may also hold possibilities for the states.

Together, the two books suggest that the country doesn’t need more compromise to preserve false unity, but rather an honest accounting of the costs and benefits of keeping the national marriage together. Breaking up the country might prove the least divisive way to make American life more just. 

“If the day should ever come… when the affections of the people of these states shall be alienated from each other, when the fraternal spirit shall give away to cold indifference or collisions of interest shall fester into hatred,” John Quincy Adams says in Kreitner’s book, “far better will it be for the people of the disunited states to part in friendship from each other, than to be held together by constraint.”


Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. Authors of the books mentioned here will appear at an online Zócalo event Thursday, Oct. 22, at 1p.