Break It Up

It’s the day after the New York Times published its scoop on Trump’s taxes, and while I hope the news helps the Democrats in November I don’t plan to focus on it here. Instead, let’s take a brief look at what happens after the election, regardless of who wins.

It’s been said many times that Trump is merely a symptom of America’s dysfunction and I believe this to be true. We’ve had appalling Presidents in the past, and we’ve always had plenty of truly deplorable citizens. So, defeating Trump in November (or December, or January) will not resolve the nation’s problems.

In fact, you could argue—and I do—that nothing can or will “fix” America as it’s presently constituted. This is also the argument that Nation contributor Richard Kreitner makes in his much-discussed new book, Break It Up. Kreitner reviews the long history of this country and demonstrates it has never been truly united. The “union” has been held together by one morally abhorrent compromise after another, right up until the present day.

Break It Up, by Richard Kreitner—an instructive look at America's past and a possible path to America's future.
Break It Up, by Richard Kreitner—an instructive look at America’s past and a possible path to America’s future.

But now we’re running out of time. Consider:

* We have 200,000+ deaths from Covid–19, and the pandemic continues.
* Climate change is here now—witness unprecedented West Coast fires, producing the world’s worst air quality.
* America’s built-in, historical social injustice is being confronted almost daily on the streets but little tangible progress has been made.
* We have a dysfunctional two-party system with entrenched safeguards against genuine democracy, resulting in minority rule.
* America lags behind other “advanced” countries in nearly every measurable quality of life indicator.

Imagine the Democrats win the White House and the Senate. More than 40% of the citizenry would still be adamantly (perhaps violently) opposed to any new agenda the government might offer. The country’s judicial system has shifted to the right. Right-wing militias are on the rise, and America has more guns than people.

Is progress likely under such circumstances? Can we really address the myriad emergencies facing this country?

Now imagine another scenario, one in which “red” and “blue” states agree to go their separate ways. Secession is a fraught issue but it is one that has always been with us, as Kreitner shows. Let’s say, for the moment, that each side of the country agreed to negotiate a peaceable separation which would possibly entail a common defense but also two new charters or constitutions for the two new nations. Granted, such negotiations would be extremely thorny. But each side’s desire to be free of the other would be a powerful motivator.

And what possibilities might ensue! A Blue America could follow a charter that guaranteed truly equal opportunity for all, a sane health care system, a dedication to fighting climate change and a rational system of justice. There would be no Second Amendment and no widespread gun ownership. Police forces would be college-educated and professionally trained; they would not have military equipment at their disposal. Prisons would not be capitalistic enterprises but would instead be focused on reform. Education would again become one of the country’s most revered professions. And on, and on. We could have a social democracy built on the Nordic model and strive to improve it further. We could have a country that people of good will, empathy and conscience could take genuine pride in.

I’m not naïve; I realize that dividing the country into separate nations would not be easy, nor would it produce a utopia. But it could produce a hell of a lot more genuine progress than we’re likely to get under our present flawed system. Given the intractable division in the U. S., and given the various states of emergency we confront, it’s time for another carefully considered look at the benefits which could accrue from secession. Reading Break It Up is a good place to start.

Break It Up

As the midterms approach, some people are expressing hope that things can begin to change. If only the Democrats can take the House, at least there will be some check on Republican power, they say.

I believe this is short-sighted, wishful thinking. The Democrats could take all of Congress, and take back the presidency in 2020, and there would still be some 40% of Americans festering in ignorance and hatred. Despite its name, this country has been only sporadically united, and then only under severe external threat (financial ruin, world war). We have always been divided. I believe it’s time to acknowledge this fundamental truth once and for all.

Blue Red by Ellsworth Kelly, thebroad.org.
Blue Red by Ellsworth Kelly, thebroad.org.

Creating separate blue and red Americas is fraught with danger, of course. Yet the alternative—trying to remain together—is at least as perilous. Hatred and violence are growing by the day, and the current nation’s gun “policies” are insane. Rather than the constant, growing battle for social and cultural supremacy, why not let each side go its own way? Why not appoint ambassadors from each side to negotiate a separation agreement?

Well, one reason is that the more perceptive residents of Red America would quickly recognize they were getting the short end of the stick. The international power and clout of America reside largely in the blue states, as does America’s intellectual and cultural capital. The ordinary red(neck) citizenry might say “good riddance,” but the smarter denizens of Texas and Missouri would soon realize they’d be at a considerable disadvantage as a stand-alone country.

Does the above paragraph reflect my anger and contempt for Trump-supporting America? You’re goddamned right it does—political animus is by no means restricted to the backward-looking heartland.

What, then, is the answer? Should Blue America simply secede? Much as I’d love to live in that new country, the answer is, probably not—secession would almost certainly lead to some sort of new, 21st century civil war, or at the very least to an escalation of the already intolerable level of everyday violence.

We’re at an impasse, folks. What to do with that problematic 40%? The Democratic Party doesn’t seem capable of taking and holding power in this country. And holding power would be necessary, if for no other reason than to reestablish a strong public education system to stamp out the appalling ignorance that underlies our present situation.

With all its inherent difficulties, then, some sort of formal separation seems to be our best bet going forward. But it won’t be easy.

The Allure of Hatred

When James T. Hodgkinson shot Representative Steve Scalise and three others on an Alexandria, VA baseball practice field on June 14, his anti-Trump, anti-Republican Party views were widely noted. It wasn’t long before the Republicans started saying the left should “tone it down,” and pro-Trump supporters in Central Park interrupted a performance of Julius Caesar, protesting “the normalization of political violence against the right.”

Political violence on the diamond.
Political violence on the diamond. Photo: CNN.

No group has a monopoly on political hatred, but most would agree that hate groups and violent individual incidents occur more frequently on the right than the left. In fact there was surprise expressed at Hodgkinson’s political views, since anti-Republican violence is somewhat unusual. Not that Hodgkinson was any sort of political activist—he seems to have been a disturbed individual and a domestic abuser with little political involvement at all, apart from his comments on social media. But political hatred is alluring these days, whether one has a troubled background or not.

American politics has disintegrated to the point where each side views the other as the enemy. Enmity has reached the point where, for many people, members of the opposition party appear as enormously damaged human beings, if not actively evil. Eric Trump was recently quoted as saying, of Democrats, “to me, they’re not even people.”

This kind of hatred can be enticing. It’s like a drug that intensifies emotion and makes colors pop. For people leading uneventful, ordinary lives, it can add a jolt of excitement. For the increasingly large number of people whose lives are stressed daily, political hatred provides an outlet, a target, a scapegoat.

I can empathize and I suspect you can, too. We’re all flawed human beings, to be sure, but how can those people believe in such utterly destructive nonsense? How can they behave as they do? What hypocrites! What heartless, self-serving bastards! Look what they’ve done to America’s economy/education/healthcare/infrastructure/politics!

Can these divisions be bridged? I doubt it. It seems likelier that incidents like the one in Alexandria will only increase, with “partisans” from both sides doing the shooting. And each new outrage will only harden the hatred.

It would be helpful if the country could fully acknowledge this, if only to begin the process of constructing a solution. Increasingly, that solution seems to be that we will go our separate ways, either violently and chaotically, as at present, or formally and permanently with a political solution that codifies our divide in a way that makes sense.

What Should Happen Next?

When you look at the map below, it’s easy to draw mistaken conclusions from the 2016 election results. At first glance, one would think “Red” voters outnumber their “Blue” counterparts by a 50-1 margin. Yet we know there were nearly three million more blue votes than red.

2016 election results
2016 election results by county, sans Alaska. Source: New York Times.

Similarly, you would suppose most blue voters are to be found on the coasts, while the interior of the country is painted conservative red. This is generally true, yet there are blue counties in every state on this map, and red counties alongside the two oceans.

The Daily Stormer website, an “alt-right” (read: neo-Nazi) hangout that describes Manhattan as “Shekel Island,” looks at the map above and decides the United States should be partitioned into separate countries. “Do we really want a vicious cycle of the coasts and the core fighting one another to convince a few border regions to flip one way or the other every four years?” the site asks.

It’s a valid question. I come at the issue from the left rather than the right, but I agree with the assessment that the one-step forward, one-step back routine has become counterproductive. America is now so divided that it is difficult to imagine this ever changing, at least under our current antiquated system. Trump showed no inclination to even try and unite the country in his “America First” inauguration speech—he is continuing to play to his base. In response, huge crowds in Washington and elsewhere around the U. S. (and the world) are voicing their opposition today. You do this, I do that. Now I’m up, now I’m down.

You could argue with Martin Luther King, Jr. (paraphrasing the American Transcendentalist Theodore Parker) that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But that arc is very long indeed, and for now we seem to be stuck in place, at best.

The idea of secession, long a politically taboo topic, is beginning to percolate around the country, particularly in California. I personally think it would make more sense for California and other progressive states (New York, New England, the Pacific Northwest) to band together, rather than California going it alone. Yes, I know this reads like a far-out fringe fantasy and I do realize that the obstacles to realizing such an ambition would be immense.

But consider what’s happening in America. Does it really make sense for progressives to start over at ground level with the goal of returning Democrats to office in 2018 and 2020? Even if this were successful, the seething anger and confounding ignorance that took Trump to Washington would remain and the political back-and-forth would continue, ad infinitum.

There has to be a better alternative.