It is becoming increasingly clear, even to the mainstream media, that things are unlikely to return to “normal” after the 2020 election.
Regardless of who wins, it is likely that the losing side will view the winning side as having obtained their victory by using dirty tricks, foreign interference or through relentless propaganda offered by the heavily biased and one-sided news media.
And if about half of the country sees the winning president as illegitimate, where do we go from there?
The survey data is not really calming on this issue. As reported by Politico Last week, the percentage of Americans who believe it is justified to use violence to “advance political goals” has quadrupled since 2017, for both Republicans and Democrats.
After all, political invective has come to a head since Hillary Clinton declared that a significant part of the population of the United States constituted a “basket of deplorable”. Perhaps not since the 1870s and 1880s – when Catholics, Southerners and Irish (all major constituents of the Democratic Party) were denounced by Republicans as spies, traitors and drunkards – that half the country despised the other half so much. As early as 2017, when asked about the chances of another civil war in the United States, about a third of foreign policy scholars polled said it was likely.
Maybe, then, it’s not shocking that we are now seeing articles, even in mainstream publications, suggesting that maybe, maybe, the United States cannot continue in its current form. Moreover, this view is increasingly promoted by writers and ideologues outside the usual conservative and libertarian groups who have long advocated for decentralization and local control.
On September 18, for example, Steve Chapman in the Chicago Tribune asked, “Can the United States survive this election?” Over the past century, the answer given by most mainstream journalists would have been a definite yes. The usual story is as follows: “From Classes America will last for centuries! We Americans are masters of compromise. We will all soon realize that we are all in the same boat and coming together in unity!
But now Chapman writes:
The concept of a split is as American as July 4th. The height of the sense of separation came after the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, resulting in Civil War. But the New England states considered leaving the War of 1812… American ties have frayed and what happens on November 3 could cause further damage. No nation lasts forever and ours will not be the first. This election will not be the end of the United States. But it could be the beginning of the end.
Further, Chapman notes that while many will no doubt continue to view the United States as strong and likely to last indefinitely, such assumptions may be unwise given the reality of experience elsewhere:
In 1970, Russian dissident Andrei Amalrik wrote a book titled “Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984?” Back then, the idea of a disintegrating giant superpower sounded like a fantasy. But it finally came to pass. … Countries like Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia have also split up. Britain is leaving the European Union and Scotland could push to leave Britain. It would be foolish to think that the United States is immune to these forces.
Chapman is not alone.
Last month in the Philadelphia Inquirer Chuck Bonfig suspected that the end might be near:
The country went through many periods of conflict during my time here: assassinations, recessions, desegregation, inflation, gas crisis, Watergate, hanging of chads, AIDS crisis, 9/11. Maybe it’s the 24 hour news cycle or the immediacy of social media that makes the landscape look so bleak, but I don’t remember we’ve ever been so divided.
No one in our country seems happy today. The right is angry. The left is discouraged. Our nation reminds me of those married couples who try to stay together for “the kids” but end up making everyone around them miserable.
Maybe it’s time for a breakup… Think about it, America. I know breaking up is hard to do. We were good together. But what’s the point of having the “greatest country in the world” if neither of us really like it?
The debate over separation and secession was also pushed into the national debate by Richard Kreitner and his book Break It Down: Secession, Division and the Secret History of the Imperfect American Union. Kreitner, who writes for Leftist Magazine The nation, suggests that the United States has never been as unified as many suggest, and also concludes that secession and division may be a necessary tactic to bring about the left-wing reforms it would like to see. In an interview with The nation, Kreitner explained how he began to view secession as a serious solution:
What if the United States breaks up? Could this be such a bad thing? Could it be that the progressive policies and programs that I wanted to see put in place would be easier to implement in a smaller entity than the United States, with its 330 million people and the need to always convince people? with very different attitudes and interests? So with that question, I was curious as to whether anyone else in American history had promoted secession for noble or progressive reasons – not to perpetuate slavery but even to oppose it.
The answer, I quickly found, was yes: there were disunity abolitionists who were fiercely against slavery and who wanted the northern states to separate from the union in the 1840s and 1850s as a way not only to protest against slavery, but also to undermine it. Taking their arguments and rhetoric into account was really, really interesting.
Kreitner adds that secession has long been at the forefront of American political ideology. This, of course, dates back to secession from the American Revolution and is also reflected in the secession movement promoted by the abolitionists and in New England’s efforts to secede during the War of 1812.
Kreitner is right.
Secession has long been nurtured by many Americans, not just defenders of the old Confederation. At the onset of Southern Secession, many Americans – including those who disliked the South or slavery – were in favor of leaving Confederation. New Yorker George Templeton Strong, for example, declared in 1861, “Self-amputated limbs [the Southern states] have been ill beyond immediate recovery, and their virus will no longer infect our system. That same year, other New Yorkers seriously discussed leaving the Union and becoming a city-state devoted to free trade. In 1876, the battle over who won the presidential election nearly produced a national split, with the pro-Democrat governor of New York “promising state resistance” to Republican usurpers.
The founders of the nation were not necessarily opposed to division. Thomas Jefferson expressed views of prosecession, even when he was President-in-Office. In a 1803 letter to John Breckinridge, Jefferson explained that if the future states of Louisiana Territory sought to secede, it suited him:
[If] it should become the great interest of these nations to part with it, if their happiness depended on it strongly enough to get them through this convulsion, why would the Atlantic States fear it? But above all why should we, their current inhabitants, take sides in such a question?
And in 1804 Jefferson wrote to Joseph Priestly stating:
Whether we stay in one confederation or form Atlantic and Mississippi confederations, I believe that is not very important to the happiness of either party.
Only decentralization can save the Union
At this point, there is only one strategy that can prevent a continued slide into conflict, disunity and (possibly) violence: the decentralization of political power.
Thanks to decades of increasing centralization of power in Washington, DC, American policy is increasingly shaped by national government, not state and local authorities. This means that American life is increasingly ruled by universal policies developed by politicians far away in Washington. So with each election that passes, the stakes get higher as gun policy, healthcare, poverty alleviation, abortion, the war on drugs, education and more will be decided by the winning party in Washington, not in the state capital City council. In other words, the laws that govern Arizona will primarily be made by entirely foreign politicians and judges. These distant politicians will be more concerned with the needs and ideology of a national party than the specific needs of the people who live in Arizona.
It’s only natural that as the national government becomes supercharged in this way, many Americans are starting to consider ways out of the reach of central government.
It doesn’t have to be that way. United States could follow another path in which domestic politics are created and enforced in a decentralized fashion, in which laws for Texans are made in Texas and laws for Californians are made in California. This is of course what Thomas Jefferson imagined when he wrote that states should be autonomous and unified only on matters of foreign policy:
The true theory of our constitution is surely the wisest and the best, that states are independent as to everything in themselves, and united as to all that concerns foreign nations. That the general government be reduced to foreign interests alone.
In a decentralized political scheme like this, the stakes of a national election are much lower. It doesn’t matter to the people of Ohio which party is in power in Washington, when relatively few laws affecting the people of Ohio are passed at the federal level.
To adopt this approach, however, would require a significant departure from the current ideology that reigns in Washington. On the left in particular, it seems few can imagine a world where people in Iowa or Indiana are allowed to run their own schools and health care systems without meddling in Washington. While conservative efforts to impose a marijuana ban on states like Colorado show that the right is not immune to this push, it is quite clear that the left is very enthusiastic about it. ‘idea to send federal authorities to ensure states adopt abortion on demand, adopt Obamacare, and enforce drug bans as dictated by Washington.
But unless Americans change their mind and start decentralizing the political system, expect growing reluctance to accept national election results and growing resistance from the federal government in general. What follows is unlikely to be pleasant.
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