Two Nations, Not One? Or One Under Reactionary Control?

It’s no secret that the division of America into blue Democratic states and red Republican ones roughly corresponds to the two sides in the Civil War. It’s also pretty clear that the Civil War never quite ended. Ronald Brownstein of The Atlantic says we should assume the blue/red division will become more pronounced in the coming years:

In a private newsletter that he writes for a small group of activists, [Michael Podhorzer, a longtime labor union political strategist] recently laid out a detailed case for thinking of the two blocs as fundamentally different nations uneasily sharing the same geographic space.

… Podhorzer writes: “In truth, we have never been one nation. We are more like a federated republic of two nations: Blue Nation and Red Nation. This is not a metaphor; it is a geographic and historical reality”.

To Podhorzer, the growing divisions between red and blue states represent a reversion to the lines of separation through much of the nation’s history. The differences among states [today], he writes, are “very similar, both geographically and culturally, to the divides between the Union and the Confederacy. And those dividing lines were largely set at the nation’s founding, when slave states and free states forged an uneasy alliance to become ‘one nation.’”

Podhorzer isn’t predicting another civil war …, but he’s warning that the pressure on the country’s fundamental cohesion is likely to continue ratcheting up in the 2020s. Like other analysts who study democracy, he views the faction that now dominates the Republican Party—what he terms the “MAGA movement”—as the U.S. equivalent to the authoritarian parties in places such as Hungary and Venezuela. It is a multipronged, fundamentally antidemocratic movement that has built a solidifying base of institutional support through conservative media networks, evangelical churches, wealthy Republican donors, GOP elected officials, paramilitary white-nationalist groups, and a mass public following. And it is determined to impose its policy and social vision on the entire country—with or without majority support. “The structural attacks on our institutions that paved the way for T____’s candidacy will continue to progress,” Podhorzer argues, “with or without him at the helm.”

All of this is fueling what I’ve called “the great divergence” now under way between red and blue states. This divergence itself creates enormous strain on the country’s cohesion, but more and more even that looks like only a way station. What’s becoming clearer over time is that the [Republican Party] is hoping to use its electoral dominance of the red states, the small-state bias in the Electoral College and the Senate, and the GOP-appointed majority on the Supreme Court to impose its economic and social model on the entire nation—with or without majority public support. As measured on fronts including the January 6 insurrection, the procession of Republican 2020 election deniers running for offices that would provide them with control over the 2024 electoral machinery, and the systematic advance of a Republican agenda by the Supreme Court, the underlying political question of the 2020s remains whether majority rule—and democracy as we’ve known it—can survive this offensive….

The hardening difference between red and blue, Podhorzer maintains, “empowers” the 10 purple states (if you include Arizona and Georgia) to “decide which of the two superpower nations’ values, Blue or Red, will prevail” in presidential and congressional elections. And that leaves the country perpetually teetering on a knife’s edge: The combined vote margin for either party across those purple states has been no greater than two percentage points in any of the past three presidential elections, he calculates.

The increasing divergence—and antagonism—between the red nation and the blue nation is a defining characteristic of 21st-century America. That’s a reversal from the middle decades of the 20th century, when the basic trend was toward greater convergence.

Mr. Brownstein then devotes several paragraphs to describing differences between the two parts of the country. The blue states are richer, healthier, better educated and more productive than the red states, by all kinds of measures, the same way cities in red states tend to be richer, healthier, better educated and more productive than their rural surroundings. Obviously, blue states and red states are also diverging in the kind of laws they’re passing: it’s easier to end an unwanted pregnancy in a blue state and easier to shoot a stranger in a red state. Mr. Brownstein continues:

To Podhorzer, the growing separation means that after the period of fading distinctions, bedrock differences dating back to the country’s founding are resurfacing. And one crucial element of that, he argues, is the return of what he calls “one-party rule in the red nation.”

… He documents a return to historical patterns from the Jim Crow era in which the dominant party (segregationist Democrats then, conservative Republicans now) has skewed the playing field to achieve a level of political dominance in the red nation far beyond its level of popular support. Undergirding that advantage, he argues, are laws that make registering or voting in many of the red states more difficult, and severe gerrymanders that have allowed Republicans to virtually lock in indefinite control of many state legislatures….

The core question that Podhorzer’s analysis raises is how the United States will function with two sections that are moving so far apart. History, in my view, offers two models.

During the seven decades of legal Jim Crow segregation from the 1890s through the 1960s, the principal goal of the southern states at the core of red America was defensive: They worked tirelessly to prevent federal interference with state-sponsored segregation but did not seek to impose it on states outside the region.

By contrast, in the last years before the Civil War, the South’s political orientation was offensive: Through the courts (the 1857 Dred Scott decision) and in Congress (the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854), its principal aim was to authorize the expansion of slavery into more territories and states. Rather than just protecting slavery within their borders, the Southern states sought to control federal policy to impose their vision across more of the nation, including, potentially, to the point of overriding the prohibitions against slavery in the free states.

It seems unlikely that the [today’s] Republicans installing the policy priorities of their preponderantly white and Christian coalition across the red states will be satisfied just setting the rules in the places now under their control. [Many believe] that the MAGA movement’s long-term goal is to tilt the electoral rules in enough states to make winning Congress or the White House almost impossible for Democrats. Then, with support from the GOP-appointed majority on the Supreme Court, Republicans could impose red-state values and programs nationwide, even if most Americans oppose them. The “MAGA movement is not stopping at the borders of the states it already controls,” Podhorzer writes. “It seeks to conquer as much territory as possible by any means possible.”

The model, in other words, is more the South in 1850 than the South in 1950…. That doesn’t mean that Americans are condemned to fight one another again as they did after the 1850s. But it does mean that the 2020s may bring the greatest threats to the country’s basic stability since those dark and tumultuous years.


For more on the defensive vs. offensive efforts of the Republican Party and the historical background in the South, see this column by Jamelle Bouie of the New York Times. He says this is the party’s goal:

A government of reactionaries, by reactionaries and for reactionaries. Or, put a little differently, Heads we win, tails you lose.