On the national holiday when Americans honor Abraham Lincoln, the president who implored his countrymen to strive “with malice toward none” to “bind up the nation’s wounds,” Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia made headlines by calling for a permanent breakup of the nation that Lincoln died to preserve.
“We need a national divorce,” tweeted Greene, shortly after her own marriage ended in divorce. “We need to separate by red states and blue states and shrink the federal government.” It was a proposal she made with malice toward many: “From the sick and disgusting woke culture issues shoved down our throats to the Democrat’s traitorous America Last policies, we are done.”
Greene, a Republican, isn’t a very good lawmaker; virtually all legislation she has sponsored has been defeated or sidelined. She specializes, rather, in conspiracy-mongering, incitement, and trolling. Her call for severing the nation along cultural and political lines isn’t meant to be taken seriously. It’s meant to attract publicity and boost her standing with the GOP’s most implacable hardliners, perhaps in hopes of being named Donald Trump’s running mate in 2024.
Yet even beyond the fever swamps, there appear to be those who think that splitting the United States into two separate countries — America the Red and America the Blue — is an idea whose time has come.
A YouGov survey conducted in the summer of 2021 for the research organization Bright Line Watch found significant levels of support in every part of the country for seceding from the United States to form a new country with like-minded states. In the South, 66 percent of Republicans and 50 percent of independents said they would favor the idea. So did 47 percent of Democrats on the West Coast and 43 percent of Republicans in the Mountain states.
Similar findings emerged from a poll by the University of Virginia Center of Politics released in September 2021. When asked for their views on blue (or red) states “seceding from the union to form their own separate country,” 41 percent of respondents who had voted for Joe Biden and 52 percent who had voted for Trump expressed support. And in a Rasmussen Poll of 1,000 likely voters conducted last month, 34 percent said they endorsed Greene’s call for a “national divorce” along red/blue lines.
As Bright Line Watch notes in its summary, “secession is a genuinely radical proposition” whose practical impact respondents are “very unlikely to have considered carefully.” Even the most amicable national “divorce” would pose thorny real-world obstacles. Which partner would be responsible for the national debt? Which would have control of the US dollar? Which would keep the Marine Corps, the aircraft carriers, and the nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles? Which would get the permanent seat on the UN Security Council? After two and half centuries of unimpeded trade and travel throughout the land, would Red Americans and Blue Americans require passports and visas to visit each other? Would they have to deal with customs and tariffs when doing business with their former fellow Americans?
Breaking up the world’s foremost military, economic, and democratic superpower would cast an ominous shadow over the whole world. Despots in Moscow, Beijing, and Tehran would no longer be constrained by the colossal might of a vast and integrated continental nation of 335 million. America would be reduced to two smaller, weaker, less affluent nations, which would have nothing like the influence or deterrent effect of today’s unified, if fractious, United States. Countries that have long sheltered under the US nuclear umbrella, such as Japan, Saudi Arabia, Canada, and South Korea, might well race to acquire nukes of their own. Overnight, the planet would become less stable.
Yet even supposing all that could somehow be managed successfully, there remains an insuperable threshold obstacle: “Red states” and “blue states” don’t actually exist. Those are merely tags that we began using for convenience because of the Electoral College’s winner-take-all convention. In reality, even the bluest and reddest states are far from monochromatic.
In the 2020 presidential election, “blue” Massachusetts cast all its electoral votes for Biden, but one-third of the state’s popular vote went to Trump. “Red” Texas backed Trump in the Electoral College, but 46 percent of its popular ballots were cast for Biden. There are Republicans and Democrats in every state; conservatives and liberals are neighbors in countless communities. Barring a massive exchange of population, with Democrats in “red” states rushing across the border to liberal territory and Republicans from “blue” states fleeing the other way, both halves of a post-divorce America would still be populated by residents who spanned the ideological spectrum.
America has always been a nation of diverse passions, priorities, and political beliefs. The bitter recriminations of our era are very real, but they aren’t unprecedented — and that was true long before the Civil War. The 1800 presidential election, in which Thomas Jefferson challenged the Federalist incumbent, John Adams, was conducted amid vicious partisan antipathy; there was real fear that party hatred would ignite into violence at Jefferson’s inauguration. Fortunately, the transfer of power was bloodless. In his inaugural address, Jefferson remarked on the rashness of those “among us who would wish to dissolve this Union.” He pleaded with Americans to make their peace with each other. “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists,” he said, adding that the nation will “have yet gained little, if we countenance a political intolerance as despotic, as wicked, and [as] capable of bitter and bloody persecutions.”
There is no denying that America today is riven by a culture war. Many of the issues at stake, especially those bound up with race, gender, language, and war, are at times so stark and elemental that reconciliation can seem impossible.
Yet passionate differences of opinion among fellow citizens are not the equivalent of an irreconcilable marital breakdown. In a nation as vast and populous as ours, controversy and discord are unavoidable. To that problem, federalism has always been the closest thing to a solution. Freedom, dignity, and communal peace are likeliest to thrive not when power is centralized and imposed from above but when it is diffuse, local, and modest. Our social arrangements tend to work best when they are organized at the lowest possible level. Only as a last resort should we seek to transfer power upward, from individuals and families to city hall, or from city hall to the state house, or from the state house to Washington, D.C.
At bottom, Greene’s call for a national divorce amounts to a call for one-party rule. In that, she is not so different from progressives in the culture war, who want to make everyone abide by rigid, left-wing ideas of social justice and tolerance. Many a marriage has broken down because one or both spouses insisted that things must be done their way. But many a marriage has been saved from breakdown by the timely, and counterintuitive, realization that two parties can be brought closer together by allowing each other more autonomy and space to be different.
America has serious problems, but none of them will be solved by breaking the country in two. That is a counsel of despair, and despair has never been the American way.
Jeff Jacoby can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby. To subscribe to Arguable, his weekly newsletter, visit bit.ly/ArguableNewsletter.