'Scary': how the American South is punishing 'crimes of thought' and restricting 'freedom of movement'
Trump supporter holds a Confederate flag outside the Senate Chamber. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP)

The US isn’t one country. The more we believe it is, the less sense our politics makes. By insisting on “the truth” when the truth is diametric from “the truth,” we end up doing a helluva lot more work. We end up doing all kinds of mental acrobatics to make sure “the truth” is true.

Once we drop the idea of America being one country, things make more sense. We do less work, too, because on seeing the US isn’t one country, the source of our problems – our national problems – becomes clearer. That source is the politics of the American south.

Quarantine self isolation. Pandemic anxiety. Social distancing. Textured art portrait of bored unhappy annoyed trapped woman in black touching plastic bubble wrap wall in darkness.

There we find the reason the US isn’t one country. The states making up that region don’t want it to be. They have instead committed themselves to a wholly imagined confederacy of the mind and spirit, a fictional subnation inside a factual nation in which “real Americans” fight to restore God’s country to its rightful “constitutional” origins.

While the rest of America is animated by the principles of democracy and union, the south (and its interested and ideological allies spread around 50 states) is animated by the goals of division and control. If the south can’t control the machinery of the federal government, as it has since the beginning, the south declares itself a victim of tyranny.

I think the central tension of our history has been between Americans willing to sacrifice for the greater good and Americans eager to kill themselves to prevent sacrificing anything to anyone who’s “against them.” Democracy isn’t what we think it is. It’s not a tool of a sovereign people to effectuate self-rule. It’s a tool of the few to rule the many.

The south is the source of national division for another reason. Its loyalty to the United States as a union of states is conditional. It depends on the south maintaining its grip on the machinery of the federal government. If and when challenged, the south reserves the right to mutiny. Its social contract includes a “treason option.”

Secession before the Civil War is an obvious example. Less well known are negotiations between the Confederate States of America and foreign leaders who dithered long enough for the choice to be clear. Less understood, too, is the relationship, direct and indirect, between Russia and the Republican Party, the American south’s dominant party.

That relationship ranges in degree from passively allowing Russian operatives to sabotage a Democratic candidate for president to coordinating to spread the Big Lie (thus seeding the ground for a failed coup d’etat) to cheering in unison its invasion of democratic Ukraine.

There does exist a Trump-Putin axis in the Republican Party, as Jamie Raskin said. But obscuring that reality for most Americans, I think, is their belief in America being one country. Treason can’t be optional for some Americans. It just can’t be. That would mean “the truth” isn’t true.

The last reason the American south is why we can’t have nice things is this: the states in that region are acting like they are sovereign nations, as if reifying a wholly imagined confederacy of the mind and spirit, as if finally putting into practice the dream of restoring America’s origins.

Tennessee, Missouri and others have nullified federal gun laws. Mississippi, Florida and others have nearly totally outlawed access to abortion. Texas is now doing its own border security and immigration enforcement. Next is regulating the free movement of citizens.

Missouri and Texas are debating bills to restrict out-of-state travel of pregnant people seeking abortions in states where access is legal.

Stopping nonwhite people from crossing the border and taking up residence, terrorizing nonwhite people already here at gunpoint, forcing white women to repopulate their states and preventing white women from traveling “abroad” – altogether these are the things nations do as they’re slouching toward a totalitarian future.

Only we’re not talking about nations.

We’re talking about states within a region within a nation that are acting like nations, thus belying the belief in America as one.

That states are now attempting to put limits on the right to free movement is only the latest in a series of violations of individual liberty. The trend will no doubt continue, as a GOP supermajority of the US Supreme Court decides increasingly that the rights of states to behave like sovereign nations overrules the rights of their people.

To learn more, I talked to professor of political science and contributor to the Editorial Board Elizabeth F. Cohen. She’s the author of Illegal: How America's Lawless Immigration Regime Threatens Us All. “If you can keep women you suspect are seeking abortions from crossing state lines,” she told me, “you can probably keep them from doing other things in public and interfere with their rights as citizens.”

Is freedom of movement as fundamental as freedom of speech?

Yes.

First, look at freedom of movement within a country. Seen that way, we find a lot of attention paid to the protection of freedom of movement. We also find that exceptions to the right to move freely are associated with other forms of political oppression.

For example, restrictions on the free movement of Black Americans was integral to Jim Crow. Sundown towns were towns in which Black people risked their lives being in public after sundown. Sharecroppers were not permitted to leave their land until debts were paid off.

In the former Soviet Union, internal restrictions on free movement were associated with attempts to centrally control the ethnic makeup of different republics making up the USSR. Needing permission to move around is a sign one has limited liberties of other sorts as well.

Also ask: Why do people move?

We’d find reasons to call the right fundamental.

They move to escape repression, to reunite with families, to exercise other rights and to sustain their and their loved one’s well-being.

It’s hard to say freedom of movement is not fundamental, even though that right is often overridden by claims of national sovereignty.

A legislator in Missouri has proposed a law forbidding pregnant people from leaving the state to get abortions. Can a state override a fundamental individual right in the interest of enforcing its laws?

At any other point in the previous, oh, say, 50 years or so, I would have said that attempts by a state government to restrict the freedom of movement rights of women who seek to engage in activities that are perfectly legal in another state would be instantly shot down.

After all, no one was blocking flights to Las Vegas to keep people from going there to gamble when gambling was largely illegal elsewhere.

We know teenagers under the legal drinking age in the US go abroad and drink alcohol. No one prevents them from leaving on this basis.

But I’m making no prediction of what any court will do in 2022.

Some say the proposed law in Missouri would encroach on the sovereignty of other states. But as you said, it's hard to predict.

The rights of free movement are not generally contested except in cases of restrictions placed on people that are associated with criminal convictions. People on parole or probation and minors are exceptions.

The Missouri bill isn't only to enforce bans on abortion. It's a ban on a thought crime, an attempt to punish "criminals" for crimes that haven’t yet been committed. It seems to me an articulation of what "conservatives" really want: a society unchanging and stuck in time.

Restricting the free movement rights of women is the first of other restrictions. If you can keep women you suspect are seeking abortions from crossing state lines, you can probably keep them from doing other things in public and interfere with their rights as citizens.

Expand on that, please.

If abortifacients [such as mifepristone or “the abortion pill”] can be mailed, can states interfere with women's mail? If a woman might seek Plan B, can she be placed under a curfew? If pregnant persons seek medical care, will their privacy be invaded? I could go on.

Does our discourse emphasize freedom of movement enough?

In general, I think Americans born in the US to US-born parents have no idea how unusual relative to the world the right of free movement is. But that is largely a statement about visa-free travel abroad.

In the US, I think people of color, particularly Black Americans who are the target of civilian and law enforcement violence, and nonwhite immigrants (especially people in mixed-status families or without authorization to be in the US), understand how important the right of free movement is. They cannot travel freely without worry.

That brings me to immigrants. Restricting immigrants' freedom of movement has long been considered legit. Is there a link between what we do to foreigners and what state lawmakers want to do?

This was the subject of my first book.

Many people who never have to encounter threats to their rights view the idea of citizenship as binary – either one is or is not a citizen.

But because the state can in some circumstances deny people some though not all rights associated with full membership in a society, there exist in fact semi-citizens in every liberal democracy.

If grounds exist for restricting the rights of one group of people, semi-citizens exist, full stop. That some people think, "Oh, that can't happen to me. I’m not like those people” means little in practice.

We know immigration enforcement targets citizens. They always have. Calling it unlawful doesn't change the fact it happens.

What happens to the most vulnerable members of society can happen to other members of that society. We see that in moves to denaturalize citizens when irregularities are found on their citizenship applications.

Right-wing politics began with Black people. Then brown-skinned immigrants. Now it’s women seeking abortions. It's like the politics of the border is colonizing the interior and expanding rapidly.

I don't think there is a progression from one to the other.

There have been different kinds of success for the right recently. But the political movements were there all along, working away.

I think the success the right has seen recently is absolutely progress for the right. While the movement itself is shifting focus, I think the sexism, the nativism and the racism - all of it was there all along.

Is this debate over the right to free movement more fundamentally about the difference between being a citizen and being a subject?

I would argue yes.

Everyone in the crosshairs of the right has to fight for full citizenship in the US. The right is trying to claw many of those rights back. It’s the distinction between full citizenship and partial citizenship – a full set of fundamental rights compared to a partial set of partial rights.

What do normal people need to understand about the right to the freedom of movement that they are not now understanding?

Exit is one of our last resorts when governments fail us.

If we imperil the right of exit, we lose the bulwark against oppression.

If someone doesn't find that scary, they probably are assuming this does not apply to them. But repression doesn't work that way.

It starts small and ramps up incrementally.

What might look distant and impossible right now is actually much more proximate and plausible than many people wish to realize.