OnlySky Quick Take

Snapshots of major issues

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During the Civil War, Union General William Sherman and Confederate General John Bell Hood exchanged letters. In their correspondence, Bell expressed disgust at his belief that the Union was fighting to give political rights to former slaves. Hood writes:

You came into our country with your army, avowedly for the purpose of subjugating free white men, women, and children, and not only intend to rule over them, but you make negroes your allies, and desire to place over us an inferior race, which we have raised from barbarism to its present position, which is the highest ever attained by that race, in any country, in all time…Better die a thousand deaths than submit to live under you or your Government and your negro allies!

For his part, Sherman largely praised the bravery of the South and the character of its people and expressed a desire to have the nation reunited. Ultimately, the Civil War was resolved in favor of the Union. The institution of slavery was ended, and the brief period of Reconstruction began.

In modern America, the contempt that Hood displayed towards Sherman and the Union has returned in the form of political polarization and vilification. Conservatives in Red America and liberals in Blue America have incompatible visions for what the United States means and should represent. Democrats and Republicans are farther apart than ever, not just on ideological and policy questions, but also geographically, through partisan segregation. Some, like Texas Republican chairman Allen West, have even gone as far as to suggest secession from the United States.

Even if a divorce of red and blue America is politically possible, that doesn’t mean it’s desirable.

But even if a divorce of Red and Blue America is politically possible—a big if—that doesn’t mean it is actually desirable. A political split would have a host of negative consequences that would adversely impact both successor nations and sow the seeds of future conflict.

As difficult as the ongoing marriage is for both sides, Americans are far better off sticking together. 

Partisans on both sides tend to see the other as placing unacceptable limits on their vision of America. Blue America would prefer a secular government, free college and healthcare, multiculturalism, and a dramatic expansion of infrastructure and the welfare state. Red America would prefer religious schools, a more hierarchical social system, open firearms policies, and the primacy of traditional values.

The American political system of checks and balances constrains both sides’ vision and prevents either from fully remaking America into their ideal at the federal level. This system of checks and balances can often prevent majorities from taking action on big issues, such as climate change or voting rights. But it also restrains opposing partisans from enacting their political wish list. Partisans are often hyper-focused on their own political goals, and neglect to consider what opposing partisans would do if they had unchecked, unrestrained political power. Even red and blue states have to answer to responses from Congress, the President, and the Supreme Court.

But in a split America, that would no longer be the case. 

So what would an unrestrained Red America look like? We could imagine that such a state wouldn’t prioritize democracy, and would likely be more of a competitive authoritarian regime where only elites can contest power. Such a regime would also likely prioritize maintaining the social order over economic activity, as states like Mississippi and Alabama have done since the Civil War ended. The result would probably be a nation that is relatively poor compared to blue America. Red America would likely be both hyper-religious and hyper-militant. Without the constraints of liberals in Congress, conservatives in the red American successor state would be able to push Christianity as the state religion. Christian nationalism would probably be a core ideology in such a state. Without liberals counteracting the proliferation of firearms, guns would also probably be readily available. In such a country, one might expect that military service would be mandated for all citizens, and that it would be especially hostile towards its neighbors.

One could imagine that having such a state on its border could be an unpleasant experience. For Blue America, having a hyper-militant, hyper-religious state on its border could mean having to be in a constant state of alert. After all, Blue America would likely be comparatively wealthier, as its core states currently carry the majority of U.S. gross domestic product. Blue America would most likely be a more technologically advanced nation, with a stronger social safety net and better infrastructure. All of these things could be expected to breed resentment and anger in Red America, with Blue America receiving most of the blame for these inevitable disparities. Conflict seems inevitable, which would be destructive to both nations. 

But that’s all hypothetical. Practically speaking, it would be much harder to achieve a Red and Blue America split than it was a century and a half ago because the split is now more an urban and rural than a geographic divide.

During the Civil War, the South and North had a relatively clean break on ideological and policy terms. But in contemporary America, there are blue cities in every red state, and every blue state has large red rural areas. Without mass migration, that makes a real split almost impossible. Hypothetical Blue America would have a large percentage of citizens who believe in the ideology of Red America. And in large red states like Texas, Democrats at the state level have received close to 50% of the vote in recent cycles. That means that any kind of split would be extremely difficult if not impossible to execute.

That doesn’t mean that there have not been secession movements. The Calexit movement for regions of California to declare independence from the United States has picked up in recent years. And as mentioned above, some members of the Texas Republican Party have entertained the idea as well.

But secession just isn’t practical. And beyond that, secession isn’t politically desirable. Even though our opposing partisans may make it difficult to realize our ideal version of America, that doesn’t mean splitting up the country would be any better. In fact, the alternative to our system of checks and balances is worse in the long run.

As difficult as it might sound, the two Americas need to stick together. Breaking apart might sound like an appealing fix, but it runs into a range of practical problems, not least the likelihood of violent conflict. That’s why the best course of action is fighting to keep America together, even if it means neither side achieves quite the American dream it envisions.

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Marcus Johnson

Marcus Johnson is a political commentator and a political science Ph.D. candidate at American University. His primary research focus is the impact of political institutions on the racial wealth gap.