Nov 4, 2020 - Politics & Policy

The Disunited States

Illustration of the a divided topographical map of the United States
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Whatever the final outcome of the U.S. presidential election is, it is unlikely to alter long-running political and cultural divides within the country.

Why it matters: America has faced worse divisions in the past and survived — at great cost — but with polarization set to deepen over time, the country could face paralyzing political sclerosis or even calls for secession, two recent books argue.

  • “There is not a single important cultural, religious, political or social force that is pulling Americans together more than it is pushing us apart,” writer David French notes in his new book "Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation."

Driving the news: Almost half of the U.S. is likely to feel betrayed by the result of the 2020 presidential election. The only question still to be decided as the final votes are tabulated is which half it will be.

  • That continues a trend of ever more extreme polarization that dates back to the 1990s.
  • In 2016, more than 61% of voters lived in "landslide counties" — areas where voters supported one presidential candidate by at least 60%. That was up from 50% in 2012 and 39% in 1992.
  • If Democrats continue to congregate in heavily populated metropolitan areas as projected, the American political system's skew toward rural areas and states would only grow, so much so that by 2040, 70% of Americans could live in just 15 states, giving them a voice in just 30% of the Senate.

One possible outcome: French — an anti-Trump conservative — argues that America's divisions are so great, and our political system so poorly designed to handle them, that secession may eventually be the result.

  • "If we keep pushing people and pushing people and pushing people, you cannot assume that they won't break," he told Business Insider in a recent interview.

Yes, but: Actually executing secession would be dizzyingly difficult in a country as economically interwoven as the U.S., and while our ideological divisions are indeed extreme, they don't always run evenly along state borders.

  • Even in ultra-blue California, more than 30% of voters went for Donald Trump, with several rural counties going for the GOP by landslide margins, while the opposite is true in ultra-red states like Kentucky.

Context: We associate secession with Confederate states and the Civil War, but "almost everybody at one time or another in every different part of the country has considered the idea of breaking up," says Richard Kreitner, the author of "Break It Up: Secession, Division, and the Secret History of America's Imperfect Union."

  • After the 2012 election, secession petitions were launched in all 50 states, with campaigns in six states receiving enough signatures to require a response from the U.S. government.
  • In his book, French plays out two plausible secession scenarios: one involving Democratic West Coast states leaving the union over gun laws, and the other involving Republican Southern states led by Texas seceding because of abortion laws.
  • What both scenarios have in common is a sense among citizens of the seceding states that the opposing party that controls the national government is an existential threat that can no longer be combated through electoral politics.
  • A 2018 Axios poll found nearly a quarter of Republicans and roughly the same percentage of Democrats characterized the opposing party as "evil."

Of note: The electorate did become somewhat less racially polarized in 2020, mostly due to Republicans making some gains with Black and Latino voters.

  • And Americans seem more mixed ideologically than their landslide partisan voting might suggest, with voters in Florida going for both Trump and a $15 minimum wage, and liberal Californians supporting a ballot initiative that exempts ride-sharing drivers and app delivery workers from being classified as employees.

The other possible scenario: A state of gridlock should the White House and Congress be consistently split between political parties.

  • Instead of secession, the U.S. becomes what historian Sanford Levinson has called "the sick man of the West," aware of the needed reforms but unable to execute them because of political sclerosis.

The bottom line: While all eyes are still on the vote, yesterday's election isn't a cause of this deep divide, but rather a consequence of it. Whatever the ultimate result, divisions between Americans will keep growing — until one day, perhaps, we reach a breaking point.

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