Aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg, American Civil War, 1863
A reader alerted me to Ronald Brownstein’s recent article in The Atlantic, “America Is Growing Apart, Possibly for Good.” The short essay summarizes the conclusions of Michael Podhorzer, a longtime political strategist and the chair of the Analyst Institute, a collaborative of progressive groups that studies elections.
When we think about the United States, we make the essential error of imagining it as a single nation, a marbled mix of Red and Blue people … But in truth, we have never been one nation. We are more like a federated republic of two nations: Blue Nation and Red Nation. This is not a metaphor; it is a geographic and historical reality.
For Podhorzer, the differences among states in the USA today are “very similar, both geographically and culturally, to the divides between the Union and the Confederacy. And those dividing lines were largely set at the nation’s founding, when slave states and free states forged an uneasy alliance to become ‘one nation.’”
This doesn’t mean we will have another civil war, exactly but it does mean that the pressure on national cohesion will continue to increase. Like other analysts who study democracy, he views the Trump faction that now dominates the Republican Party
as the U.S. equivalent to the authoritarian parties in places such as Hungary and Venezuela. It is a multipronged, fundamentally antidemocratic movement that has built a solidifying base of institutional support through conservative media networks, evangelical churches, wealthy Republican donors, GOP elected officials, paramilitary white-nationalist groups, and a mass public following. And it is determined to impose its policy and social vision on the entire country—with or without majority support. “The structural attacks on our institutions that paved the way for Trump’s candidacy will continue to progress,” Podhorzer argues, “with or without him at the helm.”
All of this is fueling what Brownstein has called “the great divergence” now happening between red and blue states. This divergence puts enormous strain on the country’s cohesion, but this is just the beginning.
What’s becoming clearer over time is that the Trump-era GOP is hoping to use its electoral dominance of the red states, the small-state bias in the Electoral College and the Senate, and the GOP-appointed majority on the Supreme Court to impose its economic and social model on the entire nation … As measured on fronts including the January 6 insurrection, the procession of Republican 2020 election deniers running for offices that would provide them with control over the 2024 electoral machinery, and the systematic advance of a Republican agenda by the Supreme Court, the underlying political question of the 2020s remains whether majority rule—and democracy as we’ve known it—can survive this offensive.
The vast difference between red and blue states means that the 10 purple states (if you include Arizona and Georgia) decide whether red or blue values will prevail. “And that leaves the country perpetually teetering on a knife’s edge: The combined vote margin for either party across those purple states has been no greater than two percentage points in any of the past three presidential elections, he calculates.”
The increasing antagonism between the red and the blue nation is a defining characteristic of 21st-century America, whereas the middle decades of the 20th century were characterized by greater convergence.
One part of that convergence came through what legal scholars call the “rights revolution.” This refers to actions from Congress and the Supreme Court, that strengthened the floor of nationwide rights and reduced the ability of states to curtail those rights. Examples here include the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts and the Supreme Court decisions striking down state bans on contraception, interracial marriage, abortion, and, later, prohibitions against same-sex intimate relations and marriage.
At the same time, “regional differences were moderated by waves of national investment, including the New Deal spending on rural electrification, the Tennessee Valley Authority, agricultural price supports, and Social Security during the 1930s, and the Great Society programs that provided federal aid for K–12 schools and higher education, as well as Medicare and Medicaid.”
The impact of these investments … helped steadily narrow the gap in per capita income between the states of the old Confederacy and the rest of the country from the 1930s until about 1980. That progress, though, stopped after 1980, and the gap remained roughly unchanged for the next three decades. Since about 2008, Podhorzer calculates, the southern states at the heart of the red nation have again fallen further behind the blue nation in per capita income.
Now it is the case that red states, as a group, fall behind blue states “on a broad range of economic and social outcomes—including economic productivity, family income, life expectancy, and “deaths of despair” from the opioid crisis and alcoholism.” Simply put blue states are benefiting more as the nation transitions to a “21st-century information economy, and red states (apart from their major metropolitan centers participating in that economy) are suffering as the powerhouse industries of the 20th century—agriculture, manufacturing, and fossil-fuel extraction—decline.”
The above is born out by the fact that
gross domestic product per person and the median household income are now both more than 25 percent greater in the blue section than in the red …The share of kids in poverty is more than 20 percent lower in the blue section than red, and the share of working households with incomes below the poverty line is nearly 40 percent lower. Health outcomes are diverging too. Gun deaths are almost twice as high per capita in the red places as in the blue, as is the maternal mortality rate. The COVID vaccination rate is about 20 percent higher in the blue section, and the per capita COVID death rate is about 20 percent higher in the red. Life expectancy is nearly three years greater in the blue (80.1 years) than the red (77.4) states.
Per capita spending on elementary and secondary education is almost 50 percent higher in the blue states compared with red. All of the blue states have expanded access to Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, while about 60 percent of the total red-nation population lives in states that have refused to do so. All of the blue states have set a minimum wage higher than the federal level of $7.25, while only about one-third of the red-state residents live in places that have done so. Right-to-work laws are common in the red states and nonexistent in the blue, with the result that the latter have a much higher share of unionized workers than the former. No state in the blue section has a law on the books banning abortion before fetal viability, while almost all of the red states are poised to restrict abortion rights … Almost all of the red states have also passed “stand your ground” laws backed by the National Rifle Association, which provide a legal defense for those who use weapons against a perceived threat, while none of the blue states have done so.
And the many socially conservative laws that red states have passed since 2021, on abortion; classroom discussions of race, gender, and sexual orientation; and LGBTQ rights, continue to widen this split. Another implication of all this is the establishment of “one-party rule in the red nation.” There we continue to see patterns from the Jim Crow era, where voting restrictions are so severe and gerrymandering so persuasive that Republicans lock in control of state legislatures.
So how will the USA function when it is essentially two different nations? Brownstein argues that history shows us two possible models for what will happen.
One possibility is the defensive one.
During the seven decades of legal Jim Crow segregation from the 1890s through the 1960s, the principal goal of the southern states at the core of red America was defensive: They worked tirelessly to prevent federal interference with state-sponsored segregation but did not seek to impose it on states outside the region.
The other possibility is that the red states will continue their offensive strategy.
in the last years before the Civil War, the South’s political orientation was offensive: Through the courts (the 1857 Dred Scott decision) and in Congress (the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854), its principal aim was to authorize the expansion of slavery into more territories and states. Rather than just protecting slavery within their borders, the Southern states sought to control federal policy to impose their vision across more of the nation, including, potentially, to the point of overriding the prohibitions against slavery in the free states.
Brownstein doubts that “the Trump-era Republicans installing the policy priorities of their preponderantly white and Christian coalition across the red states will be satisfied just setting the rules in the places now under their control.” Instead, he agrees with Podhorzer and others that
the MAGA movement’s long-term goal is to tilt the electoral rules in enough states to make winning Congress or the White House almost impossible for Democrats. Then, with support from the GOP-appointed majority on the Supreme Court, Republicans could impose red-state values and programs nationwide, even if most Americans oppose them. The “MAGA movement is not stopping at the borders of the states it already controls,” Podhorzer writes. “It seeks to conquer as much territory as possible by any means possible.”
In other words, the model of the current Trump Republican party “is more the South in 1850 than the South in 1950…” This doesn’t mean we will have another civil war like that of the 1860s but, as Brownstein soberly concludes “it does mean that the 2020s may bring the greatest threats to the country’s basic stability since those dark and tumultuous years.”
Brief Response –
Unfortunately, I agree with the above analysis. These are difficult times for those of us who are progressive and tolerant; those of us who believe in democracy and abhor fascism. I fear for my grandchildren.
Since I penned the above essay, Jonathan Weisman has published an op-ed in the NYTimes on a similar theme titled “Spurred by the Supreme Court, a Nation Divides Along a Red-Blue Axis.”