One Nation, Divisible, with Liberty and Justice for Few
How the United States of America could split up much sooner than expected
January 3, 2022
By Robert A. Vella
The United States of America is currently the longest standing democracy in the world at nearly 246 years old (as a constitutional republic, it is almost 234 years old). The next oldest democracy is Norway at 208 years old. That’s quite an accomplishment considering that it barely survived tearing itself to pieces during the disastrous Civil War of 1861-1865 and also the global threat to democracy posed by Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan during the catastrophic Second World War. But, even the most optimistic Americanophiles have always known that the U.S. could not endure forever. All countries experience multiple peaks of achievement and valleys of failure, and all of its various forms of government are inherently transitory. Even the most powerful of empires eventually crumble, the Fall of Rome being the most illustrative example.
That said, the apparent suddenness of America’s evolving demise in the 21st century has come as a tremendous shock to most – but not all – domestic and foreign observers. After all, the U.S. still possesses overwhelming military might – although its technological advantage has narrowed in recent years – and no nation on Earth would dare challenge it in open, unrestrained warfare. However, the gravest threat to the U.S. today comes not from an external source but from an internal one. America is at war with itself and, even worse, one of the rival groups – which happens to be the largest – is refusing to acknowledge its combatant status. Its primary adversary – the second largest group – holds no such delusion or even pretense. A devoutly unified Republican Party – driven by the dangerously fanatical factions of White supremacists, radical Christians, and anarcho-capitalists – finally realized that it could no longer compete democratically (due to changing demographics and public rejection of its increasingly extreme policies) and consequently concluded that it must destroy American democracy in order to maintain its traditionally privileged social standing.
This realization by Republicans actually occurred decades before the political ascendency of Donald Trump in 2016, but it took his barefaced and subversive aggression for it to coalesce within the party. Conversely, the Democratic Party chose rather meekly to hide its head in the sand hoping that the GOP establishment would corral its zealous populist insurgents. During the Trump Administration, Democrats realized too late that the GOP was completely taken over yet they still resisted direct confrontation for fear of alienating moderate voters which is a highly questionable strategy considering that Republicans are now actively undermining free and fair elections across the U.S. and jeopardizing the viability of many Democratic candidates.
Both strategies, the Republicans’ autocratic aggression and the Democrats’ appeasement-based timidity, parallel the political dynamics which played out in Germany, Italy, and Japan during the 1920s and 1930s. In each of those cases, the autocrats won because they were much more resolute than the established democratic or quasi-democratic system they sought to replace. However, that didn’t work in the American Civil War. Abraham Lincoln met secessionist aggression with even greater aggression. The North (i.e. the U.S.) defeated the South (i.e. the Confederate States of America) and preserved the Union while abolishing slavery; and, that is why he is widely regarded as the greatest U.S. president in history. In his universally acclaimed literary works on the Civil War, author Bruce Catton clearly and correctly states that the pre-war divisions in America were too polarized and volatile to be resolved peacefully and that bloodshed would eventually result. Once Southerners realized that they couldn’t win democratically, they abandoned democracy with belligerent means. Their fateful realization is the same as the GOP’s a century and a half later even though each effectual action manifested itself differently (i.e. secession versus a sustained coup d’état).
The sad reality now is that the Republicans of today have the same intense determination that Southerners had back then. They simply will not compromise regardless of the circumstances, and – as Catton proffered so eloquently – can only be defeated through force. Unfortunately, there is no equivalent to Lincoln in the current Democratic Party or anywhere else for that matter. That means one of two outcomes will result: 1) Democracy is destroyed and Republicans supplant it with some form of authoritarian regime in which they hold and wield political power exclusively; or 2) Democrats proactively persuade Republicans to split the U.S. into two or more autonomous nations as a last-ditch effort to resolve the ideological dispute and avoid another civil war. The first potential outcome is more likely, in my opinion, and would undoubtedly result in staggering societal costs domestically (from unleashed xenophobia and other impetuses) and deteriorating international relations as foreign countries reassess their alliances. The second potential outcome would be extremely difficult – or even impossible – to achieve and would be fraught with a myriad of logistical complexities in addition to the frightening vagaries of political negotiation (i.e. the stronger party would surely dictate unreasonable terms upon the other).
Let us assume, for the purpose of examining how the U.S. might conceivably split apart, that Democrats and their moderate constituency refuse to directly confront Republican attacks against democracy and instead desperately try to mitigate the crisis by offering to divide the country along political and/or regional lines (note: this was actually attempted during the Civil War by the South in exchange for it abolishing slavery, but the North rejected the offer because it was in the stronger negotiating position). Let’s also suppose that the division would keep the Pacific coast, Southwestern, upper Midwest, Northeastern, mid-Atlantic states, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, and all overseas territories formally in the U.S. (blue states on map) while Alaska, the Intermountain West, Great Plains, lower Midwest, Appalachian, and Southern states would be allowed to form a new nation (red states on map).
Such a division, or any division of America for that matter, would be bitterly contested. States like Arizona might oppose being kept in the U.S., as might states like Ohio oppose being removed from it. Furthermore, although Alaskans might be philosophically inclined to break from the U.S., doing so would leave it alone and exposed in the northern Pacific very far away from its new country. And, there is also the possibility that the west coast states – being geographically separated from its fellow easterners – might want to create their own nation. However, the lines must be drawn somewhere; and, the most workable method would be to allow the states to decide for themselves as long as a practical degree of national/regional continuity is maintained. Therefore, the map above reflects the current political sympathies of the states while maintaining a modicum of continuity.
The reconfigured blue nation (24 states and the territories) would have a population of approximately 181 million and an area of about 1.35 million square miles, while the new red nation (26 states) would have a population of approximately 149 million and an area of about 2.45 million square miles. The blue nation would hold @ 55% of the current U.S. population, while the red nation would hold @ 65% of the current U.S. land and water area. The blue nation would inherit most of the major shipping ports and heavy industry facilities, while the red nation would inherit most of the agricultural land and natural resources. The blue population would be wealthier and more educated, while the red population would be more culturally homogeneous and better adapted to unskilled labor.
The first issue that is apparent on the map is that the blue nation would be geographically separated into three distinct continental regions (plus the overseas territories), while the red nation would be contiguous (except for Alaska). This would obviously cause communication and transportation problems especially for the blue nation and its western states which would be largely cutoff unless alternative connective routes were established (e.g. via Canada). The second issue that stands out is the disproportional share of resources. For example, the blue nation would have a bigger population; but, the red nation would produce more food (at least initially). Likewise, the blue nation would have more industrial capacity (at least initially); but, the red nation would possess more raw materials. These disparities, and others, would trigger economic problems and further strain relations between the two nations. The blue nation might then seek even closer ties with Canada, western Europe, and the western Pacific democracies; while the red nation might be spurred to do the same with Mexico, the rest of Latin America, and possibly Russia and/or China. It’s easy to see how this realignment would change the geopolitics of the world. Increased polarization on a regional scale can disrupt nation-states, but increased polarization on a global scale can lead to world war.
This brings us to the thorniest issue of all – i.e. how would the U.S. military and its vast stockpile of nuclear weapons and technology be divided. Examine the following maps and you’ll see the sheer enormity of the problem:
Needless to say, splitting such a militarily powerful country as the U.S. into two roughly equal nations which are ideologically antithetical towards each other is a recipe for a disaster of unprecedented proportions, and I suspect that the U.S. military leadership would act assertively to prevent it. It is also likely that the world community would become actively involved like it did when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 which left thousands of nuclear weapons in the 15 autonomous successor states particularly of concern in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus (note: subsequently, all these weapons were reportedly returned to the largest state of Russia under centralized control). And, if the U.S.S.R. example is repeated for the breakup of the U.S., then one of the two resulting American nations would be prevented from taking control of the nuclear weapons/technology within its borders. Such a provision would be a deal-breaker against splitting up the U.S. equitably, and could only work if one party was in a supreme negotiating position.
If the military/nukes issue wasn’t daunting enough, the problem of mass migration would be. Even the states with the largest partisan majorities (e.g. Oklahoma and Massachusetts) still have sizable numbers of residents (ranging from the tens of thousands to several millions) which constitute a political minority. These people would be inclined to remain in their home state especially if they owned property, businesses, would not want to leave their family and friends, or if they simply couldn’t afford to relocate. However, many of them would be highly motivated to leave especially if they felt threatened by their state’s partisan majority or if they just desired to live in the nation more in sync with their ideological beliefs. This would result in at least tens of millions of Americans suddenly on the move across the country. It would start as a tickle and then build into a flood of humanity. The problem of housing, feeding, and providing medical care for these migrants would quickly overwhelm the capacities of state governments. Even worse, some states might resort to closing their borders in order to keep out incomers or to keep their own residents from leaving. This could easily turn into a tragic humanitarian crisis the U.S. has never faced before not even during the peaks of its numerous immigration surges. Like the military/nukes issue, this one would be extraordinarily difficult to resolve and the negotiations would be hotly contested.
Assuming that resolutions could be agreed to for those top two problems, the remaining issues would still be quite challenging. The U.S. has been a signatory to literally thousands of international agreements including – but not limited to – trade and economic cooperation, maritime and airspace rules, space exploration, commercial fishing regulations, environmental protections, nuclear non-proliferation, conventions on war, international law, the role of the United Nations, and much more. The reconfigured blue nation would find itself unable to continue fulfilling many of these international obligations and would be compelled to renegotiate, if possible, or to withdrawal from them altogether. Additionally, the blue nation would probably be highly motivated to extensively amend the United States Constitution – which would understandably be criticized for enabling the breakup of the U.S. – or to even replace it with a more modern and unambiguous document. The new red nation would be free to do whatever it wants because it would have no such prior obligations nor inherited legal constraints; however, it would be pressured by the international community to conform, and nonconformance would greatly reduce its potential future partnerships and leave it open to possible punitive measures.
A divided America would certainly experience a severe curtailment of interstate commerce as it is hamstrung by border and transportation obstacles. Businesses would also be acutely affected by the mass migration problem, and many large companies would surely relocate their headquarters and/or their operations to protect their overall profitability. Multinational and transnational corporations would face even more obstacles, and U.S. financial markets (i.e. Wall Street) would be thrown into turmoil until the legal mess could be untangled. All this would result in economic chaos as the supply chain for goods and services is disrupted. Some areas would see shortages and inflation, while other areas might see gluts and deflation. The energy sector would be especially hard hit because oil/gas production is concentrated in a few southern states and the interdependent electrical grid would be severed by the U.S. breakup (see map below). Employment and the availability of labor would also be significantly disrupted leading to job losses and productivity declines. America would likely fall into recession or even a prolonged depression with collateral economic effects throughout the world.
There would be other troubling disparities as well. Since Blue states contribute more to federal revenues per capita (in the form of taxes) and receive less federal benefits per capita (in various forms of financial aid) than Red states do (see: AP FACT CHECK: Blue high-tax states fund red low-tax states), then painful imbalances of tax burdens and benefits between the Blue and Red nations would arise soon after the split. For example, if the U.S. military was kept intact in the Blue nation (like the Soviet Union’s was in Russia), its taxpayers would have to pay even more to sustain it. Similarly, organizations and residents in the Red nation which had received federal subsides (e.g. for public schools and healthcare providers/patients) and payments (e.g. for Social Security and public pension retirees), would be quickly cutoff until the new government decided if and how to replace those social programs.
Although this examination of how the U.S. might conceivably be split apart through negotiation is simply an overview, it is enough to conclude that such a political division would be at best implausible. In the long-term, however, it is more likely that a fewer number of states could leave the U.S. piecemeal (e.g. Texas) if the current form of government somehow survives while its control over the country gradually wanes. But, even that slightly less gloomy outcome must be seen as improbable within the current political environment dominated by rising right-wing authoritarianism. The desire to obtain absolute power abhors a vacuum, and it is forever hungry for more.