In this age when the foundational idea of American federalism has become all but defunct and the concept of states’ rights still has the whiff of Jim Crow about it, it is difficult to see how either individual states or regions can have any significant influence on the federal government—even if they had legislatures interested, courageous, or willing enough to assert those positions.

The powers of the states became increasingly atrophied over the 20th century, and the Tenth Amendment was all but shredded.  From 1938 to 1995, the U.S. Supreme Court did not once put down any federal statute as exceeding federal power, and though the Rehnquist Court did uphold state statutes in a half-dozen minor cases (e.g., United States v. Lopez, saying hate crimes do not fall under the Commerce Clause), the thrust of the law was largely on the side of federal intervention and regulation.

The Court has issued two contradictory rulings quite recently on the right of states to make laws different from those of the national government.  In Gonzales v. Raich, it struck down California’s medical-marijuana laws, arguing that the Controlled Substances Act, which was passed by 528 people in Congress, trumped California’s Proposition 215, which was endorsed by 5,382,915 people.  But then, in Gonzales v. Oregon, it allowed the state of Oregon to go ahead with its assisted-suicide law, with the Court liberals outvoting Roberts, Thomas, and Scalia on the grounds that Oregon’s suicide drugs were legal and, thus, the feds had no proper role in deciding how they can be used.  It did, however, reaffirm Washington’s right to use the Controlled Substances Act to decide which drugs are legal and which are illegal.

In recent years, a number of issues have sparked debate over the states’ power to go their own way—the death penalty, “gay marriage,” predatory lending, affirmative action, even gas mileage.  In 2002, California passed a law setting limits on greenhouse-gas emissions and highway mileage, and, eventually, ten other states followed suit.  But time after time, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Traffic Safety Administration refused to allow the law to take effect or to pressure auto makers to change their gas guzzlers.  Lawsuits were filed this year, but the feds clearly intend to fight them up to the Supreme Court, which, with Chief Justice John Roberts in charge, will most likely agree that laws on gas mileage and emissions are federal, not state, matters.

Even if the states should win this one, it would be further evidence that, in order to have their own laws and regulations take force, states have to fight lengthy and expensive battles against the federal government—when the ability of a state to decide its own policies should be a normal and natural part of civil government and readily accepted by Washington.  Instead, the increasingly centralizing national government has used the ever-flexible Commerce Clause to nullify and bury the Tenth Amendment and to see to it both that the powers not delegated to the United States are virtually nonexistent and that those powers that are reserved to the states are minimal.

All of this suggests that, if the states wish to set their own courses and act in the best interest of their citizens, they had better think about going their own way and declaring independence.  The national government does not have their particular interests at heart, has shown itself to be beholden to corporate interests, has demonstrated its inability to respond to crises at the state level, and has enshrined itself as an imperial power, laying waste to the republic just as the earlier empire of Rome supplanted its republic.  The only sensible solution, then, if democracy is to be restored and citizens are to be entitled to govern themselves as they wish, is secession.

It will take some time for the idea to take hold: At the moment, most people probably figure that secession is unconstitutional, illegal, and as futile now as it was the last time it was seriously tried.  It will take the deliberate reeducation of citizens to gain their support, by proving that there is nothing in the Constitution that forbids secession (indeed, it is not even mentioned), that there is no law against it, that the original War of Independence was a war of secession, that peaceful secession has worked before in our history (Maine from Massachusetts, Kentucky from Virginia, Tennessee from North Carolina), and that President Lincoln had to break a great many laws and suspend the Constitution (not to mention sacrifice many lives) to make it unsuccessful the last time.

If the prospect began to seem reasonable and legitimate, it would not take long for it to become desirable.  That way, if the voters so decided, California could have its medical marijuana and gas controls; South Carolina could have its Ten Commandments in the courthouse; Vermont could have its “gay marriage”; Minnesota, its assisted suicide; New York, its gun control; Louisiana, its abortion ban; and so on.  Secession would simply come before the state legislature; both houses would pass it with big majorities; and the governor would send a letter to the U.S. secretary of state saying that the state is now independent and would be pleased to have diplomatic relations with Washington.

Or how about this scenario: Governor Schwarzenegger puts before the California legislature a plan to declare the federal law against medical marijuana null and void in his state and the Supreme Court decision inoperable.  The legislature votes overwhelmingly for the measure—nullification is, after all, an old American tradition, endorsed and expressed by Jefferson and Madison, among others.  The federal government sues, and, realizing that the state would almost surely lose in the Supreme Court, California decides that the only way to get its way is secession.  An independent California, the sixth-most-powerful economy in the world, offers to sit down with the United States and negotiate terms of settlement on federal property, bases, offices, and parks.  It quickly dispatches ambassadors to Norway, Belgium, Luxemburg, Slovenia, the four states of the former Yugoslavia, the fifteen states of the former Soviet Union, Ireland, New Zealand, Switzerland, and Finland—all of which came into existence through secession.  They immediately issue notices of support for the new California, with strong implications that they would look unfavorably on any attempt to thwart the will of the people through armed repression by Washington.  And Schwarzenegger becomes president, because there is nothing in the California state constitution disqualifying him for being foreign-born.

All right, it does seem a little farfetched at this point.  But who in, say, 1985 would have predicted that the people of East Germany would throw off communism and the Soviet Union would disintegrate?  And, if anything can be said to be a trend of the postwar world, during which the United Nations has grown from 51 to 193 nations and five large empires have collapsed, it is separatism in the largest sense.

If the medical-marijuana issue seems too minor to stir a state to seek nullification and secession, the same might not be said of California’s tailpipe-emissions laws as global heating increases, of its solar-power tax breaks as peak oil comes on, of its repeal of No Child Left Behind as federal interference becomes onerous, of its recalling of its National Guard as the Iraq quagmire puts insufferable burdens on local communities and economies.  Or, put another way, if the kinds of crises that are likely to accumulate in the near future cause the kinds of disruptions that are being predicted, we have no reason to suppose that an inept, corrupt, beholden, and autocratic national government would be able to respond adequately.  Think of peak oil and sky-high gas prices making global and long-distance transportation prohibitive; rising sea levels overwhelming small islands and coastal cities; droughts and desertification and uncontainable forest fires; severe weather, including high-category hurricanes; avian flu or other new diseases turning pandemic; a declining dollar becoming worthless as China and the Middle East reinvest in the euro; the credit and housing disasters leading to banking failures, stock-market collapse, severe recession, or depression—just for starters.  Given Washington’s track record, wouldn’t any sensible state want to pass laws and create institutions of its own in order to avoid the sort of disaster that dependence on the federal government would bring if another Katrina hit?  Would they care if those laws violated those of the United States?  And if Washington objected, wouldn’t secession become a natural and even popular way to go?

Failing to influence a federal government that is negligent of, and hostile to, state and regional power, that has overridden the spirit and purpose of the Tenth Amendment, and that has shown itself incapable of waging wars abroad or caring for its citizens at home, the states of America should begin a serious process of deciding where their best interests lie and determining the best ways to assure safety and prosperity for their citizens and their lands.

It is best to start thinking about that now.