How many states will we have in the Union in twenty years? Probably 50, but there’s an outside chance that the number will be 55 plus. That could include a split of upstate New York from New York City, downstate Illinois from Chicagoland, eastern from western Washington State, eastern from western Oregon (or eastern Oregon combining with Idaho), and a division of California into as many as six states, as one proposal has it. There are secessionist movements alive in all of those states and it has happened before, as Glenn Reynolds notes in his recent paper “Splitsylvania: State Secession and What to Do About It“.
The origins of state boundaries and state governments were probably based on combinations of natural geographic features and confluent economic and political interests existing at the time. It would be surprising if those factors remained in static alignment over time, however. For various reasons, West Virginia seceded from Virginia many years ago, and Tennessee was once part of North Carolina. But to the extent that interests diverge within states, would a series of secessions promote better representative government? Reynolds’ approach to this question is fairly even-handed, though he apparently leans toward less disruptive solutions to the kinds of grievances voiced by secessionists.
Secession is a complex process; it obviously involves a major task in establishing a new state governmental apparatus. Also, legislative roadblocks to secession movements exist at both the state and federal levels. Nevertheless, there is great disaffection among rural interests in the states mentioned above for the policies they say are forced upon them by “urban elites”, as Reynolds calls them. At present, the secession of rural areas would tend to benefit republicans at the federal level, as two new Senate seats would be created to offset the seats held by democrats elected in more urban areas. Conceivably, however, the same process could work in reverse in other states, such as Texas. Even the proposal for six Californias seems designed to at least neutralize any possible negative impact on democrats in national politics.
Reynolds’ paper outline a few ways in which interests represented by legislative minorities, such as rural populations, could be better served without a step so drastic as secession. State regulation is often what rankles secessionists. To add fuel to the fire, states are free to adopt rules that are more strict than rules established under federal legislation, if they so choose, but never rules that are less strict. Today this applies to wages, working conditions, gun regulation, and environmental law. Reynolds suggests turning this on its head:
“The federal government’s legislative role has traditionally been the opposite: To use (as in the case of the 1964 Civil Rights Act) a national majority to ensure that local majorities can’t oppress local minorities. I thus suggest that federal laws regulating these key subject-matter areas be recast to pre-empt more restrictive state laws, meaning that urban regions would be unable to impose stricter laws on less- powerful rural areas. If this seems too inflexible, perhaps that pre-emption should in some cases be defeasible at the county level; if the government of a county affirmatively wants to accept stricter state regulations, then it may do so, but if not, then the federal regulations are a ceiling, as well as a floor.”
Reynolds contends that this approach would be relatively easy to defend against state challenges. The idea that federal rules provide minimum standards of regulation is only one interpretation of the Supremacy Clause of Article VI of the Constitution. There is no reason why federal legislation cannot be written in the way Reynolds describes. Moreover, Reynolds asserts that the Guarantee Clause of Article IV, which assures that mandates are to be established according to republican principles, could be used to buttress this argument. But he offers another remedy to curb secessionism among rural voters that states could exercise:
“There is nothing to stop a state from being mindful of the differences between urban and rural areas when crafting legislation or regulations, after all. States could adopt a local-option regulatory scheme relating to key subject areas on their own, and by doing so would lighten their footprint in rural areas and lessen the likelihood of festering resentments.”
Perhaps that’s hoping for too much. State majorities are unlikely to cede power to rural minorities, but it’s nice to imagine that sort of cooperation. There is no question that this sort of state regulatory approach would protect local interests from the tyranny of one-size-fits-all state regulation, but it wouldn’t eliminate the burdens created by the standard interpretation of federal supremacy.
In general, federal preemption of stricter state laws is no less consistent with the principles of federalism than federal pre-emption of more lenient state laws. One could even argue that the best way to apply federal supremacy depends on the issue, so there is some symmetry in Reynolds’ proposal. In terms of representative democracy, it is less an evil than federal preemption of less restrictive laws. It does what a democratic republic is supposed to do: protect minorities from the tyranny of a majority.
Secession from states is an intriguing possibility. Perhaps it is even the best approach in some cases. Nevertheless, Reynolds’ suggestions for revising federal and state regulatory approaches would be less costly and would avoid a nationwide race to subdivide states in order to gain a federal political advantage.