No, We Can’t Get a National Divorce

There’s growing sentiment for secession, particularly on the right. It should be rejected.

Confederate troops fire on Fort Sumter, launching the Civil War. Photo: Corbis via Getty Images
Confederate troops fire on Fort Sumter, launching the Civil War. Photo: Corbis via Getty Images

Nobody has to convince me the divisions between the “red” and “blue” segments of our country are deep, bitter, and authentic. That and a closely related topic, the radicalization of U.S. conservatism and the Republican Party, have been the chief focuses of my career in journalism. I’ve even criticized the yearning for “unity” and have taken issue with those who believe the differences between red and blue are mostly artificial.

Acknowledging a national political and cultural divide does not, however, mean jumping to the conclusion that the United States would be better off just calling it a day after 245 years. That view is, however, a growing sentiment among Americans, especially in MAGA Land, as some recent polling suggests. A new University of Virginia Center for Politics poll found that 52 percent of Trump voters said they now favored red states “seceding from the union to form their own separate country,” compared with 41 percent of Biden voters who said the same about blue states.

There is, moreover, an abundant literature of neo-secessionism on the political right these days, much of it coming from intensely pro-Trump quarters ranging from Glenn Beck’s Blaze Media fiefdom to the Claremont Institute. In the latter MAGA hothouse, secession is nestled within the concept of a “National Divorce,” in which the two mutually hostile sectors of the country would each go their own way. Those familiar with the prehistory of the U.S. Civil War will recognize the tone of more-in-sorrow-than-anger pleas for a dignified separation in this new essay from Claremont senior fellow David Reaboi:

[W]e have in America today what are, essentially, two competing, radically different and mutually exclusive conceptions of the Good, of justice, and of the proper role of the state in its interactions with its citizens … If we disagree on these big things — which will necessarily manifest in every political issue, large or small — what strong force could possibly reunite us? Or, to ask a question that’s perhaps more pertinent — maybe not today or tomorrow, but soon: What force could keep us from coming apart?

Much like an antebellum southern aristocrat shaking his head at the Puritan fanatics of an abolitionist movement he imagined embodying the very soul of Yankeedom, Reaboi and his confederates assume that Blue America is the psychological prisoner of Woke Progressivism, which will destroy any part of the country where it is not denied:

… what’s left around which the great majority of citizens can rally? 

Not ethnicity or religion; these are two strong identity conceptions that have the power to unite people in smaller, less diverse states. Not patriotism emerging from a reverence for the nation’s history and heroic founding story, either. The Left has worked with great zeal to undermine all of these things because it wants to unite Americans under nothing but its own ideology. The 1619 Project is only the most successful, high-profile effort to undermine the legitimacy — and, even more importantly, the virtue and goodness — of the American regime and its Founding. It, along with related cults like Critical Race Theory, forms the political ethos that has thoroughly consumed Blue America.

More broadly, the MAGA movement resembles the proto-Confederates in that it bears a powerful sense of loss — that in Trump it had its big chance to Make America Great Again but was robbed of victory by tyrants who will now flood the land with the votes of swarthy immigrants and destroy American enterprise with a socialist administrative state. The Confederates, having been denied control of their native country via the organization of a sectional party united by opposition to national recognition of property rights in human slaves, sought a new country rooted in what they viewed as the better parts of the old. And not for a moment did they admit to themselves that they were the aggressors.

Now as then, some elements of the left are happy to let the reactionaries go in order to liberate themselves from the gridlock and paralysis that big national divisions operating under a limited-government constitution encourage. This February at The Nation, Nathan Newman argued for “blue-state secession” in adopting this point of view. And back in 2018, here at Intelligencer, Sasha Issenberg offered a vision of a breakup of the United States via the construction of two big coalitions bound by interstate compacts that were blessed by the federal government, with Red and Blue Federations restrained by a Neutral Federation that contained the old federal capital and many of the old battleground states.

So might we drift apart more or less peacefully this time around? Possibly, but count me out when it comes to agreeing to a National Divorce. Yes, I might derive great joy from the overthrow of the U.S. Senate and its filibuster and the conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court. I would feel much safer in a progressive nation that didn’t arm its citizens to the teeth, didn’t view other nations as “shitholes” full of subhuman orcs to be subdued, and didn’t accept calamitous climate change as just the price of doing business.

But how could I happily accept the accelerated subjugation of women and people of color in a new, adjacent Red America, any more than abolitionists could accept the continuation and expansion of the slavery they hated? Would it really be safe to live near a carbon-mad country in which the denial of climate change was an article of faith? And could I ever trust that a “neighbor” whose leadership and citizens believed their policies reflected the unchanging ancient will of the Almighty would leave our fences intact?

I don’t know if the hypothetical leaders of an America facing red-state secession would have the unshakable will of a Lincoln. And it’s not at all clear that young men and women in Blue America would be willing to take up arms in large numbers to resist secession with fire and blood. But this Union is still worth fighting for, no matter how frustrated we all are with congressional chaos, with elections that feel like nuclear exchanges, and with “debates” taking place between people who can barely communicate with each other. I’m not willing to peacefully give up our Constitution, abused and abusive as it has sometimes been; our Capitol with its surly bureaucrats and devious pols; or the bonds of kinship and history that connect me with so many red-state people, much as we disagree on most everything other than college football and fried food.

So I say to the would-be secessionists: Please don’t go. And if it’s somehow in my power, I won’t let you go. I have no illusions of compromises yet untried or “third ways” left unexplored. So let’s have it out right here in America as peacefully as we can manage. 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. If not, then let’s consider the wisdom of those who crushed the Confederacy in the belief that the misery of political conflict is better than the literal civic death of national disunion.

No, We Can’t Get a National Divorce