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The Case for the Union

The country is divided. We should still fight for it.

Abraham Lincoln scowls down at the politicians celebrating his 200th birthday in 2009. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

One hundred and fifty-five years ago this week, Abraham Lincoln traveled to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania to give a two-minute speech. He and other dignitaries gathered to honor at least 23,000 Union soldiers who gave their lives on the field of battle that summer. Those young men fought, Lincoln said, so that “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” They died so that the Union and American democracy itself could live.

This week’s New York magazine offers a rebuttal of sorts. Journalist Sasha Issenberg published a lengthy meditation that asks whether the United States should be broken up. He readily admits that this is not a new idea. Contrarian writers revisit the idea every few years as they fret about the nation’s political divisions. Fringe secessionist movements in Alaska, California, and Vermont wield virtually no political influence. Presidential elections, where the nation’s red/blue divide is laid bare, often lead to an uptick in chatter on whether our politics can long endure.

Issenberg, to his credit, adds a new twist on the concept. Most of the article is framed around interstate compacts, a constitutional mechanism that allows the states to create binding legal agreements amongst themselves. Issenberg fleshes out the idea that Congress could effectively transfer its interstate policy-making powers to the states by giving them a blank check to write these compacts. (Currently, Congress has to sign off on any substantive agreement between the states.) Red states and blue states could then band together with like-minded neighbors to pass their own common laws on healthcare, organized labor, housing, the environment, and more.

This doesn’t sound like secessionism, of course. But Issenberg acknowledges that it may lead there. “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—or at least to consider what such a future might look like, if for no other reason than to test our own resolve,” he wrote. “An imagined trial separation, if you will.”

Yet it’s hard to look at this hypothetical and not come away convinced that a truly united United States is vastly better than the alternative: Many of the problems Issenberg identifies can be tackled through existing mechanisms, albeit with some effort and organizing. Separating the states would instead entrench partisan divides into American political structures, giving permanence to what may be fleeting political moods. It would diminish the social and cultural influence of millions of Americans, particularly communities of color in the red states. And it would raise the specter of armed conflict on North American soil for the first time in a century.

In fact, individual states already have ample tools to act beyond the federal government if they wish it. In the last two years, for example, California passed a net-neutrality bill, raised emissions standards for cars, and declared itself a sanctuary state to resist federal immigration policies. (The Trump administration is waging a legal battle against all three measures.) I’ve written about how liberals can still use state courts and state constitutions to pursue their legal agenda even as the federal judiciary drifts further to the right.

Attempting to unravel the Union, on the other hand, would mark the beginning of the end for America’s experiment in self-government. It isn’t anti-democratic in the sense that it favors authoritarianism; what it rejects is the idea that American democracy can still work at all—that a vast, multicultural nation can resolve differences and tackle problems through compromise and consensus. The rough-and-tumble politics that characterize a democratic society under the dissolutionist view are seen not as a process to engage with, but a flaw to be corrected. The active goal of such a plan would be a patchwork system of stagnant, ultra-majoritarian governments where power could not be persuaded.

Americans have the right to alter their political structures as they see fit, of course. Dismantling the Union, however, would be a permanent solution to what is essentially a transitory political problem. Consider the “Jesusland” map. The 2004 viral illustration depicted a “United States of Canada” formed by the states that voted for John Kerry in that year’s election and their northern neighbor, while the states won by George W. Bush devoted themselves to cultural conservatism. The map seems almost quaint today. Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Virginia—all Jesusland states a decade and a half ago—are now solidly blue. Democrats even made strong showings in Georgia and Texas during this year’s midterms, while Florida remains as narrowly divided as elsewhere. Had Issenberg published his article after the 2004 election, his system would have sorted millions of Americans into an ideological group that they would soon abandon.

What’s more, many states’ politics can’t be easily reduced to their color on a map. New England will send a virtually all-Democratic delegation to Congress after this year’s midterms, leaving Maine Senator Susan Collins as the region’s last GOP lawmaker. At the same time, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont are all currently led by popular Republican governors. Voters in Idaho, Nebraska, and Utah simultaneously chose to expand their states’ Medicaid programs under the Affordable Care Act, while also sending a slate of Republican lawmakers back to Congress who largely support repealing the landmark healthcare law.

On many issues, Americans aren’t as sharply divided as the political rhetoric suggests. Polls often show widespread support for a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in some form. Almost two-thirds of Americans think marijuana should be legalized. Few issues are as divisive as abortion rights, but a July poll found that 71 percent oppose overturning Roe v. Wade. A whopping 90 percent support universal background checks for gun ownership. There’s even a strong consensus in liberal and conservative policy circles that mass incarceration should be rolled back, though the two sides often disagree about the solutions.

So why doesn’t national policy reflect these views? Congress, for one, is a politically impotent institution. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich helped transform the House of Representatives into a hollow theater for partisan spectacle by waging permanent political campaigns and shredding bipartisan legislative norms. He also shut down nonpartisan sources of expertise like the Office of Technology Assessment, Congress’s in-house advisory body on tech issues. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had a similar impact in the upper chamber, where he nudged the once-collegial body into maximalist partisanship and constitutional hardball. Republicans shoulder most of the blame for Congress’s decline, but leaders from both parties have contributed by centralizing their power at the cost of traditional avenues for legislative work.

The average American also exercises less influence over their elected representatives than in years past. Republicans today enjoy a cascade of structural advantages that insulate them from the popular will. President Donald Trump captured the presidency despite losing the popular vote by almost three million ballots, then appointed two Supreme Court justices who will secure a conservative majority for at least a generation. A decade of partisan gerrymandering by the GOP forced Democratic candidates to win by overwhelming margins just to secure a majority in the House. The red states fare little better: Voter suppression in Georgia appears to have secured Governor-elect Brian Kemp’s razor-thin victory, while warped legislative maps in Wisconsin allowed Republicans to keep control of both houses while Democrats got more statewide vote.

Many of these problems are ultimately fixable. Redistricting reform at the state level, a new Voting Rights Act at the federal level, statehood for the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, and decentralizing power in Congress are all practical options in the near-to-medium future. Maine’s experiment in ranked-choice voting, if adopted more widely, could give voters more options beyond the two-party system. Abolishing the Electoral College would also be a worthy long-term fight. If nothing else, these solutions are at least less extreme than dissolving the Union.

In the end, any dissolution would still raise the question of how states would resolve conflict. Issenberg proposes a system based on an unwritten truce. “To kick off the Federation Era, the [governors of California and Texas] meet on the steps of the United States Supreme Court for a photo op,” he wrote. “Shaking hands, the men and their attorneys general pledge not to support any legal challenge to the other’s authority for two decades.”

Like any norm, this legal ceasefire would work until it doesn’t. Say, for example, that Nevada’s water problems get even worse over the next few decades. The state is already under siege by a steady influx of new residents that increases demand, and a persistent drought that’s reducing supply. Climate change will only make things even worse. Suppose that, ten years into this brave new world, the state were to pull out of the Colorado River Compact and start diverting even more water to keep Las Vegas afloat. What recourse would California and the blue states have to remedy the situation outside of the courts?

In the 1930s, Arizona and California waged a cold war for control of the Colorado River and a proposed dam that would divert more water to the Los Angeles area. The standoff peaked in 1934 when Arizona Governor Benjamin Moeur called up the state’s National Guard and deployed it to halt construction of the Parker Dam, defying the six states then belonging to the interstate compact and the federal government that was overseeing the project. The Roosevelt administration appealed to the courts to block Moeur from obstructing the work. The Supreme Court, however, ultimately sided with Arizona and vindicated the state’s use of military force.

Cooler heads ultimately prevailed, Arizona soon joined the compact, and the Parker Dam stands today. In a weaker system, however, it would be easy to imagine that conflict having gone further than it did, even without today’s hyper-partisan atmosphere. Testing that hypothesis hardly seems worth the risk. To borrow a line from former UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld, the Union exists not to bring Americans from heaven but to save us from hell. It also gives form to an immutable truth about human politics: We are all, for better or worse, in this together.