David French is a senior editor of The Dispatch, a conservative online political magazine. A graduate of Harvard Law School, an Iraq War veteran and recipient of the Bronze Star, French’s most recent book, “Divided We Fall: America’s Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation,” was reviewed by Governing in October. In the book, French warns how hardening ideological and cultural polarization poses a growing threat to national unity. Editor-at-Large Clay Jenkinson recently spoke with French. The following interview has been edited for clarity, length and readability.
You can also listen to an extended version of the interview using the player below or on Apple Podcasts.
Governing: After the British people voted in 2016 to leave the European Union (leading to the recently concluded official Brexit in the last days of 2020), you questioned whether we in the United States might need to begin bracing ourselves to face successful secessionist movements. Your latest book, “Divided We Fall,” contains a fictional account of the secessions of California, with one-tenth of the U.S. population and the fifth-largest economy in the world, and Texas, with 29 million people and the 10th-largest economy in the world. Thomas Jefferson wrote to John Breckinridge in1803 that it wouldn’t be the worst thing that could happen if the country broke up into cousins or sister republics. What’s wrong with the breakup of America?
David French: I have two answers, one principled and one pragmatic. The principled answer is that the ideals of the American founding represent not only something remarkable in the history of the world, but something very good. The long history of the United States has been that of extending these rights to more and more members of the American family, and by extension, through American power in World War II and throughout the Cold War, toward more members of the human family. This is ultimately a good nation, based on good principles. We cannot presume that all that comes afterward will but just as good.
The pragmatic concern is that the consequences of the loss of American power in the world would be catastrophic. We would see the re-emergence of the kinds of great power conflicts that we have not dealt with for generations. It would come to our shores. It always does. For the peace of the nation, I think it’s indispensable that this nation endures. But powerful nations have fallen apart in the past.
Governing: Suppose California decides to secede (Calexit). What does that look like?
David French: California’s exit would assure for the indefinite future the dominance of the American right over the remainder of the nation. We’d effectively be a one-party nation for a while. That spooks the other blue states.
In one Calexit scenario that I painted, there would be a consensual, relatively peaceful separation with no objection. The two nations would recognize diplomatic relations with each other, the standard practice of international law. There’s another scenario where they don’t recognize each other, but the United Nations does recognize them, and other nations do recognize them. Under international law they are, for all practical purposes, different nations.
One of my suggestions is that, instead of a divorce, we double down on federalism. We increase the amount of autonomy that we grant cities and states. This is vitally important because we have to de-escalate national politics. What we have is an increasingly diverse nation that is increasingly divided, but with increasingly centralized rule that is ultimately incompatible with increased diversity. We need to empower local and state governments far more than we do now. For that to happen, we have to recognize that federalism should be a principle and not a tactic. What happens now is that whoever’s out of power loves federalism and whoever’s in power hates federalism.
Governing: Where does the national guarantee of certain unalienable rights butt up against decentralization?
David French: We cannot have a federalism of the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights has to be uniform. We keep the 14th Amendment. The Bill of Rights is the fundamental American social compact. This is operationalizing the Declaration of Independence, and where we’ve fallen down is that we’ve had a federalism of the Bill of Rights. African-Americans, up until 1964 in the South, did not enjoy the full range of the rights guaranteed by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. They didn’t, and it created injustice and instability.
Every American region should be bound by the Bill of Rights. That leaves a ton of play on other things, including tax policy, health care policy, environmental policy, energy policy, you name it. But everyone should still enjoy due process. Everyone should still have the right to speak freely, the right to free exercise of religion. Those things can’t be dependent upon a state border.
Governing: But there are those in our society angry that the Bill of Rights is uniformly applied throughout the United States. They rankle at the idea that the national government would tell people whether they can have the Ten Commandments on their courthouse lawn. Their grievance is precisely that they don’t want to adhere to the 14th Amendment.
David French: Each side of our political divide is struggling with illiberalism right now. You have left liberalism and left authoritarianism, and you have right liberalism and right authoritarianism. For this vision to work, you have to fend off the authoritarians. You have to fend off those who question the classical liberal doctrines of the American founding. You’re embracing a particular ideology of classical liberalism that facilitates pluralism in a land of liberty. There are people who don’t like that, and then there are people who are so blinded by negative polarization that they can’t even think. A victory by a progressive anywhere is a threat to conservatives everywhere. We have to get rid of that mindset.
The defense of small L liberalism, classical liberalism, is one of the central tasks of our time, and the necessity for that defense is realigning our political tribes. Right and left liberals have far more in common with each other than they have with the authoritarians on their own sides. My book is a clarion call to remember what classical liberalism is, and to remember what pluralism is. Pluralism means that sometimes your political opponents get what they want. If you try to create a country where they never get what they want, you won’t succeed. And you’ll rip this place apart.
Governing: You can’t enforce the bringing down of partisanship and political temper. It has to come from the hearts or the good sense of the people. Do you see any positive signs towards reconciliation?
David French: You’ve got to have a change in heart. It could happen spontaneously in a critical mass of Americans. That’s pretty dubious, but there are an increasing number of Americans who are alarmed about our present course and the level of polarization. I know multiple groups that are working at the grass-roots level to try to bring competing ideological factions together. It’s starting small, but there are a lot of smart people with big platforms who are really worried about this. There are points of light throughout, but we can’t underestimate the power of leadership. One of the problems that we’ve had over the past four years is that the occupant in the White House has been deeply and intentionally cruel and divisive. One thing that does give me hope is that the American people have a history of taking a hard turn away from previous trends.
Governing: Do you agree with those who think that the radical secularization of American life in media, in pop culture, in the law, in our academies, is a meaningful reason for our decline?
David French: I question the word “decline.” I think it’s a meaningful reason for our polarization. By many social measures, America’s not in decline. Divorce rates are going down, illegitimate births are going down. The abortion rate is going down according to a lot of measures of social health. The crime rate is still pretty low after highs 30 years ago. There are things that are worse than they should be. It’s mixed, but in many ways, the overall picture is positive.
We’re more divided. People don’t feel like the nation is moving in the right direction. And it’s all compounded by the pandemic. America was built from the ground up to withstand dramatic religious differences. If you look back to the founding, the Eastern Seaboard was populated by all the major theological strands of the wars of religion. It was far from guaranteed that Puritans and Anglicans and Catholics and Quakers could live together in one country. In fact, there was lots of precedent that said it was not possible. We were built to live across big religious differences with multiple religious communities flourishing and thriving. But it requires a level of tolerance that is elusive in this time of negative polarization.
Governing: You sound like a man of the Enlightenment. You sound eminently rational, centrist. There’s a high level of tolerance in you, a willingness to concede that there are going to be fundamental divides. You’re not out there attacking Biden as a socialist who’s going to destroy America. You seem to be a deeply enlightened human being who’s maybe rethinking his identity.
David French: I am not a Republican anymore. In the first chapter of the book, I chronicle my move from the partisan world and the partisan mind. I have not changed in my commitment to classical liberalism. I’ve not changed in my commitment to civil liberties. What has changed is my perspective on the perils of partisanship. I have a new respect for the value of pluralism. And I have less certainty about any given ideological program as being the definitive solution to long-term, intractable American problems.
That’s one of the reasons why I encourage Christian young people to shed the partisan mind. I’m pro-life, anti-racist, pro-immigrant, and I love free speech. What party do I belong to? There is no party. I’m trying to sell them on embracing that. What ends up happening when you fall into the partisan mind is that years later, you’ll find yourself defending things you don’t really care about, all for the sake of making a difference in the things that you do care about. You do it for the sake of the coalitional allegiances that are necessary in party politics. I question the value of that.
You can hear more of Clay Jenkinson’s views on American history and the humanities on his long-running nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, “The Thomas Jefferson Hour,” and the new Governing podcast, “The Future in Context.”