I think the possibility of some sort of breakup of the United States is a lot higher than people think (which is not to say very likely or even necessarily more likely than not). No, I’m not talking about the California secession movement, which is dumb, Russian-backed (which is so unsurprising it’s almost surprising), poorly conceived and won’t work. I’ve never met a California nationalist and I’ve lived here over three decades. I don’t believe they really exist in any sort of numbers. But the fact that 33% of the state says they support it is interesting. And perhaps more would favor ditching the current constitution and adopting self-governing regions a la Switzerland (or Belgium), with a national government handling a few things like trade, defense, foreign relations, etc. Obviously that 33% number could be simply measuring revulsion at Trump. But that revulsion isn’t going to go away, and it could be a sign of something.

I’m sure most of us have read about the studies how ideologically polarized countries with presidential systems always see them fall apart. So that’s always there. And the divides in our country go back to the beginning of the country, and believing in total ideological victory of one side over the other goes against the entirety of our history. FDR didn’t destroy conservatism, Reagan didn’t destroy liberalism. They entered fallow periods before re-emerging. Even at the height of the “Great Consensus” Barry Goldwater still almost got 40% of the vote, so the divides have always been there, in mostly recognizable form, and probably not changing much in terms of numbers. But the defense mechanisms to avoid total ideological war–heterogeneous political parties, strong institutional norms, a governing culture geared toward bipartisanship and, probably most importantly, broadly shared prosperity that would make most people not want to mess with a good thing–are all long gone. And with Donald Trump, liberals are confronted with a national leader with whom they share not a single value. While plugged-in left-wing political observers have been sounding the alarm about the changes within the GOP for years now, the Republican establishment and the mainstream media worked hard to downplay the story with a steady stream of “both sides” nonsense, all the while one old-school, sensible Republican after another was drummed out of the party, to be replaced by an extreme nutcase. Most liberals get their news this way, so it set a certain expectation, a cushion against the inarguable (but, pre-Trump, ignorable) reality.

Trump now makes the uncomfortable reality unavoidable. Both sides didn’t elect vulgar, bigoted fascists. Only one did. And Republicans are, by and large, quite pleased with this. There are a few noble exceptions out there but generally speaking, a president committed to wrecking the lives of brown people and lavishing favors upon the rich seems to suit conservatives just fine. Liberals may phrase it in terms of being shocked about what their country is about, but really, it’s the Republicans who have shocked them. Liberals were told for years by the media and Republican elites (and even, most ridiculously, by their party’s own president) that Republicans aren’t actually all that extreme, that Trump wouldn’t do what he promised, that he couldn’t win, that the fever would break, that Republican moderates would finally bolt from the extremists, etc. None of it happened. In the end, the game the media and the Republican establishment were playing was bound to fail as it was based on a fiction, and an empirically provable one at that. Successful a president as Obama was, his fundamental misunderstanding of the national divide–and preference to see it as largely phony and ginned up by cynical politicos, all the while ignoring the visible rise of right-wing extremism–will also factor heavily into his legacy (and, whatever her flaws, Clinton’s willingness to actually confront these things publicly during her campaign will also factor into hers in the opposite way). In context, the response of liberals to Trump’s victory by technicality makes complete sense. It was the bursting of a bubble. The frenzy since then–and its uncharacteristic (for liberals) binary nature–reflects an accurate understanding that there is no common ground to find a compromise with Trump. And, by extension, with the conservative America that so roundly supports him.

Of course, it’s not certain that this will lead to a break-up, of course. But the implications of all this are only beginning to play out, and the combination of minimal prosperity, continued social divisions exacerbated by the White House being occupied by a sentient middle finger directed at every group that didn’t vote for him (and a corresponding lack of illusion about the nature of the divisions) could plausibly lead there. Certainly, the prospect of a few more generations of the same conflicts, the same debates about the same things, the same arguments and conversations past one another, can’t be very appealing to anyone. To be sure, there is no doubt a breakup would be expensive, complicated and messy. But something’s going to have to give. Perhaps it will be something else. But it could be this.

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  1. Metavirus says:

    I still think Neal Stephenson will be proved eerily prescient in a century or two.  His description of a future fragmented America in Snow Crash fits so perfectly within our delusions of fierce independence and exceptionalism.

    These days, most states are franchulates or Burbclaves, much too small to have anything like a jail, or even a judicial system. So when someone does something bad, they try to find quick and dirty punishments, like flogging, confiscation of property, public humiliation, or, in the case of people who have a high potential of going on to hurt others, a warning tattoo on a prominent body part POOR IMPULSE CONTROL. Apparently, this guy went to such a place and lost his temper real bad.

    MetaCops Unlimited is the official peacekeeping force of White Columns, and also of The Mews at Windsor Heights, The Heights at Bear Run, Cinnamon Grove, and The Farms of Cloverdelle. They also enforce traffic regulations on all highways and byways operated by Fairlanes, Inc. A few different [Franchise Oriented Quasi-National Entities] also use them: Caymans Plus and The Alps, for example. But franchise nations prefer to have their own security force. You can bet that Metazania and New South Africa handle their own security; that’s the only reason people become citizens, so they can get drafted. Obviously, Nova Sicilia has its own security, too. Narcolombia doesn’t need security because people are scared just to drive past the franchise at less than a hundred miles an hour (Y.T. always snags a nifty power boost in neighborhoods thick with Narcolombia consulates), and Mr. Lee’s Greater Hong Kong, the grandaddy of all FOQNEs, handles it in a typically Hong Kong way, with robots.”

    Now a Burbclave, that’s the place to live. A city-state with its own constitution, a border, laws, cops, everything.

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