David French’s Divided We Fall, which warns that the U.S. is at risk of a literal breakup if current trends in political polarization continue, is one of those books that’s almost too timely. Its long-range predictions already feel out of date.
French imagined California splitting from the United States, presumably before Gov. Gavin Newsom declared California a “nation-state” in response to federal failures to combat the coronavirus. French puts forth a scenario where roadblocks are set up on state borders. During the early days of the pandemic, that happened. French foresees Democrats trying to pack the Supreme Court in order to protect abortion rights … well, you get the picture. The problem with French’s nightmare scenarios isn’t that they seem implausible—it’s that, as of now, they seem like wishful thinking.
French has more credibility than most when it comes to decrying blind partisanship. He’s a veteran of the culture wars: a Christian evangelical attorney who used to be best known for suing American universities on religious liberty grounds and writing for National Review. But since 2016, he’s become better known as a leading conservative critic of Donald Trump, in the process enduring a torrent of abuse from right-wing trolls including disgusting racist attacks directed at his adopted Black daughter. Today, he describes himself as a “man without a party” and acts as an all-purpose defender of free speech—someone willing to go to bat for both James Damore and Colin Kaepernick.
The first part of Divided We Fall is a very familiar overview of current trends in partisan polarization: Americans have become much less likely to associate with people with whom they disagree in politics, and increasingly live in overwhelmingly blue or red communities. Politics overwhelm every other form of social, cultural, and religious identification, and people become more extreme as they tailor their views to those of their peers. Partisans don’t want to just defeat one another in argument; they want to destroy one another.
An even more familiar litany of alleged perpetrators—Fox News, overly woke college activists, the NRA, antifa—are trotted out as French decries the vitriol and winner-takes-all spirit that have taken over our democracy. Given the party identification of the White House’s current occupant, and which side is perpetrating the vast majority of political violence in the country today, it seems to me that French is reaching a bit to make both sides seem equally responsible for this state of affairs. Then again, according to his schema, I would think that, so it’s worth just conceding the point to get to the more provocative part of the book, which imagines the end result of these trends.
Putting on his speculative fiction hat, French imagines two scenarios for the breakup of the United States, one representing fears of the left, the other the right. In the first, California bans private gun ownership in the wake of a horrific school shooting, setting up a constitutional showdown that leads the states on the West Coast to conclude that the union is no longer worth preserving. In the second, Southern states ban abortion, setting a similar scenario in motion. In both cases, a subsequent act of accidental violence prompts the final crackup.
What’s odd about French’s scenarios is that it’s a little hard to tell why he thinks they’re a bad thing. After 244 years—much older than most currently existing constitutional regimes—if we’ve really become completely incapable of existing as one cohesive political community, then why, other than a sentimental attachment to the Stars and Stripes, should red and blue Americans continue to share a country? At the end of the Calexit scenario, he even writes that Americans “mainly felt relief” after it was all over.
Instead, he thinks the worst consequences will be international. After the split-up of the United States, he writes, “the peace that had been maintained through the overwhelming military and economic might of the United States would not hold.” This is an accelerated version of the argument Robert Kagan and others have made about America’s ongoing disengagement from the world. Without the U.S. security guarantee, French imagines a return to great power conflict, with China and Russia moving to invade their smaller neighbors. With all due respect to these countries, if the best argument for the continued existence of the United States is the security of Estonia and Taiwan, maybe it really is time to pack it in.
The completely unsentimental reason to be worried about the breakup of the United States is that it’s unlikely to be as tidy as French’s scenarios suggest. Peaceful national divorces are few and far between in world history. Examples like Czechoslovakia’s “velvet divorce” are far less common than nightmare scenarios like the Partition of India or the splintering of Yugoslavia. The Soviet Union’s fragmentation did not lead to the “Yugoslavia with nukes” that many U.S. officials feared at the time, but it did spark decades of brutal war in the Caucasus. Russian resentment over the stranding of ethnic Russians across international borders—by what Vladimir Putin called the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century—culminated in Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the ongoing violence in eastern Ukraine.
The problem with drawing new borders, whether it’s Europe after World War I, the former Soviet Union today, or the U.S. in French’s imagined future, is always minorities. People don’t usually live together in fully homogenous divisible units. Wherever you draw a new line, someone is going to be on the wrong side of it.
One of the main reasons that French thinks the U.S. is ripe for secession is that, as in the years prior to the American Civil War, “red and blue states tend to be geographically clustered” with Democrats in control of the Pacific Coast and the Upper East Coast and Republicans dominating “the states of the Southeastern Conference.”
But while these red and blue clusters are apparent on a state-by-state election map, things look very different when you break it down further. A district-by-district map shows America as a sea of red interspersed with tiny but densely populated splotches of blue. There is a geographical divide in the U.S. today, but North vs. South and coasts vs. heartland are often less relevant than urban vs. rural. Breaking the country up into chunks would leave a lot of stranded citizens. For this reason, I don’t think secession is very likely, and if it did happen, it would involve more violence, border conflicts, and massive population exchanges than French is anticipating.
French’s solution to the problem is essentially more federalism: devolving more political power from Washington to the state level. If we just “let California be California and Tennessee be Tennessee,” the argument goes, every presidential election and every Supreme Court vacancy won’t feel like a life-or-death blood struggle.
French says that his awakening about the dangers of American factionalism came after he witnessed sectarian violence in Iraq, where he was deployed as a reserve JAG officer. So, there’s some irony in the fact that his solution to America’s cultural conflicts has some similarities to Joe Biden’s much-derided 2006 plan for a “soft partition” of Iraq into semi-autonomous Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish zones.
The argument is appealing in many ways. But minorities are also why the soft partition strategy seems unlikely to address many of the problems French is concerned about. Would a gun-owning, anti-abortion resident of Allegany County, New York, which went 68 percent for Trump in 2016, really be more accepting of laws they view as illegitimate and immoral if they were being written in Albany rather than Washington? What about a Latino Democrat in Starr County, Texas—79 percent for Clinton? More state-level federalism seems likely to accelerate the “big sort” (the geographical clustering of like-minded voters) and to move life-or-death political struggles down to 50 separate capitals. Perhaps we could go farther and devolve everything down to the local or community level, but then you’re getting pretty close to anarchist theory, and it doesn’t seem like French is heading in that direction.
It’s on the question of civil rights where French’s otherwise scrupulous neutrality starts to break down. He acknowledges that for many Americans, the notion of states’ rights brings to mind Southern senators filibustering civil rights laws, but he seems to find these concerns outdated and feels that the Bill of Rights will prevent outright discrimination. He quotes a “thoughtful progressive friend” saying, “It’s hard to give up on the notion that embracing federalism doesn’t also mean abandoning African Americans in Mississippi,” to which he responds, “What kind of place do you think modern Mississippi is?” His friend could have pointed to the racial makeup of Mississippi’s prison population or its absurdly restrictive election laws, but French doesn’t give him the chance.
French sees the Obama administration’s suit to block Arizona’s draconian 2010 immigration law as executive overreach (to be fair, he also opposes the Trump administration’s efforts to stamp out California’s sanctuary cities) without acknowledging that many Americans viewed that law as a violation of undocumented immigrants’ human rights, not just a matter of local preference.
Many contentious issues also cross state lines. Gun laws meant to keep firearms off the streets of Chicago won’t be very effective if you can buy them 30 miles away in Gary, Indiana. French notes that conservative Americans feel disrespected by a popular culture dominated by secular liberals. But even if power is returned to the states, they’re still going to be seeing NFL players kneeling on Sunday, and their kids will still be streaming “WAP.”
Likewise, French doesn’t acknowledge environmental issues at all except to sneer at plastic straw bans. Climate change is the textbook example of a borderless problem. Blue states can pass all the emissions caps they want, but if North Dakota continues fracking, emissions will keep increasing. Conversely, the reason the Trump administration is suing California over its auto emissions standards isn’t because Republicans are intolerant of Berkeley lefties’ environmentalist lifestyles. It’s because, given California’s size, the state can effectively mandate standards for the entire country.
Some of these are just fights we’re going to have to have out, and given the stakes, it will have to get heated.
An alternative view of a politically riven future America is provided in the 2019 novel Fall by cyberpunk author Neal Stephenson. In Stephenson’s future, Americans consume social media at all times via goggles. Liberal urbanites pay “editors” to curate the information they receive and put out, and zip from liberal enclave to liberal enclave via self-driving electeic cars. They rarely if ever turn off the interstate into “Ameristan,” where residents have been “Facebooked” out of reality by misinformation and QAnon-like conspiracy theories, and where armed militias and religious extremists dominate. Algorithms keep the two sides from talking to each other, and they have little interest in doing so anyway.
Stephenson’s vision often feels like a snobbish, blue-state fever dream, and he’s far less respectful than French of those with whom he disagrees politically. But what Stephenson does pick up on is that while Americans are too entangled at this point for either formal secession or French’s federalist soft partition, it’s very possible for us to share the same physical space while increasingly living in very different countries.
By David French. St. Martin’s Press.