There are a disturbing number of articles and blog posts about the difficulties or need for secession these days. Henry Olson’s column in the Washington Post is one example of the genre:
Many Americans are increasingly concerned that our national heritage, our democratic republic, is seriously in danger. A new poll from the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics confirms that we have reason to worry — and that the fault is in ourselves, not our political stars.
We can see the signs of the fraying bonds of citizenship all around us. The increasingly hostile tone of mainstream political speech. The inability of our two parties to find common ground in cases of clear national interest, such as raising the debt ceiling. The way that leaders of each side accuse the other of intentionally subverting the election process to ensure their hold on power. The fact that partisans increasingly isolate themselves in information bubbles where they only hear their side of an argument and often only the extreme elements of that side.
That’s why the Center for Politics poll is so worrying. It surveyed 2,000 voters on a host of issues related to democratic health, especially how each viewed members and leaders of the other party. It found that large numbers of Joe Biden and Donald Trump voters view the other party with fear and contempt.
The most frightening findings show that supermajorities of voters in each camp believe the other side is bent on destroying the country. More than 80 percent of Biden and Trump voters agree that elected officials of the other party “present a clear and present danger to American democracy.” More than 70 percent of both sets of voters believe that some extreme media voices on the other side should be censored “despite the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.” More than 75 percent of Biden and Trump voters believe that Americans who strongly support the opposite party also threaten the American way of life. In short, politics has stopped being about how to govern a shared country and is more about a naked, “Lord of the Flies”-style struggle for power.
Vast swaths of the country are essentially unpopulated forests, farmland, or deserts. (Both of the live maps at the USA page are interactive.)
The point of all of this is that, like it or not, there is no plausible way for Red or Blue states to secede. As has been noted here more than once, the real divide isn’t Red states and Blue states but rural and urban.
Still, the starkness of the divide is something to see. Moreover, turning to a debate that’s been ongoing in the comment section here for some time, despite the fact that the Republican Party has undeniably been more aggressive in bending the rules to get what it wants and thereby thwarting the democratic process, supporters of both parties have strong authoritarian tendencies.
In the past I have highlighted the reasons for all of this: the enormous financial rewards of increasing centralization, a decreasingly logical and increasingly visual society leading to highly agonistic modes of expression, financial subsidy of such expressions by social media, the facility for dispersed organization provided by social media, and loss of consensus due to an increasingly diverse society, just to name a few. I agree with James that the best ways of addressing the increasing division are devolution (reducing centralization and returning power to the states) and greater tolerance of a diversity of preferences and opinions. I also agree that there is little prospect of either happening for the reason I’ve underscored.
What strikes me are the responses in the comments sections. I would like to suggest that people are thinking about the prospects for civil war entirely wrong. Bowing to the need for more visual expression, let’s consider a couple of movies. The climactic scene of The Patriot, a Mel Gibson movie about the American Revolution, the scrappy rebels form a battle line opposite the redcoats and, through a series of clever tricks, outmaneuver them. There are similar scenes in The Red Badge of Courage and practically every other movie set in the American Civil War ever made.
A civil war won’t be like that. It will be more like Mad Max or maybe Blackhawk Down. Mad Max depicts a world in which civil order has simply collapsed. No real reason is given for it. Nuclear war? Fuel shortage? Just for the heck of it? It doesn’t really matter. Chaotic gangs kill, loot, and terrorize. Whom do they attack? Anyone in their path.
Not dramatic in the sense of pitched battles. And it’s already going in. The disorder in Portland continues with both left and right arguing in favor of it. Here in Chicago we’ve got broad daylight shootings in the middle of downtown. It’s not just that order has broken down but that the will to preserve order has been eroded.
As to the practicality issue emphasized by James, have people never heard of “ethnic cleansing”? It’s a phenomenon that isn’t just conducted at the national level. It goes on block by block with neighbors turning on neighbors. Thinking it can’t happen here because most states are in fact Purple States is being overly optimistic. Start thinking breakdown in order rather than maneuver warfare. Mad Max rather than The Patriot.