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.
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?