As I’ve said, I don’t think discussion of a breakup of the United States should be taboo, though I am rather ambivalent about that outcome coming to pass. This strikes me as an unsatisfactory answer to the problem, in no small part because I don’t think the “blue state” concept is necessarily the right one for viewing these concepts. State lines don’t often reflect political divides. Chop off everything west of I-95 in Virginia and the state becomes a Democratic stronghold. North Carolina is similar. OTOH, the Central Valley of California is culturally closer to Idaho than it is to San Francisco or LA (at least it is in terms of eligible voters). And I can’t really countenance throwing Southern minorities to the wolves in the way that the article would do (though in all fairness, between Trump and Sessions, that is where they are). This conversation should proceed in a slightly different way, maybe something like this:

Anti-breakup: Isn’t it wrong to even discuss this?
Pro-breakup: Why?
A: A distraction from opposing Trump?
P: It is necessary to oppose him. But Trump forces the question in an unprecedented way. There is simply no overlap of values between liberals and Trump, while the bulk of Republicans like him quite a bit. Left of center individuals need to start thinking of what the endgame of this looks like, because I don’t really think that “retaking Congress and the White House” is going to cut it. Short-term, sure. Get the nuts out of there. But in the long term I think something more fundamental is going to be needed.
A: Why?
P: Because despite having a veto-proof majority in our system of government, Democrats were still hard-pressed to pass stripped-down versions of what they promised in 2008. Even if Democrats regained the trifecta in 2020, we’d just see another Tea Party, massive midterm losses, and a resurgent Republican Party no matter how badly they wrecked things. And even in the best case, even if we had another New Deal-level event, FDR had less than a decade before conservatives began regrouping, and I find the concept of rooting for another depression repugnant. It’s like those goons who want another 9/11 so that they can feel warm and tingly again. Put simply, I’ve lost confidence that this is a dragon that can be slayed.
A: Because of FOX News?
P: Partly. The hermetically-sealed information bubble is definitely a part of it, but this all predates mass media. Liberals have this tendency of dismissing conservative values as incoherent when they’re not. I disagree with them strongly but I don’t think they’re incoherent. At best you can say they’re hypocritical and not particularly reality-based in many cases, such as their highly self-serving view of religion, but liberals tend not to take them seriously because of that and this is unwise. And there’s another factor: according to a widely shared study by Juan Linz, presidential democracies like ours tend to collapse when partisan polarization occurs. Gridlock wrecks democracy, and the past generation has seen a steady increase of it. Unless something truly unexpected occurs soon, the Madisonian system is on borrowed time. One of the ways Linz identifies for a breakup is illiberal democracy, which is where we may be headed under Trump. Political violence is another. But a breakup into constituent parts may be a different way. It would make sense: there are only two countries with greater populations than we do: China and India. India is very diverse and also has a federal democratic system, China is very homogeneous and has a unitary command system. Neither has a split where half of the country values diversity and the other homogeneity, where one prefers democratic values and the other prefers authoritarian values in democratic forms. This identity crisis is perpetually dangerous and combustible. But it doesn’t have to be.
A: So why not a parliamentary democracy?
P: I’d say the answer to that is a fundamental lack of trust. Do you trust the other party to have all the power?
A: Not really.
P: Me neither. Westminster systems are built on trust in a way that ours isn’t. But we’re in a situation where trust has broken down completely. And as the TNR article argues, blue states have a case to be made that they’re massively being shortchanged, through federal transfers as well as through democratic representation (namely the Senate and the Electoral College). This is a democracy in crisis, partly from Trump, but also from a Constitution that unfairly prefers rural and often conservative states. The conversation is upon us whether we like it or not.

A: Alright, tell me why we should even consider this nonsense.
P: To put it simply, when irreconcilable differences happen in a relationship, divorce is something that occurs. It’s usually expensive, messy, and disruptive, but people do it anyway, because they desire the long-term gain more than the short-term pain.
A: Which is?
P: Not being trapped in a relationship that holds you back. In the case of this country, you have political polarization as everyone says, but that political polarization is at root a disagreement on values, down to even the most basic questions of national identity. This is durable and you see it going back decades, even centuries, and there’s simply no common ground for agreement on so many of these issues. On something like immigration, one group sees it as a positive good that makes the country better through diversity, and another that sees immigration as generally bad and wants as little of it as possible, with even that contingent upon full assimilation. There’s simply no common ground there, none.
A: Okay, wait a minute. George W. Bush was pro-immigration. He tried to pass reform.
P: And how’d that go? Funnily enough, for all the deliberate polarization Bush created, he was a product of the old world of non-polarized politics and his politics reflected that in some ways. That’s done now.
A: But weren’t we hearing all this happy talk a few months back about how conservatism was finished, how demographics were going to kill it off? Why isn’t this just sour grapes from people who lost and now want to take their ball and go home?
P: That’s fair, though some people were talking about it before the fluky Trump election. That election was something of a reality check. Liberals seem to love to predict the imminent death of conservatism. Quite a few predicted it would go down with Goldwater. Many thought Iran-Contra was going to take Reagan down and the right down with him. Still more thought Obama would usher in a realignment. History doesn’t lack for such pronouncements. What is true is that, while some elements of progress have proven too popular to dislodge and others have had resistance to them abandoned by reactionaries, the overall values of reactionaries have held pretty firm over the course of American history, as the many comparisons of Trump and Andrew Jackson can reiterate.
A: Are you sure about that? It used to be that the South was pretty solidly Democrat, now it’s Republican. And New England used to be much more conservative, and the Interior West used to be pretty liberal. Stuff changes, why do you argue that it’s never going to change.
P: Okay, let’s get into this. The major exception to this was the New Deal era, where a significant amount of Southern whites got behind progressive economic policies (for whites). This used to be part of the narrative of linear progress by progressive historians. From today’s vantage point, it looks like more of a one-off, a tactical alliance driven by the unprecedented devastation of the Great Depression, which has since cycled back to a political reality that would be familiar to political observers from 1830 or 1895. Of course, the New Deal was effectively done by Roosevelt’s second term, when Southern Democrats and Northern Republicans started their long cycle of collaboration that would lead to that realignment. And the coalition created by the New Deal really started fraying in the ’60s, after Civil Rights became the big issue. Southern whites partially, temporarily easing up on the smaller government principle was driven by the exigencies of the moment, but trying to end the racial hierarchy was a bridge too far. Switching labels from Republican to Democrat had big implications, but the notion that Southern Democrats during the New Deal era were all flaming libs aside from Civil Rights isn’t at all historical.
A: But isn’t the real problem the collapse in American unity? Shouldn’t we be trying to persuade people about the values of diversity and inclusion?
P: Talk about unicorns, American unity is the biggest one. People talk about WWII, which did see a lot of unity among white Americans. Not so much among other groups. The Detroit Riots of 1943, the Zoot Suit Riots, Japanese-American Internment: it’s almost as though years’ worth of racist propaganda by media and governmental elites might have had some side effects! That this is remembered as a unified period is the exception that proves the rule: white unity was achieved in no small part by racism. And as for trying to get some of the most insular, provincial Americans to change their core values and embrace cosmopolitanism, well, best of luck there.

A: Can we talk about how this would work? It seems like it would be pretty damn difficult.
P: It would be messy. You could never draw a map that could perfectly divide people politically, or connect every dot. So some people would have to choose whether to move or not.
A: And some people wouldn’t be able to move and would be forced to live in places that don’t reflect their values.
P: True. Though it may not be quite as hard as people think, given that this form of self-segregation has long since begun. And some people would be fine with living with differently-minded people if they choose. I do know some San Francisco Republicans.
A: How can you guarantee that this won’t just open a Pandora’s Box with an endless multitude of complications and things that could go wrong?
P: I can’t.
A: Isn’t politics a pretty silly reason to divide a country in the first place?
P: Well, maybe not. That’s essentially why Czechoslovakia split up. But I don’t think it’s “just politics” at all. The political divide is in actuality a cultural divide, and a very familiar one at that. Before the New Deal, the political map looked essentially the same as it does now, just with the parties reversed. Perhaps we’re reverting to the mean after the massive disruption of the New Deal. In which case, what do you base your hope for change on?
A: Demographic trends, perhaps?
P: Sure, maybe at some point those will bear fruit. But even at the height of the “consensus” era, Barry Goldwater still got just under 40% of the vote. Jean-Marie Le Pen only got 12% in 2002 in France.
A: His daughter stands to do much better.
P: Be that as it may.
A: Didn’t we fight a war over this question?
P: Well, not really. I mean, we fought a war that one side claimed was over the right to leave the Union, but that was actually about the right to have slaves. And it’s not as though there was a debate about the right to secede or not. Southern states just proclaimed it, and then attacked a federal installation. They in no uncertain terms started it. It’s not as though their opening bid in a negotiation was secession in exchange for the end of slavery or anything like that. It never would have been.

A: Okay, this has gone on long enough. Let’s wrap this up.
P: I’ll just ask this: do you want to live in a country where every single atom of positive progress has to be relitigated constantly, where milestones of progress are merely the beginning of a generations-long struggle to overturn them? Can a woman’s right to abortion ever really be safe in this country? Civil rights and liberties? Environmental protections? Is it good for anyone when elections are all-or-nothing deathmatches that capture attention and outrage for multiple years apiece? The divisions that drive all of this are not new, and a split may be the only way to move on from them. Honestly, it’s surprising it hasn’t happened already. Have you got a better idea?
A: I don’t. And do you really think that the end result of this process would be some sort of progressive utopia? Quite a lot of billionaires live in New York City, and it’s not like racism doesn’t exist in the blue states. The American big cities that anchor the Democratic coalition embody these pathologies, and even in the best case, Europe isn’t really “Europe” in the way that liberal commentators often talk about, you know that. There are problems of poverty, problems of race, over there as well, though often not as bad as here. Maybe a hypothetical liberal American state would be able to do more to address this, but maybe it wouldn’t. Can you say for sure that it would be worth the trouble?
P: I can’t.

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