A Nation at Odds


Thirty years ago when I lived in the Washington DC area my mother came to visit. A widow, she was born in Ukraine, and as a little girl witnessed the murder of her grandparents in a pogrom. With her mother she walked across much of Europe to get on a ship that took them to New York City to be reunited with her father, who had come to our country a few years earlier. 

One night mom and I drove into DC to see the US Capitol building.  Brilliantly lit, it was a stirring sight. Gazing upon that magnificent structure, an edifice built in part with the sweat and toil of enslaved people, I was unexpectedly moved to tears.  Unexpected because I thought I had long before abandoned the myths and half-truths of America that nurtured me as a child. My dry-eyed mother only said, “pretty.’”

In the years since I have grown increasingly sentimental about many things, but my country is not one of them. Our “exceptionalism” is an empty slogan dusted off every four years for candidates’ pontifications.  We are a nation at odds with ourselves, beset by incompatible and implacable beliefs and ideologies, unable to seriously engage problems such as climate change or gun violence. Hate, racism, narrow-mindedness, lies, and violence, always a part of the American character, have assumed a central place in our public life. 

Our nation lies in the balance and may face nasty outcomes in the future. Rule by force and repression; despots with extreme theological beliefs; an autocrat and his henchmen as deranged and single-minded as we now describe our global enemies. The danger is heightened when the executive is working with a compliant Congress, and a reactionary Supreme Court. A military takeover to “restore order” is not outside the realm of possibilities.

Sinclair Lewis in his 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here described the rise of a fascist regime in Depression-era America. Philip Roth, in his alternative historical fiction of 2004, The Plot Against America, made Charles Lindbergh, a Nazi sympathizer, the elected president of the United States.  Some states have already started down this road. I have no doubt it can happen here.

In another scenario we bumble and stumble along, observing the fiction of a republic, but becoming more locked into local, regional, spiritual, and ideological differences. The two-party system remains with diminished public trust, whose inertia keeps it alive barring the rise of a third party. A new centrist voice may win hearts and votes, but may not be capable of solving the problems facing the nation.

Another road is one we have been down once before with enormous loss of life, social upheaval, and repercussions still being felt today. Although a civil war of sorts in this country is already underway, I hope there is time to avert the potential horrors, bloodshed, and civic rupture of a real civil war.  Is there a Lincoln in the wings to save us from ourselves? We are a house divided, one that may not stand. Placing trust in the inherent “common sense” of the “basically good” American people to do the “right thing” may be trust misplaced.  

In time, yet another way may be a path forward, perhaps not this decade, but soon enough if the country continues to fracture. It is secession by those too aggrieved, oppressed, or belligerent to remain. When polls are taken nationally, a surprising number of both Democrats and Republicans acknowledge it as possible, even acceptable – at least in theory. 

It can be a reasoned approach (if anyone believes secession can be reasonable), for example by those who support the Cascadia bioregion carved out of the Pacific Northwest. As always, Texans continue to make a lot of noise about seceding from the US, even though their first shot at it didn’t quite work out.

A real danger could be a new entity or confederation filled with looney tunes folks to the exclusion and physical danger for people of color, Jews, gays, “liberated” women, and anyone else who they might see as enemies. 

Secession may be driven not only by how citizens view the federal government, but their responses to increasingly right-wing state governments – friction that emerges between larger urban areas with views more progressive than rural ones. I recently read about the concerted efforts of ultra right wing groups in Idaho to take over the state one vote and one local election at a time. 

What of our Constitution? Scholars, judges, politicians, and pundits have offered their perspectives ad nauseum, but there is no specific mention of secession. Having completed their own “secession” from Great Britain several years earlier why would those Founders think that anyone would want to leave the party just as it was getting started? 

It’s good to remember, as University of Washington constitutional law professor Hugh Spitzer points out, that the American Revolution was also a civil war, one between those loyal to the crown and those who were not.

There was a Supreme Court ruling in 1869, Texas v. White, that clearly states in a direct response to the recently concluded Civil War that the United States is “an indestructible union” from which no state can legally secede. 

There are actually two legal avenues for secession described in Texas v. White. A state could secede with the acquiescence of Congress and affirmed by three-quarters of the states. It could also secede through “revolution,” as with our country’s original fight for independence. Civil unrest could become so significant and widespread that the locals and the feds might decide to part ways. 

The Supremes’ decision of 153 years ago may be beloved by those “originalists” who view the Constitution as an eternally sacred document. Of course, it’s impossible to ignore the actions of our current Supreme Court on prayer, climate, abortion, guns, corporate power, regulatory autonomy, and presidential immunity. 

Any place can declare its independence. Making it stick is another story, often a complicated legal one. If it is part of a state then it is subject to that state’s authority to rule on its legitimacy. Decades ago the borough of Staten Island tried to exit from the rest of New York City. A vote was held in 1993 in which 65 percent of the borough voted to secede, subsequently nixed by the New York State assembly. There it ended. 

The list of challenges for those states or regions that might secede successfully is long and complex. What form of governance, taxation, education, civil liberties, legal system, economic policies, foreign affairs, or trade with other parts of the US? With the calamities of climate change how to respond? Is there a military? What of racial and ethnic differences and inequities? 

The questions go on. How much of the old framework and policies to keep in place? Is it an independent nation, a confederation with other states or regions, or even affiliation with foreign countries like Mexico or Canada? There could be massive population shifts to and from the “liberated” areas by economic and political migrants, religious or racial “refugees.” Some might come as climate refugees. 

In 1998, Russian political scientist Igor Panarin, a former KGB agent, predicted the break-up of the United States into six parts by 2010 owing to a variety of economic, moral and social factors.  Maybe he thought that we would fragment just as the Soviet Union had. 

Things change. They can happen very, very slowly, or in the blink of an eye. Human societies are dynamic and as mutable as Darwin’s finches. Will reason, compromise, and new leadership prevail or is our “great American experiment,” now in its third century at an end? 

Spider Kedelsky
Spider Kedelskyhttps://spiderkedelsky.com
Spider Kedelsky is a former choreographer, performing arts producer, and a co-founder of Town Hall Seattle.


  1. Since I’m feeling cynical about Biden stepping down, and it certainly feels like a tipping point, why not go full Doomsday? Successions, Balkanization, civil war, world war, massive war and climate refugee migrations, and the de-evolution of civilization, species, and planet. Unless of course bombing back to the Stone Age solves the climate problem—Let’s ask the Gazans!

  2. As depressing as it is, your article makes sense on this Independence Day. With a convicted felon poised to come back into the presidency, and the highest court creating broad immunity for official presidential criminal conduct- while at the same time slashing rights of the people- including voting rights and basic rights of women over their bodies and reproductive decisions- its a chilling time we live in.


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