A political discussion recently overhead in a supermarket checkout line got rather heated when the subject matter turned towards race, sex, and voting rights in America. It went something like this:
Democrat: “You guys [Republicans] can’t win national elections anymore without cheating. That’s why you’re exploiting the Supreme Court’s decision [on the Voting Rights Act] by enacting state laws designed to suppress the minority vote.”
Republican: “Nobody’s suppressing anything. Voter Id will only stop the fraud that put that Kenyan in the White House.”
Democrat: “Are you f—–g serious?”
Republican: Damn right I am! We’re not taking this socialist s–t anymore! We built this country, not the leeches, pu–ies, and fa–ots in your party.”
Democrat: “Why don’t you leave then?”
Republican: “You leave!”
At this point, the checker had enough of the quarrel and told them to calm down or she would call the supervisor. That ended the argument, but it got me thinking. What would the U.S. look like if it split into two nations?
First of all, there are innumerable reasons why this won’t happen – at least not anytime soon. America is too economically interwoven to be split up. The same holds true demographically, as a physical separation would be virtually impossible since the urban areas of red states are typically Democratic strongholds while the rural areas of blue states are solidly Republican. Such a split would trigger mass migrations on a scale unprecedented in our history, and would create a legal quagmire of unimaginable proportions. Additionally, the U.S. of 2013 has no simple lines of demarcation as it did in 1861 over the issue of slavery. Furthermore, the federal government could not and would not ever allow the nation to be destroyed through a division.
But as a thought experiment, let’s assume the Democratic and Republican parties reached a conclusion that the cultural differences between their respective bases were irreconcilable and that the potential for civil war was imminently high. Let’s assume they decided to hold a national referendum for each state to choose whether to remain in the United States or to join a new nation called the Confederation of Christian American States (CCAS). Let’s also assume the results of that vote mirrored the 2012 election results (it probably wouldn’t, but that would end our experiment!). We can speculate that agreements would be subsequently signed to accommodate the geographic continuity of each nation (say, exchanging Indiana for Florida), and to mandate the creation of “free transportation zones” to facilitate travel to isolated states. Here’s what it might look like:
The most obvious question here is why conduct this thought experiment at all if a separation of the U.S. is at best a remote possibility? To answer that, we must closely examine America’s political makeup and how its history relates to the current environment.
U.S. politics is driven by two primary dynamic factors – contemporary issues that are openly discussed (economics, foreign relations, and societal policies), and powerful cultural undercurrents which are usually publicly taboo except in the most intimate of circles (bigotry, racism, and class conflict). The former comprise the relatively static philosophical foundations of each political party (e.g. Republicans favoring big business and Democrats favoring labor), while the latter shift somewhat fluidly between the parties (e.g. 19th century Republicans opposing slavery and 20th century Democrats opposing discrimination). Comparing the 1896 and 2012 presidential elections illustratively reveal these dynamics:
The maps show an almost uniform reversal in color (red = Republican states, blue = Democratic states) even though the economic conditions during each of these elections were roughly similar. The Panic of 1893 had resulted in an economic depression, while the financial crisis of 2008 had led to the Great Recession. Both elections ostensibly centered around the arguments for and against the laissez-faire practices of the times (the Gilded Age and the era of globalization which began in the late 20th century, respectively), but underneath that facade lurked cultural tensions which still persist to this day. [Note: critics that point out it was a Democratic President who was in office during the 1893 panic forget that Grover Cleveland was a pro-business Bourbon Democrat whose policies were opposed by the 1896 Democratic Party candidate William Jennings Bryan.]
So, if public animosity towards laissez-faire was prevalent for both elections (which it was), why would the candidate who supported a continuance of those free-market practices win in 1896 but lose in 2012? Although other factors did play a role (Bryan lost some labor support for his advocacy of free silver, and Romney hurt himself with the “47 percent” fiasco), there’s little doubt that America’s internal cultural disunity had a huge impact on the outcomes.
Until the Progressive Movement began to alter the political landscape in the early 20th century, the Democratic Party was wedded to the Jim Crow South. After the reforms of the Civil Rights Era, that perverse cultural legacy passed over to the Republican Party where it is firmly entrenched today. With the exception of some elections where the previously defined “primary dynamic factors” were paramount, as economics was in 1932, America’s stubborn cultural divisions continue to have great sway in its politics. Like a man who tries to forget a past personal transgression, far too many Americans just don’t want to talk about it; and, that’s why it still exists.
For a thoughtful discussion on how and why culture affects the current political climate in America, see the comment section of: A Reply to Noam Chomsky: America’s Imperial Power Is Not in Decline from The Spanish Prisoner.