Posted on November 14, 2018

Divided We Stand

Sasha Issenberg, New York Magazine, November 14, 2018


Let’s just admit that this arranged marriage isn’t really working anymore, is it? The partisan dynamic in Washington may have changed, but our dysfunctional, codependent relationship is still the same. The midterm results have shown that Democrats have become even more a party of cities and upscale suburbs whose votes are inefficiently packed into dense geographies, Republicans one of exurbs and rural areas overrepresented in the Senate. The new Congress will be more ideologically divided than any before it, according to a scoring system developed by Stanford political scientist Adam Bonica: the Republicans more conservative, the Democrats more liberal.

Come January, we are likely to find that we’ve simply shifted to another gear of a perpetual deadlock unlikely to satisfy either side. {snip}

Meanwhile, we have discovered that too many of our good-governance guardrails, from avoidance of nepotism to transparency around candidates’ finances, have been affixed by adhesion to norms rather than force of law. The breadth and depth of the dysfunction has even Establishmentarian figures ready to concede that our current system of governance is fatally broken. Some have entertained radical process reforms that would have once been unthinkable. Prominent legal academics on both the left and the right have endorsed proposals to expand the Supreme Court or abolish lifetime tenure for its members, the latter of which has been embraced by Justice Stephen Breyer. Republican senators including Cruz and Mike Lee have pushed to end direct election of senators, which they say strengthens the federal government at the expense of states’ interests.

Policy wonks across the spectrum are starting to rethink the federal compact altogether, allowing local governments to capture previously unforeseen responsibilities. {snip}

{snip} “All of us need to be reminded that the federal government did not create the states; the states created the federal government,” Reagan said in his 1981 inaugural address. At the time, Democrats interpreted New Federalism as high-minded cover for a strategy of dismantling New Deal and Great Society programs. Now they see it as their last best hope for a just society.

Some states have attempted to enforce their own citizenship policies, with a dozen permitting undocumented immigrants to acquire driver’s licenses and nearly twice as many to allow them to qualify for in-state tuition. Seven states, along with a slew of municipal governments, have adopted “sanctuary” policies of official noncooperation with federal immigration enforcement. Many governors, including Republicans in Massachusetts and Maryland, have refused to deploy National Guard troops to support Trump’s border policies, and California has sued the federal government to block construction of a wall along the Mexican frontier. After the Trump administration stopped defending an Obama-era Labor Department rule to expand the share of workers entitled to overtime pay, Washington State announced it would enforce its own version of the rule and advised its peers to do the same. {snip}

In California, officials who regularly boast of overseeing the world’s fifth-largest economy have begun to talk of advancing their own foreign policy. After Trump withdrew from the Paris climate agreement, Governor Jerry Brown — he has said “we are a separate nation in our own minds” — crossed the Pacific to negotiate a bilateral carbon-emissions pact with Chinese president Xi Jinping. “It’s true I didn’t come to Washington, I came to Beijing,” said Brown, who is often received like a head of state when he travels abroad. {snip}

Brown’s successor Newsom comes to office just as Californians may be forced to reckon with how much farther they are willing to take this ethic of self-reliance. Since 2015, a group of California activists have been circulating petitions to give citizens a direct vote on whether they want to turn California into “a free, sovereign and independent country,” which could trigger a binding 2021 referendum on the question already being called “Calexit.”

During the Obama years, it was conservatives who’d previously talked of states’ rights who began toying with the idea of starting their own countries. {snip}

In 2012, the White House website received secession petitions from all 50 states; Texas’s was the most popular, with more than 125,000 signatures. (A counterpetition demanded that any citizen who signed one of the secession petitions be deported.) Two years later, Reuters found that nearly one-quarter of Americans said they supported the idea of their states breaking away, a position most popular among Republicans and rural westerners.

If we are already living in two political geographies, why not generate a system of government to match?

Liberal regions have tended to go bigger with their secession fantasies: Why spin off one’s own state when you could split the whole country and gain the resources and manpower of like-minded compatriots? After John Kerry’s loss in the 2004 election, a homemade digital graphic migrated across the pre-social internet. On it, the states that had cast their electoral votes for Kerry were labeled “the United States of Canada”; George W. Bush’s became “Jesusland.” After Trump’s victory, those memes graduated into op-eds, including from others who would have to acquiesce in the fantasy. “Is it time for Canada to annex Blue America?” a columnist in the Canadian news magazine Maclean’s asked last year.

The fact that anyone with Photoshop can cogently cleave the country in two is a credit to the hardening of a once-fluid political map. Over half the states have cast their Electoral College votes consistently for one party in every presidential election since 2000. In 2016, those states all picked Senate winners from the same party as their presidential picks as well. But as three British geographers concluded in a 2016 article about spatial polarization, that’s not just a feature of the Electoral College map. Whether measured by county, state, or region, the partisan divide has grown since Bill Clinton’s first election: Red places have grown redder (at least in their presidential votes), blue places bluer. In 1992, 38 percent of Americans lived in “landslide counties,” which went for a presidential candidate by a margin of 20 percentage points or more, the Times has reported; in 2016, the number reached 60 percent.

{snip} If we are already living in two political geographies, why not generate a system of government to match?

Or so goes the fantasy. There’s no real groundswell of support for shrinking the United States. Surveys have shown that two-thirds of Californians oppose independence, and not only because the Calexit movement’s lefty critiques of Trump do not align with its righty origins. {snip} Among institutions, only the Libertarian Party has ever endorsed the position that states should be freely able to secede.

History gives us few examples of successful peaceful secessions. In the ones we do have, national identity rather than ideological differences seem to be at the root of the fissure. {snip} None of the three multinational states created between the two world wars — the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, or Czechoslovakia — survived until the end of the 20th century.


And yet, if the desire to secede were to grow, recent votes in Scotland and Quebec have modeled the way that secession in a developed country during years of peace can become just another political question — one debated relatively civilly, voted on democratically, without attendant allegations of treason or sedition. (Spain’s government has been less forgiving of what it calls an unconstitutional independence referendum held last year in Catalonia.)

There is at least one mechanism by which a sort of soft breakup may be imaginable — and it’s already found within the Constitution. The document introduces the prospect of one state entering into a compact with another. States have created interstate compacts to maintain common standards, like the Driver’s License Compact that 47 DMVs use to exchange knowledge on traffic scofflaws. Most have been used for neighboring jurisdictions to handle common resources, like the Atlantic Salmon Compact that permits New England states to manage fish stocks in the Connecticut River Basin. ({snip}

Interstate compacts have rarely been applied to controversial topics. Yet to a paralyzed Congress, and a president without any deeply held views about state-federal relations, they could prove an appealing vehicle to restless factions on both the left and the right. It may be time to take the country apart and put it back together, into a shape that better aligns with the divergent, and increasingly irreconcilable, political preferences of its people {snip}


As it was for a majority of Britons, it is easier to imagine breaking up the United States than figuring out how to make it work — whether through bold new policies or merely a functioning version of consensus politics. The seeming inelasticity of our system of governance also guarantees a security and predictability that we take for granted. Some of the lessons Europe is being taught under the stress of the Brexit crisis — that a single currency requires a unified economy, or that a lack of internal borders can’t work if no one can agree on what should happen at the outer one — are ones Americans might better learn from fantasy than from experience.