View from Abroad: The Disunited States of America


Italians often assume they have seen it all when it comes to craziness in politics. And it’s hard to fault them there. But even from an Italian perspective some of the lunacy and divisiveness in America is astonishing.

Mark Danner’s 2022 essay “The Slow-Motion Coup” describes a plan by conservatives to gradually take over all levels of the US government, first in states ripe for this, which are numerous. Already, a series of state-level actions in Republican-led Florida over that least six months seems to confirm this scenario, with banning of “liberal” books, action against the supportive LGBTQ policies of Disney, prohibition against “saying gay,” the ridiculous dust-up over Michelangelo’s allegedly pornographic statue of David, and other policies unfolding in the agenda of Governor Ron DeSantis. And the governor says it is, in fact, an agenda for America as a whole.

One by one, other conservative states are taking things into their own hands. Tennessee has been busy passing new conservative laws and expelling two Democratic legislators for protesting against the gun violence that’s killing American schoolchildren. Governor Greg Abbott of Texas has adopted radical polices, such as signing into law in 2021 the most restrictive abortion measure in the nation, turning his state into what looks like an “American Taliban” regime.

America’s radical governors did not get to this point all on their own. Donald Trump’s candidacy and presidency in many ways shattered political norms in America and accelerated our nation’s division into opposing political “tribes” of red and blue voters.

This moving away from anything deemed “liberal” seems especially prevalent in states that once comprised the Confederacy. Recently, Georgia Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene called for a national “divorce” between red and blue states, or at least removing the vote for liberals in red states. The trend toward disunity is also gaining ground among states in the Midwest, Great Plains, and the Rocky Mountains.

Having grown up in that region, surrounded by evangelicals and people who were unashamed of their enmity toward blacks, Mexicans, and other people of color, I found little progress over time. In an Oklahoma history class, the 1921 massacre of the “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa was never mentioned. The usurping of Indian Territory to make cheap land available to whites was portrayed as a great milestone.

Living in the South for a short period after graduating from college, not far from the Federal civil rights actions in Mississippi, I still vividly recall an elementary school teacher holding forth at a dinner party with shockingly vile comments towards Jews and Blacks. Any argument on the side of progressive politics in that region was met with the scathing comment: “Oh that’s just your liberal education talking.” I was more than delighted to escape that part of the country as soon as I could.

Is it possible that the United States could fracture into two, or even several, confederations? At first blush, it seems far-fetched. After all, we tried that, and it was called the Civil War, America’s bloodiest conflict. But is it really impossible?

Now that I live in Italy, my perspective on history has changed from the America-centric version I grew up with in school. Looking at history in the millennia before Columbus’s ships landed in the New World, the Old World was changing continuously, with countries appearing and disappearing.

The Frankish Empire came and went. Despite many conquests, Charlemagne’s Carolingian Empire lasted less than 90 years. The seven centuries-long Ottoman Empire was formidable enough to challenge long-standing countries in Europe, and then it dissolved. Likewise, with the powerful Austro-Hungarian Empire, its vast territory split into many countries almost overnight.

This repeated pattern of unification and fragmentation has continued into more recent times. Once so formidable that it staved off advances by crack German army units, the former Yugoslavia of Josip Tito is today six independent states.  The Soviet Union came unglued only 30 years ago years and is barely a memory; I personally witnessed its final death throes on an eye-opening trip to Moscow in the fall of 1991.

After more than three centuries of global influence, the once expansive but much reduced British Empire is now threatened by the painfully obvious folly of Brexit. Later this year, Scotland will hold another referendum on independence, this time after the departure from the European Union, which has been opposed by the majority of Scots.

Before unification in 1860-71, Italy was a patchwork of principalities and the papal states. 1640 map of Italy by Cornelis II Danckerts. (Image: picryl/public domain).

Most people think of Italy as always being Italy, but such was not the case. For a thousand years between the fall of the Roman Empire and 1861, Italy was fragmented into twenty different nation-states, each with its own laws, methods of governing, culture, and language. Disputes over borders, customs fees, and territory fueled animosities and wars for centuries. The battles between the Guelphs of Florence and the Ghibellines of Siena raged on, only finally stopped by the devastation of the Plague.

Sometimes the formation of new countries has sparked massive population movements. More than 12 million people relocated to the opposite country when Pakistan separated from India after their independence from British rule. Even the threat of dissolution is powerful; millions of Ukrainians, fearing a Russian takeover, have migrated to other locations. Though far from the front lines, Italy has already seen an influx of more than 250,000 people fleeing Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, and Ukrainians are now one of the largest demographic groups from other countries.

So, it’s not completely fanciful to consider the prospect of a break-up and reconfiguration of the United States.

What might a fragmented America look like?

Several decades ago, some scholars began to speculate on such a possibility, although for different reasons than simply political differences. Fifty years ago, Ernest Callenbach described a future Ecotopia – a nation created from coastal hugging portions of northern California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. In 1981, Joel Garreau predicted distinctly different economies and cultural states in his book The Nine Nations of North America. More recently, historian Colin Woodard speculated about eleven cultures in his book American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America. Each of these writers argues compellingly that there are multiple cultures on the continent, not just one or two – each with its own views on life, liberty, and what constitutes happiness.

So perhaps the Great American Experiment is just that. A noble effort, certainly, but perhaps doomed to failure eventually. Ironically, as the experiment has begun to come apart at the seams, other countries have watched and learned and changed their laws to be more democratic and inclusive. Of course, some of them, like Hungary, have regressed.

Any divorce would be dramatic and involve numerous intriguing problems, with lots of assets at stake. Many like-minded states are now clustered together. But some blue cities are not in blue states but are blue islands within deep-red states. Would they become independent states or outliers of another, like the former Free City of Danzig? What would happen with the interstate highway system? With no federal interstate commerce protections, I can easily imagine toll gates and customs inspections at state borders. Could Amazon even survive, given inevitably different tax and transportation regulations?

Would the Supreme Court devolve into multiple courts? What powers would still be held by a federal entity, if any? Would we return to the era when each state raised its own army? Likely, the IRS and EPA would cease to exist, as would the FBI, the CIA, and the NSA. (I can already hear cheers on both the far left and the far right.)

One cheery prospect: The three westerly portions of California, Washington, and Oregon might constitute a “New Pacifica,” which would instantly become the world’s third largest economy, topping Germany. As the Brits might say, “Not so terrible.”

America would slowly begin to resemble other countries in which a handful of wealthy cities lord it over a countryside mired in poverty and with a highly varied quality and safety of agricultural products. Free of national regulations, air and water quality in some locations would be poor. With no national health care, poverty support programs, or wealth sharing through grants, some localities would see mortality rates climb and life expectancy decline even more than has already happened recently.

Depending on which side of a border one lives on, prospects for health, safety, life, and longevity would be quite different. In conservative states, churches might merge with governments to produce a theological form of governing, with tests of beliefs and behavior. People might be encouraged to report violations by neighbors. Historically, we have seen this before in other countries; it’s not a fantastical notion.

And one could probably count on domestic terrorism across borders – a new counter-offensive role for State militia. Those who revel in being bullies and brutes would be in great demand.

Finally, a scary question. Who would be accompanied by the officer carrying the “nuclear football”? Or would there be several new nuclear powers in the world? Imagine a Texican President Cruz with his finger on the button. A nice thought to try to sleep on. Is it not?

Mark Hinshaw
Mark Hinshaw
Mark Hinshaw is a retired architect and city planner who lived in Seattle for more than 40 years. For 12 years he had a regular column on architecture for The Seattle Times and later was a frequent contributor to Crosscut. He now lives in a small hill town in Italy.


  1. Much of what Mark Hinshaw envisions exists. 50 United States have 50 different sets of regulations on everything from driver’s licenses to truck transport (ask any truck driver or Interstate Commerce carrier. The fight over abortion, yes here, no there. Ut is reasonable to ask, are there a “UNITED STATES”? Yes BUT as is so often the answer to these discussions.
    Currently the BUTS seem to be gaining strength but in the end, if you share economically determinist views, the red states have influence largely due to the electoral college which many believe needs to be changed or eliminated and yet which entrenched minority views continue to sustain. And therein lies a fact too often neglected when writing about US dissolution. The blues outnumber the reds. The reds have “LOST” every national election recently, and by growing margins. The mid-term surprise underlines the fact that journalism in its continue rush to grab at easy and fearful stories tends to overlook some of the better news. Yes, the US appears more divided, and is more divided than it has been been, but the minority end of the divide is being punished in ways that are little reported.

    • In 1887, Alexander Tyler, a Scottish history professor at the University of Edinburgh, had this to say about the fall of the Athenian Republic some 2,000 years prior:
      “A democracy is always temporary in nature; it simply cannot exist as a permanent form of government. A democracy will continue to exist up until the time that voters discover that they can vote themselves generous gifts from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates who promise the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that every democracy will finally collapse over loose fiscal policy, (which is) always followed by a dictatorship.
      The average age of the world’s greatest civilizations from the beginning of history has been about 200 years. During those 200 years, these nations always progressed through the following sequence:
      From bondage to spiritual faith;
      From spiritual faith to great courage;
      From courage to liberty;
      From liberty to abundance;
      From abundance to complacency;
      From complacency to apathy;
      From apathy to dependence;
      From dependence back into bondage.”

      The Obituary follows:

      Professor Joseph Olson of Hamline University School of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota, points out some interesting facts concerning the 2012 Presidential election:
      “Number of States won by: Obama: 19 Romney: 29
      Square miles of land won by: Obama: 580,000 Romney: 2,427,000
      Population of counties won by: Obama: 127 million Romney: 143 million
      Murder rate per 100,000 residents in counties won by: Obama: 13.2 Romney: 2.1”
      Professor Olson adds: “In aggregate, the map of the territory Romney won was mostly the land owned by the taxpaying citizens of the country.
      Obama territory mostly encompassed those citizens living in low income tenements and living off various forms of government welfare…”
      Olson believes the United States is now somewhere between the “complacency and apathy” phase of Professor Tyler’s definition of democracy, with some 40% of the nation’s population already having reached the “governmental dependency” phase..
      If Congress grants amnesty and citizenship to 20 million illegal aliens – and they vote – then we can say goodbye to the USA in fewer than five years.

      • Well selected facts enliven any position. I’d draw one line at offering land area held by Obama vs Romney. The electoral college is bad enough but at least it requires people to vote. Lumping the poor, the disadvantaged, the low income “tenement dwellers” as welfare recipients one and all is an opinion not borne out by fact. The term “welfare” itself harkens back to a view of poverty I hoed we had left behind.
        Finally the argument labeled “amnesty” for a claimed 29 million immigrants is a great way to send the arguments packing.

        • You’re right. I does make you wonder were Professor Olson got his information, but I do think the point he making about who voted for who, and why, is pretty telling.

  2. Certainly, Giorgia Meloni is the person for this moment in Italian governance. She is well-grounded by reality and not one to fall under the spell of globalist designs.

    Meanwhile, back in the States, people are beginning to understand the dangers of centralized and heavy-handed Federal prerogative. Moreover, the chant of ‘our democracy’ is simply a thinly-veiled façade for an uncivil and unseemly ochlocracy (mob rule). No wonder then that people in ‘flyover country’ have lost confidence in their cultural and ruling elite class. Integration, disintegration, entropy — just happens when the span becomes too great!

    The trend line points toward devolution and decentralization which stands in stark contrast to one-size-fits-all worldwide conformity. Celebrate differences and try to understand and respect the points-of-view of others (the traditional meaning of the word ‘tolerance’). Otherizing is not productive!

  3. It seems to me this is a perspective that one gets from outside, that might have its parallels in how Italy might look to outsiders, if they paid that much attention.

    Current Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, a right wing fruitcake; a noticeable amount of federalist/separatist and anti-EU politics, etc.

    But that’s in the realm of politics, and only a little more serious than professional wrestling. Not that we don’t have some serious problems here (… excuse me, “there”, as I’m also viewing from abroad, just more recently), but when we’re able to shake this stuff off, we’ve been able to keep moving on.

    Our real problem is that our frontier is gone, our big post-WWII edge is gone, and the problems those advantages masked are now a lot more painful. It’s a bad time to push disunity. It is my impression that the way European nations have coped best with the challenges we’re not really confronting, is a government that is, in a word, responsible. I like to think there’s a slight trend in that direction in the US, for all the glaringly obvious counter-examples.


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