By now, it’s no secret that Americans have largely divided along political lines and really don’t like the people in the opposing tribe. What’s a work in progress, though, is the growing willingness to do something very dramatic about that mutual loathing so that a temporarily dominant faction can’t be obstructed by its enemies. Increasingly, our countrymen contemplate a balkanized future in which newly formed statelets are led by woke or MAGA Caesars. It’s a future worth averting through some solution that lets people run their own lives independent of their opponents, if that’s at all possible.
“Significant numbers of both Trump and Biden voters show a willingness to consider violating democratic tendencies and norms if needed to serve their priorities,” the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics reported last week of its latest poll. “Roughly 2 in 10 Trump and Biden voters strongly agree it would be better if a ‘President could take needed actions without being constrained by Congress or courts,’ [more than 40 percent of both groups at least somewhat agree] and roughly 4 in 10 (41%) of Biden and half (52%) of Trump voters at least somewhat agree that it’s time to split the country, favoring blue/red states seceding from the union.”
These poll results aren’t outliers, but part of an evolving trend. Last year, the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group noted that “one-third (33 percent) of Americans have at some point in the last three years said that they think having ‘a strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with Congress or elections’ would be a good system of government.”
On a related note, in June of this year Bright Line Watch found that “levels of expressed support for secession are arrestingly high, with 37% of respondents overall indicating willingness to secede. Within each region, the dominant partisan group is most supportive of secession.” Among Republicans, the highest support for breaking up the country was found in the South, at 66 percent. About 47 percent of West-Coast Democrats favored creating their own nation.
“Rather than support for secession diminishing over the past six months, as we expected, it rose in every region and among nearly every partisan group,” the researchers added.
So, this involves more than frustrated politicians and pundits playing at the idea of installing a dictator or fracturing the country; something close to half of the population thinks these are intriguing ideas, worth seriously considering.
Resentment of the other tribe doesn’t come without encouragement from above, it’s worth emphasizing. President Joe Biden says Republicans should “get out of the way” so they don’t “destroy” America. That sounds much like his predecessor, President Donald Trump, who suggested that Democrats “hate our country” and “can leave.” Divisive jackassery is a shared characteristic that the political factions love exercising but resent in their opponents.
Not everybody agrees that tribal animosity necessitates separation into separate states, governed by a Caesar or otherwise. At Politico, Rich Lowry reasonably points out that, because Republicans and Democrats are separated more by county lines than by state borders, “If there were to be sovereign pure red and blue places, this wouldn’t look like the relatively neat split of the United States into two in the 1860s, but more like post-Peace of Westphalia Europe, with hundreds of different entities.” That raises a challenge to secession as a solution but doesn’t offer an alternative.
“Perhaps if we continue to battle for control of our common country, one side or the other might win a popular mandate to exercise real power and change the facts on the ground, breaking the perpetual stalemate,” Ed Kilgore proposes at New York magazine, though his solution wouldn’t seem to solve anything. The notion of “popular mandate” has never been anything more than a modernized divine right to rule, invoked by election winners over the objection (and resistance) of those who see nothing of the sort. It’s pure fantasy to think that one of today’s antagonistic factions will suddenly surrender to the other.
So, a real solution would seem to involve letting people run their own lives out from under the thumb of enemies that three-quarters of both Democrats and Republicans (referring to the other side) describe to the Center for Politics as “a clear and present danger to the American way of life.” If only there was a precedent for localized control, perhaps something called “federalism.”
Unfortunately, as Rich Lowry emphasizes, the states aren’t neatly divided between political factions. Instead, the divisions are closer to the county or community level, often pitting cities and suburbs against exurbs and rural areas. Decentralizing decision-making still makes sense, but it needs to go further than state capitals, closer to neighborhoods, families, and (especially) individuals.
“Democracies in sectarian societies often create institutional arrangements to protect the minority, like minority or group rights, power-sharing agreements, devolution or home rule,” Nate Cohn noted in The New York Times in a May piece on America’s rising political tensions. While he didn’t necessarily recommend that approach for the United States, he offered no other ideas beyond a hope that hostilities would eventually settle under the new administration. That hasn’t happened.
But even constitutionally sanctioned federalism tends to enjoy the support only of whoever is out of power in D.C. The dominant party there always asserts the supremacy of federal power—at least for so long as it controls Congress and the White House. It’s highly unlikely that the Biden administration, or whoever wins in 2024, will voluntarily surrender authority to localities under some novel arrangement when it’s traditional to bluster and chafe at state governments exercising the limited autonomy they were always intended to have.
If Americans, then, are going to get out from under the thumbs of people they regard as enemies, they most likely will have to assert control over their lives without cooperation from further up the political food chain. There’s precedent for that in state marijuana legalization, sanctuary cities, and Second Amendment sanctuaries, which assert the right of states and localities to refrain from enforcing federal law. But to be effective, there needs to be more outright defiance by localities and individuals of unwelcome dictates from above.
Isn’t turning a deaf ear to the powers-that-be potentially illegal? Yes, it is. But defying commands from government officials who hate you isn’t as big a break with formal protocols as is balkanizing the country or installing a Caesar. Rather than fighting each other for power, Americans would be better advised to ignore each other and go about their lives.
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