Bad Idea or Worst Idea?
The idea of a ‘national divorce’ – a parting of ‘red’ and ‘blue’ states into separate national agglomerations – has been floating around the conservative ecosystem recently, especially on the fringes of the too-online far-right. This idea has bubbled up several times over the past decades on both sides of the aisle – usually when a preferred presidential candidate loses an election. From the 2004 election spawning ‘Jesusland’ versus ‘United States of Canada’ maps, to the radical right-wingers pushing secession after the re-election of Barack Obama in 2012, to the talk of ‘Calexit’ just days after the shock 2016 victory of Donald Trump, secession memes have been rife in 21st century American politics.
As our culture becomes more intensely partisan, partially driven by the virality of social media, this old idea has recurred more frequently than before, each time with a greater animosity and a broader appeal. Now, these online fantasies have found their way into Congress, with Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene espousing the idea repeatedly. For Greene, a Republican from Georgia, ‘national divorce’ is a serious potential solution to “the sick and disgusting woke culture issues shoved down our throats to the Democrat’s [sic] traitorous America Last policies,” among other ‘evils’. That a sitting Congresswoman said this publicly is egregious, but it lends an air of seriousness to the idea that it had not yet obtained. In that sense, it must be taken seriously.
So, is ‘national divorce’ a reasonable idea? Perhaps <gasp> even a good one?
No, of course it isn’t. Let us count the ways.
First off, we need to deal with the actual (in)ability for states to secede from the Union. Leaving aside that whole kerfuffle in the middle of the 1800s for a moment, is secession even legal under the laws of the United States? The answer to that question is a resounding no. In fact, the forbidden nature of secession goes back to our very foundation as a nation and our earliest governing documents. The Articles of Confederation, written largely by the deeply underrated Founding Father John Dickinson and ratified in the midst of the Revolutionary War, is both the first mention of the ‘United States of America’ and of secession. In that 1777 document, which governed the nation from 1781 to 1789, the process for adding states is delineated, while the idea of removing states is conspicuously absent. More importantly, in the very first paragraph the nation is described as “a perpetual Union between the States.”
What about the Constitution? There is no explicit or implicit right of secession from the Union present within the text of the Constitution. As with the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution explains how states are to be added, but does not once mention how states can leave the Union. The text explicitly forbids the formation of new states within current states, as well as addressing the idea of combining states. One would think that secession would be mentioned here if it was intended as possibility, but it is not. In the run-up to the Civil War, even sympathizers with the Southern cause were well aware of secession’s unconstitutional nature. This was confirmed by the arms of the Union in smashing the Confederate slaveocracy, but also by the Supreme Court during Reconstruction. In the 1869 case Texas v. White, the Court ruled that the Constitution forbade states from unilaterally seceding from the Union, nullifying the laws and regulations passed under the guise of the Confederacy. That decision is still law.
“Fine,” the proponents of ‘national divorce’ may say, “but let’s just imagine it was constitutional. What would you say then?”
In that case, the argument against the folly of ‘national divorce’ is even stronger than it was when the ego of the South tempted it to its own destruction.
In 1860, the battle lines that were drawn actually worked on a map; slavery and secessionism was mostly confined to the South, a fact recognized by laws like the Missouri Compromise of 1820. The Mason-Dixon line, forming the borders of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, and West Virginia (then part of Virginia), was the informal dividing line between North and South, and was the locus of some of the Civil War’s bloodiest battles. Territorially, both Union and Confederacy were integrated bodies. Today, ‘red’ and ‘blue’ states are scattered across the electoral map. The potential ‘Democrat’ nation would be split along the United States’ two coasts, while states like Illinois and Colorado could be fairly isolated in a sea of red.
Political polarization is also far stronger internally within states than it was in 1860. The rural/urban political divide is stark and getting starker, with broader separation between rural and urban voters than ever before. That means that even blood-red states like Texas would have massive pockets of blue in major cities like Dallas, Houston, and Austin. Deep-blue California and New York would have strong bastions of resistance in their rural regions, isolating the cities. Few states would be untouched by this internal division. That is no recipe for an amicable separation.
Another factor complicating a tidy ‘national divorce’ is the shifting nature of American political coalitions. In the last century, we have seen states considered as automatically Democratic or Republican switch places and find themselves just as reliable for their new faction. The Deep South was a bulwark for Democrats for over a century, and then it wasn’t. The Northeast was the home of Republicanism, until it became solidly Democratic. We saw massive landslide elections in 1936, 1964, 1972, and 1984 – two for each party. Before 2016, Pennsylvania was considered an integral part of the ‘Blue Wall’ which would guarantee Democratic Electoral College success; we all saw how well that turned out. Since 2016, there has been talk of a broader realignment of the parties in terms of their voters, with Republicans earning more working class support and Democrats dominating among wealthy college graduates. American politics is not a stable, predictable thing. This precludes any sort of lasting ‘national divorce’, and would render such an attempt futile within decades.
Back to our proponent of ‘national divorce’: “Well, pretend that there was a stable geographical and ideological split. Why wouldn’t it work then?”
This question seems to be completely absurd and a caricature of the position, but I promise you that it isn’t. One of my (least) favorite pundits, Jesse Kelly, posted the tweet below, implying that a ‘national divorce’ wouldn’t be so bad because, you see, European borders have changed. Jeez, read a book!
Where to start with this? Besides the fact of our own Civil War – still the deadliest conflict in our long history of warfare, despite its less lethal weaponry – the history of Europe which Mr. Kelly trots out disproves his point. He points to maps of Europe in 1000AD and a millennia later to show that national borders in Europe have shifted and that this is perfectly normal in history. On this point, he is correct. The problem arises when one looks at what happened to shift those political borders. Over that period of nearly constant European warfare, tens of millions of people were killed, often for no lasting change whatsoever. The internecine warfare devastated Europe’s populations over and over again, spreading famine, pestilence, and plague in its wake.
Even in places where borders seem stable, like France and Poland, the death toll was staggering. France’s expansion over the millennia-plus from Charlemagne to Chirac may not be territorially huge, but it involved the greatest wars of the age, from the Wars of Religion and the Napoleonic Wars, to the World Wars and everything in between. Poland was wiped off the map several times in that period, by nearly every neighbor it had. The Balkans are so violently polarized that the term ‘Balkanization’ was invented to describe the concept. These European partings were less like the “conscious uncoupling” of Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin and more like the separation of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn.
A ‘national divorce’ in the American context would be entirely unconstitutional, absurdly impractical, and extremely violent. Not only is it ridiculous to suggest such a remedy for our fleeting partisan brouhahas, it is deeply unpatriotic to do so. For people who consider themselves the biggest patriots in the land, it is quite hypocritical – as is the promotion of a ‘national divorce’ while the same folks decry marital divorce.
The solution to the rancor which sickens our federal politics is simple: less of it. Our constitutional system was built on the concept of federalism: each state and locality should rightfully control the issues which they deal with regularly, while leaving truly national issues to the federal government. That means that the federal government should focus specifically on its mission-critical tasks – national defense, immigration, trade, and interstate commerce narrowly defined. Partisans on the left and the right need to stop trying to cram their ideologies down the throats of their foes; ‘owning the libs’ or its reverse are not governing strategies. Let a thousand flowers bloom; live and let live; to each his own. This is the American way.
‘National divorce’ is unnecessary when the solution of sleeping in separate bedrooms is right in front of our eyes.