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Secession and Federalism in the United States: Tools for Managing Regional Conflict in a Pluralist Society
Oregon Law Review (2017)
  • Erin Ryan
This Article explores the use of federalism and secession as tools for managing regional conflict within pluralist governance, drawing on underappreciated features of the American experience.  Epic struggles to balance autonomy with interdependence have taken on new urgency as dissatisfaction with globalization inspires political cataclysms unimaginable just a few years ago—including ‘Brexit’ from the European Union and American threats to leave NATO.  The same impetus toward devolution also surfaces in heated intra-national conflicts.  Recent calls for secession in Scotland, Catalonia, Québec, the Sudan, and even the United States reveal multiple political contexts in which questions have been raised about how best to balance competing claims for autonomy, interdependence, political voice, and exit. 
As devolution movements destabilize institutions once thought impenetrably secure, scholars around the globe are tapping the wisdom of the Westphalian (and post-Westphalian) world to better understand the available tools for managing these conflicts.  In support of that goal, this Article probes the American experience for lessons on managing endemic tensions between autonomy and interdependence in societies composed of different regional, cultural, and ideological sub-communities.  It explores American secession in contexts familiar and controversial, and it assesses the unique advantages of U.S. federalism for mediating opposing forces of political entropy, which operate to pull the component pieces of pluralist nations apart, and political gravity, which pull them together in pursuit of common goals. 
Beginning with a brief history of secession in the United States, Part I reviews the American experience of secession at both the subnational and national level, with special focus on the paradigmatic cases of the American Revolution and the American Civil War.  Both examples showcase deep regional tensions that can surface within a larger overall polity, reflecting the challenges of pluralist societies more generally.  The Southern states’ failed attempt to secede during the Civil War led to the formal disavowal of secession in the United States—leaving us to grapple with the meaning of what had already happened during the Revolutionary War, when the American colonies unilaterally separated from Great Britain. 
After considering the meaning of these wrenching moments in American history, Part II turns to our preferred means of mediating regional conflict, the institution of constitutional federalism.  By dividing sovereign authority between local and national levels of government, federalism creates multiple simultaneous forums for political contest, competition, and collaboration that have diffused regional tension through engaged multilevel governance.  Like all systems of federalism, the U.S. model cultivates the “sweet spot” between competing claims for local autonomy and national interdependence, allocating sovereign authority among levels of government where each best advances the overall goal.  The availability of nested political sites for regional expression, interjurisdictional innovation, and negotiated governance have helped fortify the American Union against conflicts that could encourage fragmentation. 
Part III acknowledges the aspirations and the limitations of the American model, and perhaps all federal systems, in coping with regional tension.  Federalism offers useful tools for navigating the opposing forces of political entropy and political gravity that operate in all pluralist societies, but it cannot solve all problems.  This part reflects on the challenges facing all federal unions, and the differences between the American model and alternative models that may be more appropriate for unions confronting more substantial regional diversity, or more entrenched regional conflict.  The chapter concludes with reflections on when secession is more and less justified by claims for autonomy and interdependence.
  • secession,
  • federalism,
  • regional conflict,
  • United States,
  • American Revolution,
  • U.S. Civil War,
  • Texas v. Smith,
  • dynamic federalism,
  • multilevel governance,
  • negotiated federalism,
  • South Sudan,
  • Scotland,
  • Quebec,
  • Catalonia,
  • European Union,
  • regional autonomy,
  • national interdependence,
  • conservative political theory,
  • pluralism,
  • Brexit
Publication Date
December, 2017
Citation Information
Erin Ryan, "Secession and Federalism in the United States: Tools for Managing Regional Conflict in a Pluralist Society," 96 OREGON L. REV. __ 2017.