Part one of a series.
This past week AlterNet published an interview with Chuck Thompson, author of Better Off Without ‘Em: A Northern Manifesto for Southern Secession. In brief, Thompson argues that the United States has become two very different countries (or perhaps that it was always two very different countries) and that perhaps the time has come to shake hands and go our separate ways.
Thompson makes a compelling argument. Secession is a subject we here at S&R have engaged in the past, primarily within the context of the inequitable distribution of tax revenues (donor states vs. taker states), and it’s perhaps telling that so many of the smartest people I know – rational, clear-headed, educated, progressive-minded, deliberate thinkers all – are more than willing to entertain the idea. Sure, there are plenty of logistical concerns to be considered, but make no mistake – the “South’s gonna do it agin” crowd isn’t the only segment of the population that would be okay parting ways.
I encourage you to have a look at the Thompson interview. He remains relatively objective in explaining his conclusions and how he got there, and whether you’re an effete blue-blood northeastern librul intellectual, a shit-kickin’ Dale Earnhardt fan with the number three shaved in your back hair or, most likely, something in between, it’s just about impossible to ignore some basic facts.
As I see it:
- we’re fractured and fragmented and polarized along a number of important dimensions,
- the gap is getting worse, not better, and
- there is no prospect for putting things back together.
Before I dive into this, let me offer a caveat. Yes, I’m generalizing. Broadly. Because we are a nation of more than 300 million people and 3,794,000 square miles, discussing “America” necessitates generalization. I am well aware of what Voltaire said on the subject (“Tous les generalizations sont faux, y compris celui ci”) and this conversation will certainly go more smoothly if you’ll acquaint yourself with Dr. Johnson’s verdict on the subject (“Nothing can please many, and please long, but just representations of general nature”).
Specifically, what this means is that no, not all Southerners are ignorant, racist hillbillies. No, not all Northerners are fully enlightened higher souls with a foot on the path to Nirvana. Some of the best human beings I ever met are Southern and some of the worst members of our society have never set foot in the South. In crafting my generalizations, I’m trying to draw upon the best collective evidence we have at hand, so if your state (and here I’ll pick on my native state) has millions of noble progressives but recently voted in a controversial anti-gay measure by a better than 20% margin, I’m going to feel comfortable enough putting you in the red column based on the behavior of a clear voting majority. What this means for that 40% minority I’ll address in part two.
Also, this is not strictly a North/South issue – not all of the states that I think belong in a “Red confederacy” are Southern by a long shot. Three of them border Canada, in fact. I’ll be addressing these issues in greater detail in part two, and for now am merely trying to sort out the broad dynamics that I feel necessitate a partition.
Finally, I’ll apologize in advance if my tone seems condescending. I’m going to be addressing issues on which there is no compromise, however. If you feel I’m looking down my nose at you because you think racial minorities are a problem, for instance, that’s fine, because I am.
Now, without wasting a lot of time on what I think we all know, it seems uncontroversial to assert that America is a house divided on multiple fronts. Perhaps the most daunting has to do with religion. A significant portion of the populace believes that the Bible takes precedence over the Constitution and they adhere to a brutally reactionary reading of Christian history. Others focus on a progressive theology of social justice, and it’s important to understand that this liberal strain has far more common cause with the nation’s atheists, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jews and neo-Pagans than it does with conservative Christians.
The correlations between religious philosophies and political-economic ideologies are extremely high. Religious conservatives support politicians and Darwinistic policies that favor slashing social programs, whereas the other end of the spectrum favors a politics of nurturance and collective holism. Oddly, as has been noted in several past S&R looks as the “donor state/taker state” phenomenon, the constituencies most unhappy with how federal monies “redistribute wealth” are those on the receiving end of the proposition.
Race is, and has been since the colonial era, perhaps our ugliest point of contention. We were founded as a nation that allowed for the ownership of blacks, and if you are unable to detect the persistence of racism in our political and social spheres today then I’m not sure there’s anything that anyone can do to help you.
I’ll go a step further at this point and argue that race is the single most important political, economic, cultural and social issue in America today. If you go back a few decades you arrive at a point where Democrats and Republicans differed on a variety of issues, but in terms of how these differences impacted public life it was the equivalent of “are you Rotarian or Kiwanis?” The wealthy paid substantially higher marginal tax rates that benefited the society in the form of strong public education, a robust infrastructure, a booming middle class and organized labor force driving the most powerful economy in the history of the planet, and so on. I’m sure they didn’t exactly like paying more in taxes – who does? – but it was part of a social contract that they understood was good for everyone, themselves included.
Then what happened? Ah. Yes. The civil rights movement. Lyndon Johnson acknowledged that the Civil Rights Act was going to cost the Democrats the South for a generation. He underestimated by a generation and counting. Millions of whites fled for the GOP, which had by then begun to sense an opportunity, and each one who did made the switch because of racism. I grew up in just such a Southern working class family. Reagan’s mythological welfare queen? Willie Horton? The infamous hand in the Jesse Helms campaign ad that was taking away your hard-earned money? All black. All dog-whistles. This large, powerful voting bloc may have learned that it could no longer say “nigger” in public, but it could damned sure vote white when it pulled the curtain.
And on and on. Again, if you’ve been paying attention at all, you already know all of this.
I suggest above that it’s getting worse and there is no hope for putting the marriage back together. The first part of that equation seems too obvious to require discussion, but what about the second? Is there a way the US can survive and thrive as a union?
Some folks I know – actually, quite a lot of folks I know – argue that the battle is already won. Our worst, most reactionary, hateful elements are aging and dying off. The younger generations, especially the Millennials, are far more progressive, and even many of the conservative ones have no time for church-based hate campaigns based on race and sexuality. We have plenty of demographic evidence supporting this view and I do not discount it out of hand.
But…how long must we wait? And even in the best case scenario, how divided do we remain? I look around the political landscape and see more than enough powerful interests and willing enablers to keep us in turmoil for decades to come. So I’m not honestly sure I believe we can get there, at least anytime soon. No matter what, we’re still going to be significantly divided in ways that place tremendous strain on the political process. If we go our separate ways, both nations can stop spending billions on theological issues, for instance, and get straight to the task of developing policies that serve whatever the commonly agreed-upon interest is.
In other words, even if we can keep the marriage together, does it necessarily mean that we should?
One more issue: what about the independents? I’m describing the ends of the spectrum in this missive and paying not a lot of attention to the vast middle. And I don’t know that I’m worried about it. For starters, that middle hasn’t proven vast enough to effect an end to the polarizing influences I discuss above, has it? I also suspect that a good segment of that middle is actually more progressive than it pretends, but is generally disgusted by the Democratic Party proper. I know I am. Or it’s more conservative that it pretends to be, and will be well positioned to take care if itself whatever transpires.
Yes, even if we agree to separate, there remains a massive challenge around things like where to draw the lines. And yes, there are people on one side of the line who belong, politically and socially, on the other. That’s a subject for part two. Like a couple that was once madly in love but now crawls into bed every night with someone they hope dies in their sleep, step one is to simply agree that the marriage is over and we’re all going to be happier once we move on with our lives. We can work out custody arrangements and who gets the house later.