a sculpture of a map of the united states using concrete, it's split in two and is crumbling apart

State of Disunion

Divisions in America Are Even Worse Than You Thought


With GOP determined to obstruct for obstruction's sake, and Democrats determined to play by the rules, we may be witnessing the end of the American experiment.



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Since the January 6th insurrection, there has been an increasing number of high-profile right-wing voices giving credence to the idea that secession is on the table. Conservative radio talk-show host Dennis Prager (of Prager U videos), conservative podcaster Steven Crowder, the Claremont Institute’s Ryan Williams, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) have all talked about how violent civil war and secession (or, national divorce) may be necessary to save America. The GOP base predictably laps it up and regurgitates it like a dog with a rancid Chick-Fil-A sandwich left out on the counter for several days.

They imagine that it will look like January 6th, but with more guns: proud patriots storming the halls of state legislatures to prevent Democrats from “stealing” elections and establishing tyranny. Their fears of what would happen if Democrats ran things are generally unrealistic. There’s no one coming to take their guns, and no one’s teaching Critical Race Theory (CRT) in schools. While they’re terrified of Democrats packing the courts, passing universal health care, or declaring there are 57 genders on passports, in reality Democrats can barely scrape together enough unity to (maybe) pass an infrastructure bill through the reconciliation process.

What’s far more realistic is that after 2024, Republicans will control all three branches of government for at least a generation, and maybe longer. While there, they have made it clear that they intend to tilt the electoral playing field in their favor as far as possible through gerrymandering, voter suppression, and putting partisan election officials in place to overturn any election results they don’t like.

Once they are in a position where they effectively cannot be removed from office, the GOP will attempt to reshape the country in the image of their white, Southern conservative Christian base. The court will tilt 7-2 conservative by 2026. Roe v. Wade is toast, and they will likely ban abortion nation-wide after 2024 when they retake all three branches and end the filibuster. They yearn to end separation of church and state. They would love to condition federal funding for education on things like eliminating gender studies departments, forbidding discussions of race, and banning trans students from using bathrooms or playing sports. Even same-sex marriage is likely to fall before 2028 with another Federalist Society justice replacing Breyer, and they would love to bring back “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” after they inevitably re-ban transgender people.

Thus, the GOP, and Trump, are likely to govern in a way meant to bring blue states to heel with lots of sticks, but no real carrots. During Trump’s last year in office and in the throes of the pandemic, the attitude of the White House toward California was essentially, “Screw them, they won’t vote for me anyway.” And there’s nothing to suggest a second Trump term would be different. They intend to make blue states accept the unacceptable. Similarly, they see Democratic attempts to build a society where abortion is legal, diversity is protected, and LGBT people protected as a bridge too far.

Thus, when conservatives fantasize about the glory of secession and civil war, it’s like a beer-swilling high-school dropout looking at porn on the internet, imagining about leaving their wife for the hot porn star on the other side of the LCD screen. They lack the self-awareness to realize they’re never going to get their fantasy, and that their wife is about ready to leave them anyway. Nor do they have the capacity to think about what happens to them if she does take the kids to go live with her parents for a while.

In a two-party system like the U.S., the arrangement is something like a marriage. Both sides need to communicate, act in good faith, and follow the unwritten rules of a marriage. There is supposed to be compromise, as well as trust that the other won’t ruthlessly exploit the other. It’s supposed to be a partnership where even if there is disagreement, both sides follow the overarching premise of doing what’s best for them as a whole.

Most adults know a bad marriage when they see one: the nonexistent communication or simply screaming past each other. Violence. Fighting over the kids, religion, and money.  Untreated mental illness. Malicious compliance and even open cheating. Spouses who are over-controlling, domineering, and expect to rule the household by fiat and terror. Living in separate houses, and the distance between them growing. An increasing sense by both parties that they’d be better off without each other.

Any one of these things is usually a sign that a relationship is in deep trouble. If a marriage counselor met a couple with all of these at once, they’d likely recommend immediate separation with the ultimate intention of divorce and both sides moving on. This theoretical counselor would probably assess these differences as “irreconcilable,” suggesting  a goal to avoid bloodshed, and not even bother to salvage the situation.

This is an apt metaphor for the U.S. today. The differences between red and blue are only getting worse by the day, and no one has shown a plausible way to bridge these gaps. The only thing holding it together is that one side (Democrats) still wants to pretend that the marriage is salvageable, and that Republicans will come to their senses. The GOP is hanging on because they need the money Democrats bring in, and they love to dominate the relationship. Indeed, the recent Ted Cruz quotes highlight that the primary reason they’re willing to stick around for a bit is that they believe they can eventually control the rest of the country.

The result is a relationship that is as dysfunctional as it was in 1860. Let’s look at these issues individually:

  1.       Neither party trusts each other’s motivations.

Republicans generally believe that Democrats are actively and deliberately trying to destroy the country. When Republicans were asked if citizens vote Democratic because they sincerely believe it’s what’s best for the country, only 27% of Republicans believe most or all of them do. When Democrats were asked the same questions about Republicans, 42% answered in the affirmative. Democrats are more likely to entertain the notion that Republicans are ignorant or misguided, rather than malicious. Which brings us to point No. 2.

  1.       Republicans and Democrats each believe the other is evil.

Polarization in the U.S. has reached a point where hatred of the other side is more powerful than affection for one’s own party. They view one another as  somewhere between despicable and evil. Eighty percent of Democrats think the Republican Party has been taken over by racists. (There’s some merit to this, given the body of data showing that animus towards Black people, immigrants, Muslims, and LGBT people is strongly predictive of voting for Trump.)

Similarly, 82% of Republicans believe the Democratic Party has been taken over by “socialists.” Given how hard the GOP has been flogging the narrative that everything is socialism, communism, or Marxism, this won’t change anytime soon.

  1.       They already live in separate houses.

Republicans and Democrats don’t just lead separate social lives online and in real life, they physically live in separate areas, and it’s getting worse. Cities have been Democratic enclaves for decades, but now the suburbs are increasingly blue. Rural areas are also increasingly bastions of Trumpism. The result is a rural-urban divide that’s getting worse, and ensures that both sides drift further and further apart as they no longer interact with members of the other party.

2016 Election Results by Precinct

 

  1. The wife makes more money.

It freaks men out when their wives make more than they do. It also increases the risk of divorce when wives can walk away from a marriage because they are financially independent. In the U.S., counties that Joe Biden won produce 70% of the nation’s GDP.  Blue states pay the lion’s share of federal taxes, while red states receive a disproportionate share of federal outlays. The result is, generally, blue states get less financially out of the system than they put into it. Red states are also much more reliant on federal outlays for their state-level budgets than blue states. If the U.S. were to fracture, red states would suffer more financially.

  1. They’re fighting over raising the kids.

Incoming Virginia governor Glenn Youngkin successfully ran his fear-mongering campaign on school-related issues, railing against critical race theory (which few if any of his voters can define), mask mandates, vaccine requirements (for any disease), and trans youth. In Ohio, Josh Mandel and JD Vance are running for retiring incumbent Sen. Rob Portman’s (R-OH) seat,  vying with each other to establish who is most committed to ending separation of church and state by bringing back mandatory prayer in schools. The GOP is using Youngkin’s campaign as a blueprint for their playbook going forward.

Functionally, such policies mean teachers are afraid to discuss anything relating to LGBT issues or race in U.S. history, or banning books like the award-winning Beloved, by Nobelist Toni Morrison. They’re also going to do everything they can to overturn Engel v. Vitale (1962) to bring back school prayers. With a 7-2 Supreme Court, they will succeed eventually.

  1. The GOP is cheating and they don’t care if they get caught.

Extramarital affairs are one of the most common causes of divorce. For a marriage to succeed, there usually are a set of unwritten ground rules that both sides must follow in order for there to be mutual trust and cooperation, like don’t schtup the pool boy. Similarly, for democracy to work, both sides have to play the democracy game, wherein both sides buttress the soft guardrails of democracy by engaging in mutual toleration and institutional forbearance.

Lately, the GOP has been saying the quiet part out loud with the January 6th insurrection, with prominent conservatives declaring that over half of Americans aren’t really American, and their think tanks proclaiming that they need to end democracy as we know it for a “generation or two” to get what they really want out of the relationship. This is the equivalent of a husband breaking out a picture of his mistress, masturbating to it, and declaring that “we’ll be together as soon as I get rid of the old one,” while his current spouse is awake in bed next to him.

  1. Both are increasingly ready to call it quits because they know it isn’t working

Seventy-two percent of Americans believe that the US is no longer a model for democracy. This leaves them open to radical changes, whether it be authoritarianism, or secession. We can see conservatives being very public and vocal that violent civil war or secession will become necessary if they don’t get their way. What is buried in the data is that Democrats in blue states are nearly as ready to call it quits, even when Democrats (temporarily) control all three branches of government. Based on polling data from a YouGov poll, 66% of Southern Republicans are ready for their state to leave the U.S. Shockingly, 47% of West Coast Democrats and 39% of Northeast Democrats are ready to call it quits as well. These figures are even worse than a similar poll conducted in February of 2021. Desire for secession and formation of regional unions among all three groups has risen significantly in a relatively short period of time.

It is worth noting that the minority parties throughout the U.S. are the most opposed to secession because they recognize that the result would be unacceptable to them. Black people, LGBT people, and others in the South would be at the mercy of their traditional oppressors with no hope of help from the federal government. Conservatives in the West would have to serve gays wedding cakes, hear about racism and LGBT people in history classes, and stop open-carrying their AR-15s to Starbucks, I guess. Either way, both find these outcomes intolerable.

 

  1. Domestic violence.

The January 6th insurrection should have been a wake-up call to the rest of America, for the GOP base violence was now firmly on the table to get their way. In the aftermath, rather than forswearing violence, the GOP has either tried to excuse or downplay it. Democrats had it coming, it was really Antifa, the reaction was understandable, the violence wasn’t that bad, they rationalized. Most GOP representatives voted to give the mob exactly what they wanted. Conservative media has turned Ashli Babbitt into a new Horst Wessell and those imprisoned for the insurrection into political prisoners. Rather than contrition and promises of better behavior by the GOP, the message is “don’t make me hit you again.”

  1. Religion.

The GOP is a party dominated by conservative white Christians. A plurality are white evangelicals, followed by white Catholics, and then a shrinking pool of white Mainline Protestants. Mormons constitute a significant portion of the other faiths that identify as Republican.

Conversely, Democrats are a coalition party of secular people (“nones”), Black protestants, Catholics, Muslims, and a shrinking fraction of evangelicals. But, the nones form a plurality of the party, and are growing as a proportion every year. Conversely, the GOP is growing increasingly strident in their assertion that they will make America a Christian nation in their own image, regardless of the cost.

The Republican and Democratic visions for the country as it relates to religion are diametrically opposed and mutually exclusive: Either you have a country where a particular brand of fundamentalist religion is intertwined with a political party that is the basis for all law and policy, or you have a pluralistic society which creates equal space for people regardless of their religious beliefs.

If the GOP prevails in establishing effective theocracy, it’s unlikely that the left will be induced to commit violence the way the right has. However, it does seem inevitable that they would become even more willing to leave.

  1. Dad’s off his meds.

The GOP, and its base, has lost touch with reality. Republican former Virginia State Representative Denver Riggleman joked after he was ousted in a primary by a far-right challenger, “Something that used to be called the Grand Old Party now stands for ‘Grandpa’s on Peyote.’” The GOP base has fallen wholesale for QAnon, Ivermectin, Hydroxychloroquine, anti-vax misinformation, anti-mask hysteria, Jewish Space Lasers, while Dr. Seuss has been canceled, and they believe CRT is taught in schools and that trans kids are stealing your daughter’s scholarships, etc. It has become a party of rage zombies running around randomly to attack, kill, and eat whatever Tucker Carlson tells them to this week.

While the GOP invents reasons to say no to everything, and Sen. Ted Cruz jumps on the “Big Bird is a Communist” bandwagon for advocating vaccines for children. Democrats in Congress are still arguing actual policy details such as whether four or six weeks of paid family and medical leave is enough and if high-speed internet counts as infrastructure.

  1. Communication is impossible.

Republicans and Democrats no longer operate from an even remotely similar set of facts, so where do we even start? It doesn’t help that many “facts” to the GOP base are just misinformation, or worse, bugnuts crazy when one side’s highest priorities are conspiracy theories about Hunter Biden’s laptop, Doctor Fauci, and the “big lie” of a stolen 2020 election. Neither side can even agree on whether things are actually problems: The GOP doesn’t see gun violence in schools, climate change, racism, wealth inequality, voting rights, as problems. Democrats, for their part, have trouble discussing immigration because it is a complex issue, easy to demagogue (“they want open borders” is the rallying cry), and everyone loves nice, simple answers.

At some level, some Democrats still care what Republicans think, and fruitlessly try to negotiate with them, like Sen. Joe Manchin (R-WV), who claims to be trying to find votes for the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. But, at the end of the day, the GOP has no intention of listening ever again. Why bother, when all they have to do is wait a couple of years, control all three branches in perpetuity, and get to run things the way they always wanted to?

The United States is a house divided where both sides have grown so far apart that no viable path to reconciliation seems possible. When it comes to religion, education, science, culture there is no longer a common set of values or beliefs from which to build bridges. Nor would the Republican base even want to—they have reached the “unconditional surrender or death” phase of the movement.

The result is Balkanization happening right before our eyes. Both sides believe life would be way better without the other and see the terms, conditions, and compromises necessary to holding the marriage together as unacceptable. The GOP base will never accept a country where abortion remains legal in some states. The Democratic base will never find it acceptable for abortion to be banned throughout the nation. This pattern holds for nearly every major issue.

What neither side sees, however, is the chaos that a dissolution of the union would cause. It would make Brexit look like a gentleman’s handshake agreement to sell a used TV for $50 in terms of complexity. What about water rights? Nuclear weapons? Currency? Highways?  Electricity? Infrastructure? Commerce law? Extradition? Trade agreements? The military? Coast Guard? Transit right with landlocked states? Access to ports? Oil pipelines? Vehicle emissions standards? Corporations existing across different states? What about LGBT people and minorities desperately fleeing the newly established Republic of Gilead in the American South?

The turmoil of this happening in the world’s largest economy is staggering, and it has only one modern parallel: the collapse of the Soviet Union into many loosely aligned states. As an example of the human cost of this event, the life expectancy for Russian men plunged from 65 years at its peak in 1986, to 57 years in 1994, and has only recently recovered to pre-collapse levels. The government literally abandoned and forgot highly radioactive materials scattered about the region, to be accidentally found decades later by locals.  At the same time, oligarchs bought up assets for kopeks on the ruble, so to speak, resulting in some of the worst wealth inequality in the world, and the rise of Vladimir Putin.

The American experiment appears to be on its last legs, the various components of the country have less and less in common, while despising each other more and more. When the end comes for this sclerotic empire, what emerges will likely either be a corrupt competitive authoritarian state like Hungary, or a shambling wreck like the remnants of the Soviet Union in 1994.

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