The lunatic fringe idea is both appealing and unworkable.
In his NYT column, David French urges us to “Take Threats of ‘National Divorce’ Seriously.” He begins with the obvious:
About two weeks ago, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia kicked off a conversation about a “national divorce,” and it hasn’t really stopped. Greene says she doesn’t mean a true national division, but rather an extreme form of federalism, in which red and blue states essentially lived under completely different economic and constitutional structures while maintaining a nominal national union.
The very idea is absurd. It’s incompatible with the Constitution. It’s dangerous. It’s unworkable. It would destroy the economy, dislocate millions of Americans and destabilize the globe. Even in the absence of a civil war — it’s beyond unlikely that vast American armies would clash the way they did from 1861 to 1865 — national separation would almost certainly be a violent mess. There is only one way to describe an actual American divorce: an unmitigated disaster, for America and the world.
Then shifts to a point I have made before in various “civil war” discussions:
It could also happen. It’s not likely, but it’s possible, and we should take that possibility seriously.
To be clear, it’s not because secession makes sense. As my colleague Jamelle Bouie noted in an eloquent column last month, the very idea that red states or blue states represent ideologically coherent communities is completely wrong. Every red state has bright blue counties or cities, and every blue state has red precincts as well. How do you split up a nation when red and blue are so thoroughly intertwined?
Take my home state, Tennessee, for example. In 2020, Donald Trump won the state by 23 percentage points. Yet Davidson County, home of Nashville, voted for Joe Biden by a 32-point margin, and Shelby County, home of Memphis, voted for Biden by 30 points. Every other county in the state (with the exception of tiny Haywood County) was red.
Does the concept of national divorce allow for a divided Tennessee? Or is the answer simply that the red parts of Tennessee would rule the blue? When you think about the concept of national divorce for more than five minutes, it collapses. No reasonable person would believe it’s the proper way to handle our national divisions.
The heart of the essay, though, is this:
But why should we think that reason will win the day? I’m haunted by James McPherson’s account of the prewar period in his seminal work, “Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era.” Describing the South in the run-up to secession and war, he says it was possessed by an “unreasoning fury.” The immediate cause was Northern celebration of John Brown, the abolitionist who attempted to provoke a slave rebellion by seizing the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry.
In McPherson’s account, Northern support for Brown’s cause “provoked a paroxysm of anger more intense than the original reaction to the raid.” Southern paranoia was so profound that Texas’ secession declaration even included claims that Northern “emissaries” were distributing “poison” to slaves for the purpose of killing white citizens.
The South separated from the North and started a ruinous and futile war not because of calm deliberation, but rather because of hysteria and fear — including hysteria and fear whipped up by the partisan press.
Which, of course, is quite similar to what’s happening today. We have a lot of irrational anger whipped up by a partisan press. Mostly, it’s Fox News and its ilk fanning the flames of hysteria over “wokeness,” “critical race theory,” “grooming,” and the like. But even the elite press, which aims for “objectivity,” contributes by its constant highlighting of division and, indeed, cementing tropes like Red States and Blue States into our consciousness.
French goes perhaps a bit too far here:
America’s recent history makes me worry, and if we doubt that concern one need only point back to Jan. 6, 2021, and indulge in a single, simple thought experiment: What if Mike Pence had said yes?
What if Vice President Pence had done exactly what Trump demanded, and the Trump lawyer John Eastman said he had the power to do: block the certification of the 2020 election or even overturn the result entirely and purport to award the presidency to Trump?
In that moment, American peace and unity depended on the force of will of one single person, a man who stood up to a president, to the lawmakers in his own party who challenged the election, and to the howling mob that was crying out for his head.
It’s true that things would have been even worse had Pence gone along. But he hardly deserves hero status for doing the very least that he was required to do to fulfill his oath to the Constitution.
Regardless, the key takeaway is this:
Even worse, in the immediate aftermath of the attack on the Capitol, Pence’s approval rating with Republicans collapsed, not Trump’s. The G.O.P.’s “unreasoning fury” turned on a man who was loyal to Trump every moment of his presidency, right until the moment when Trump demanded a coup.
Despite zero evidence that the election was illegitimate, Republicans overwhelmingly believed a bizarre lie: that Republican election officials in places like Georgia and Pennsylvania for some odd reason stole the election for Democrat Joe Biden. And, while that belief has faded a bit over time, it’s still the predominant view.
And where are we now? Has the fever passed? Not by a long shot. America is in the grips of a simply staggering amount of partisan animosity. As I wrote in my newsletter last week, overwhelming majorities of Republicans and Democrats believe that their opponents are “hateful,” “racist,” “brainwashed” and “arrogant.” Half of the respondents to a 2022 University of California Davis survey agreed that “in the next several years, there will be civil war in the United States,” and roughly 20 percent agreed that political violence was “at least sometimes justifiable.” A recent Rasmussen Reports poll found that 34 percent of likely voters (including a plurality of Republicans) think red and blue states need a national divorce.
The extreme positions are still extreme. Still, even a fifth of Americans thinking violence an acceptable way to settle domestic political disputes and a third calling for divorce is dangerous.
This is not a new concern for me. In 2020, I published a book arguing that political polarization had grown so extreme that it was time to be concerned about our national union. The second sentence stated the thesis: “At this moment in history, there is not a single important cultural, religious, political or social force that is pulling Americans together more than it is pushing us apart.”
That statement was true then, and it is true now. If anything, partisan anger has only grown. I finished the book before the spring riots that ripped through American cities in 2020 and before the insurrection of Jan. 6. Those wounds have not fully healed.
Animosity is the enemy of American liberty. It is hard to muster the will to defend the rights of people you despise. But it’s also the ultimate enemy of American unity. Hatred and fear are the foundation of “unreasoning fury,” and the fury that divided us once before may well do so again.
As has been the case for several years now, I simply don’t see a way out of this situation. Divorce is, for reasons already discussed, not really an option. Even a more robust federalism, wherein the states and localities rather than the central government are in control of the most divisive social issues, is unworkable.
In an ideal world, revelations of how blatantly the Fox News cabal and the Trump enterprise have been conning their followers would burst those bubbles. Thus far, though, people seem to be doubling down on their loyalty.