For the last several years, I’ve been among a handful of commentators (along with good friends Michael Malice, Jesse Kelly, Michael Anton, and others) talking about the possibility or desirability of National Divorce, the political separation of Blue and Red America—or, to get more specific and inflammatory, the breakup or dissolution of the United States.
This week, my friend Karol Markowicz has written a typically thoughtful piece on the subject at the New York Post and concludes that, as much as many people long for some kind of separation that would solve the many real problems of America’s current disunion, it’s not a solution that’s currently feasible.
As with any breakup or divorce, even if we had a popular consensus for a National Divorce in principle, there are all kinds of details—and massive, very thorny ones, like who gets which territories, populations, industries or nuclear weapons caches—that could cause tumultuous and potentially violent negotiations. All these points of contention are very real and shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand; they’re not going anywhere. The seriousness of these issues and their daunting solutions are meant to prove that the breakup of the United States will always be an impossibility.
But that’s not right. National Divorce or some other, more tragic and chaotic outcome won’t be impossible forever. Despite heaping dollops of patriotic propaganda—which, admittedly, is essential to maintenance of the citizens’ faith in the regime—one day, the United States will end. History teaches us that regimes, like all human creations, rise and fall—and world-bestriding empires fall harder, faster, and more surely than that. Admitting this is a possibility isn’t as accurate as understanding it as a certainty; yes, the timeline is hazy, but it’s coming.
And, as one approaches the crisis and contempt between Americans builds beyond what is currently imaginable, those thorny points of contention—heretofore enough to reduce National Divorce to a laugh-line—become real objects of debate and deliberative thought. There is a price, for example, at which the hard work of pulling oil from the ground in a place is so prohibitively expensive, even discussing it seems foolish. However, when circumstances change—maybe global supply wanes and prices rise dramatically—areas believed to be too costly for drilling suddenly become feasible.
It’s interesting that those with the strongest objections to National Divorce today seem to base their (admittedly legitimate) worry about those horrific split-up scenarios rather than make a principled, Lincolnesque argument about the insolubility of the Union. Of course, appeals to Boomer Patriotism still exist, but I’m not sure if that kind of thing gets very many people going anymore. As that generation recedes from its long reign over the nation’s political and cultural life—to be replaced by a more combative cohort weaned on civilizational exhaustion and a sense of impending collapse—we’ll see even less.
I think this says a lot about where we are, “what time it is,” and how nearly all of us who follow political and social life here in America have a kind of understanding that there’s no way back from our state of disunion. While there might be small valves—like presidential or congressional elections—to temporarily alleviate some of the pressure and sense of impending conflict, the issues on which we disagree are too profound and foundational to ever just recede into the background.
In Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom made a very elegant and convincing case that, above other forces in human life, ideas matter most. I’ve thought about Bloom a lot as I’ve spent the last several years writing, tweeting and speaking about the big things tearing America apart. As I’ve argued, the differences between Red and Blue America are far deeper than any issues we interact with on the surface; they’re essentially pre-political—at least in the sense of very temporal, issues-based, hot-button nonsense we consider “politics” today.
The political philosophers, however, would say that the issues dividing us are absolutely political, in the original and most elemental sense: we have in America today what are, essentially, two competing, radically different and mutually exclusive conceptions of the Good, of justice, and of the proper role of the state in its interactions with its citizens.
Over the last decade especially, we’ve seen how these conceptions expand with great intensity and speed into areas that were once relatively apolitical and would’ve perplexed our grandparents, like the reality of human biology or its malleability according to ideology (via the trans issue). As time goes on, even more of reality itself will become a battleground.
If we disagree on these big things—which will necessarily manifest in every political issue, large or small—what strong force could possibly re-unite us? Or, to ask a question that’s perhaps more pertinent—maybe not today or tomorrow, but soon: what force could keep us from coming apart?
The most perceptive observers of America have known that this was always a perilous position for a large, multi-ethnic, ideological (or “propositional”) constitutional state. As time goes on, and the ideology on which the legitimacy of the state rests necessarily changes or becomes contentious between large segments of the population, what’s left around which the great majority of citizens can rally?
Not ethnicity or religion; these are two strong identity conceptions that have the power to unite people in smaller, less diverse states. Not patriotism emerging from a reverence for the nation’s history and heroic founding story, either. The Left has worked with great zeal to undermine all of these things because it wants to unite Americans under nothing but its own ideology. The 1619 Project is only the most successful, high-profile effort to undermine the legitimacy—and, even more importantly, the virtue and goodness—of the American regime and its Founding. It, along with related cults like Critical Race Theory, forms the political ethos that has thoroughly consumed Blue America.
As the late Angelo Codevilla wrote, these differences amount to nothing less than a “cold civil war,” and the primary role of the responsible statesman is to prevent it from going “hot.” Codevilla’s answer was federalism—but the great man was wise enough to know that, by itself, our old conception of federalism was no longer a reasonable or viable answer.
For more than a century, Progressives have dedicated themselves to abolishing the legitimacy of federalism, and then reconstituting the federal government and the courts in order to make its application and practice all but impossible. Over time, as their fanaticism grew, the Left’s position hardened, from the mere undesirability of local differences and state sovereignty to the illegitimacy, unjustness, and unfathomable evil of such an arrangement.
In order to return to a time of relative public consensus on these things, one side must impose its will on the other. While Red America isn’t really interested in imposing its will on Blue America, it’s clear that the reverse is emphatically not true.
In a famous 1964 speech, Ronald Reagan said about last century’s Cold War, “there’s only one guaranteed way you can have peace, and you can have it in the next second: surrender.” This might be the unstated solution proffered by mainstream right commentariat, but is this the best we can do?
Because it’s just over the horizon of what we can imagine from our vantage point, National Divorce isn’t at all an immediate action plan--or, at least, I don’t see it as such. Rather, it is a rhetorical strategy to prepare the ground for crucial discussions about what comes next in America, as the country grows even more divided, bitter, and angry.
More than anything else, it is a reminder for Red America to think about economic and cultural autonomy for itself, and what it would take to get there.
Autonomy for Red America is of crucial importance, regardless of the status of political or real separation. It is the ability for Americans to be self-sufficient from the financial, educational and cultural institutions that are hostile to its beliefs and way of life, and make reconciliation increasingly impossible.