I’VE MENTIONED BEFORE IN THIS SPACE that I have been worried about the long-term prospects for the survival of the United States as a unified and cohesive political entity. I still am.
Before I get to the specific reasons for my concern, it is worth pointing out that countries and empires have been breaking up, merging with one another, annexing territories, granting those territories independence and so on since the first farmer planted the very first crop 10 or 12 millennia ago and the whole project of human civilization began. Recent world history suggests that the breakup of the United States into a sort of commonwealth of independent countries need not be violent or otherwise ruinous, at least in principle. The breakup of the old Soviet Union was accomplished with relatively little bloodshed.
Go back a few decades, and we have examples in our own history — the Philippines, the Panama Canal Zone and various scattered atolls and islands in the Pacific were all once U.S. territory or colonies, and all gained (or regained) sovereignty through peaceful negotiation and treaties.
There are, of course, counter-examples of breakups that went much more badly.
The primary example from our American history was, of course, the U.S. Civil War, which answered two burning questions of the day: Do states have the right to secede from federal jurisdiction because of policy differences with the federal government (the answer was a resounding “no”); and should states be allowed to deny basic human rights to some of their residents based on “peculiar” local customs and traditions? (The answer, again, was “no,” though it took another century to make significant progress in overturning Jim Crow and other forms of de facto and de jure discrimination, and that work is still unfinished.)
The Civil War resulted in a million Americans on both sides killed and wounded, and the conversion of much of the armature of civilization in the southern U.S. into smoldering ruins, which was all the more horrifying when you consider that this was in the days before bomber and fighter aircraft and the mass production of armaments. Richmond, Virginia in 1865 looked very much like Berlin 80 years later at the end of the Second World War.
This is what we risk when contemplating the breakup of the United States — actually, much worse than that. Remember that entire cities in the South were razed without recourse to the extremely efficient machinery of death that is now available to all factions in any armed rebellion.
Let me be blunt here: Contemplating a second Civil War in the era of nuclear weapons is deeply irresponsible. It is a prospect that might well end human civilization worldwide. In other words, it is utterly unthinkable.
So why am I even talking about something as seemingly outlandish as the United States breaking up amid a second civil war?
There is a widening gulf in the U.S. between two different factions: on the one hand, rural culture united by cultural traditionalism (there are, roughly speaking, to sub-groups within this faction: the Old South and the rural West), and on the other hand more cosmopolitan urban America, particularly on the coasts but also in major urban centers in the interior of the country.
The political and cultural gulf between urban and rural America reflects, of course, the different priorities of urban and rural people, and to some extent has been a persistent feature of our country since its founding. That said, I think the present size of the gulf is a symptom of a people who are forgetting how to talk to one another.
My uncle Leonard is a rancher in central California, and he is one of the most principled and honorable men I’ve ever known.
He owns a liquor store in a small town near his farm, and for years you could not buy a Time, Newsweek or Motor Trend magazine in his store because the magazine distributors in whose territory Leonard lived said that if Leonard wanted to have magazines in his store, it would be a package deal — meaning he would need to sell Playboy and Penthouse magazines along with more respectable fare. Leonard, a deeply religious Catholic, stood on principle and said if that was the deal, he would refuse to carry magazines at all. Eventually the distributors relented and agreed to allow him to skip the skin magazines.
Leonard and I certainly have our differences politically. He’s not a big fan of unions, for example, and I consider unions to be an indispensable institution to ensure economic fairness and get workers a fair deal.
That said, he and I get along just fine. When I go visit we keep the conversation on topics that will serve to keep the peace (we both like the EF Mass, and both of us hunt, for example), and we just agree to disagree on some issues.
Some of the responsibility for depth of the urban/rural divisions in the country rest with the Democratic Party, which has become a far more exclusively urban-constituent party than it used to be. It is worth remembering that FDR was a great friend to farmers and rural people in the United States — New Deal initiatives like federal agricultural price supports, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and rural electrification more generally were responsible for drastically lessening the besetting poverty that had characterized millions of square miles of rural America before the 1930s. There were people in the mountains of Appalachia and the Ozarks who kept photos of FDR in honored places in their houses long after he was gone from the scene.
I think the Democratic Party needs to re-learn how to talk to rural Americans. In part this is in their political best interests: Many of the folks who keep pulling the lever for Republicans might be doing that because, as Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown has said, “the Democrats stopped talking to them.”
But it is also essential to lessening the gulf that threatens our national unity.
“Talking to them,” by the way, means, mostly, listening. Ask, “What are the top 5 issues that affect your quality of life?” and then listen to the answers. Then come up with policies whose purpose is to address those issues directly — and then explicitly campaign on those issues. This is what Democrats can do to help the nation heal its great and still-growing divide.