As the United States marks its 247th birthday Tuesday, questions about how many more the nation will celebrate in its current form have become ominously relevant.
Possibly not since the two decades before the Civil War has America faced as much pressure on its fundamental cohesion. The greatest risk probably isn’t a repeat of the outright secession that triggered the Civil War, though even that no longer seems entirely impossible in the most extreme scenarios. More plausible is the prospect that the nation will continue its drift into two irreconcilable blocs of red and blue states uneasily trying to occupy the same geographic space.
“I can’t recall a time when we’ve had such fundamental friction between the states on such important issues,” says Donald Kettl, former dean and professor emeritus of the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy and author of the 2020 book, “The Divided States of America.”
The strains on America’s basic unity are broad and diverse. They include a widening divergence in the basic rules of life between red and blue states on everything from the availability of abortion and guns to what teachers can say in the classroom; sharpening conflicts not only between the states, but among the urban and rural regions within them; a growing tendency of voters in each political coalition to view the other party not only as a political rival but as an “enemy” that threatens their core conception of America; the increasing inability of almost any institution – from the media to federal law enforcement to even consumer products – to retain comparable credibility on both sides of the red-blue divide; more common threats of political violence, predominantly from the right, against local and national officials; and the endurance of Donald Trump as the first leader of a truly mass-scale American political movement who has demonstrated a willingness to subvert small-d democracy to achieve his goals.
Behind almost all of these individual challenges is the same larger force: the mounting tension between those who welcome the propulsive demographic and cultural changes reshaping 21st century America and those who fear or resent those changes. It’s the collision between what I’ve called the Democrats’ “coalition of transformation” and the Republican “coalition of restoration.” As the US evolves toward a future, sometime after 2040, when people of color will constitute a majority of the population, political scientists point out that the country is trying to build something without exact modern precedent: a true multi-racial democracy that provides a voice to all its citizens.
The urgent demands for greater opportunity and inclusion from traditionally marginalized groups (from Black to LGBTQ people) and the ferocious backlash against those demands that Trump has mobilized in his “Make America Great Again” movement demonstrate how fraught that passage has become.
“To expect we are going to be as unified as we [have been] trying to negotiate these fundamental transformations of American demography is wholly unrealistic,” says Daniel Cox, a senior fellow in polling and public opinion at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “There is going to be real differences and divisions on these things and, unfortunately, some people are weaponizing them in a way that is unhelpful.”
The ideal of national unity celebrated on July Fourth has almost always been overstated: the country from its founding has been riven by sectional, racial, class and gender conflicts. Large groups of people living within our borders have always felt excluded from any proclaimed national consensus: American Indians who were brutally displaced for decades, Black people who faced generations of legal slavery and then decades of state-sponsored segregation, women denied the vote until the 20th century.
But today’s proliferating and intersecting pressures have reached a height that is forcing experts to contemplate questions few Americans have seriously considered since the Civil War era: can the United States continue to function as a single unified entity, and if so, in what form?
In the late 1990s, Alan Wolfe, a Boston University political scientist, wrote a book called “One Nation, After All” based on in-depth interviews with hundreds of Americans around the country. His book was one of several published in the era that concluded the broad American public was not nearly as divided as its leaders and that average Americans, however much their views differed on issues, recognized the importance of finding common ground with others of opposing views.
Now, Wolfe told me in an interview, he considers the current situation much more worrying. “I was so optimistic with the title of ‘One Nation, After All,’ but I couldn’t say that now,” Wolfe, a professor emeritus, said. “I think the book was right for its time. I think the sociology of it was right. That’s what I found. But I’m sure I wouldn’t find it now.”
To Wolfe, the US is now trapped in a “vicious cycle” of rising partisan and ideological hostility in which political leaders, particularly on the right, see a “benefit in fueling the rage even more.” While President Joe Biden, Wolfe says, has struck traditional presidential notes of emphasizing the value of national unity, Trump – currently the front-runner for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination – has built his political strategy on widening the nation’s divides in ways that may be difficult to reverse any time soon. “I don’t know if [Trump’s] a political genius or just instinctively knows something, but he sure has exacerbated the shocks, and I don’t know how we are going to recover from him,” Wolfe says.
Experts may be the least concerned about the most often discussed scenario for a future American unraveling. That’s the prospect the nation will fully split apart into separate entities, as it did when the South seceded to create the Confederate States of America after the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the far-right Republican from Georgia who has become a close ally of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, has called for “a national divorce” in which Republican- and Democratic-leaning states would go their separate ways, presumably peacefully. “We need to separate by red states and blue states and shrink the federal government,” Greene said in a tweet on President’s Day this year.
Susan Stokes, a political scientist and director of the Chicago Center on Democracy at the University of Chicago, said that prospect could receive growing discussion in coming years, particularly on the right, “if we continue to go in this direction and we continue to view each other as threats and as anathema, immoral, and a threat to each other’s existence.”
But the practical barriers to any formal national divorce, she says, are likely to limit such discussion to the fringes. Unlike the Civil War, which had a clear geographical boundary, the nation’s current political divide has created a checkerboard – with Democrats strongest in coastal and upper Midwest states, as well as parts of the Southwest, while Republicans hold the edge in most Heartland states, particularly those in the South and Great Plains. Plus, Stokes notes, the red-blue line runs not only between but within the states, with the urban areas of every state leaning relatively more toward Democrats than their rural neighbors. In some future national divorce, “What do you do with upstate New York? What do you do with Memphis or Austin?” she asked.
For those reasons, none of the experts I spoke to worry much about full-scale national separation through any intermediate time frame, though most no longer consider it inconceivable either. (Polls don’t show extensive interest among the public, with one national CBS/YouGov survey last year finding a quarter of Americans favoring the idea.) One wild card is what might happen if Trump wins in 2024 and moves to implement some of the policies he’s proposed that amount to mobilizing federal power against blue institutions and individuals – including a massive deportation program of undocumented immigrants and the deployment of the National Guard into high-crime cities. Blue state governors, legislatures and mayors might respond to such an offensive in forceful ways difficult to predict today.
The nation’s greater challenge may be the continuing incremental separation between the red and blue blocs – the political equivalent of continental drift. Polls show that voters in each coalition hold darkening views of the other. In that 2022 CBS/YouGov survey, about half of the voters for both Trump and Biden said they considered the other party not just “political opposition” but “enemies, that is, if they win, your life or your entire way of life may be threatened.”
More tangibly, red and blue states are hurtling apart. The most aggressive moves have come from red states shifting social policy sharply to the right on a broad array of issues, from retrenching abortion and LGBTQ rights, to censoring classroom discussion of race, gender and sexual orientation, expanding access to guns while limiting access to books that provoke conservative objections, and restricting access to voting. With red states exploring various ways to discourage their residents from traveling to blue states for banned activities (such as abortions or gender-affirming care for transgender minors), and blue states passing laws to inhibit such red state enforcement, the nation is facing open conflict over the cross-border application of state law reminiscent of the bitter disputes between free and slave states over the Fugitive Slave Act.
No single issue separates the red and blue states today as profoundly as the gulf between those with and without legal segregation during the Jim Crow era, or that between states with and without slavery before the Civil War. But, as experts point out, the current divergence involves more issues in more states than those earlier conflicts, with nearly half the country joining the red state drive to create what I’ve called “a nation within a nation” operating by its own rules and values.
“I really feel like we are becoming two different countries, if not that it has already happened,” says Wolfe. “I don’t like it, but I don’t see what we have in common anymore. I really don’t.”
To some students of government, allowing states to set their own course on these divisive issues may relieve pressure and help hold the nation together. “In some ways, you can say how this is terrible, how can we remain a unified country and address global concerns” when states are separating this fundamentally, says Cox. “But by the same token, there’s something that is positive about these ‘laboratories of democracy’ where one party is given free rein to put forward their ideas and legislate and the public can see how they do and react to that.”
Yet allowing states to diverge this comprehensively may do more to heighten than relieve national tensions. Cox acknowledges one reason: severe gerrymandering in many states’ legislative districts means most politicians are unlikely to suffer consequences even if the public doesn’t like the agenda they have advanced.
A second problem is this experimentation is unlikely to proceed on an even track. The Republican-appointed majority on the US Supreme Court has encouraged the red state social offensive with decisions that stripped away national rights – most prominently on abortion and voting. Many legal experts believe that conservative majority is unlikely to block many of the new red state social laws that critics (including, in many cases, the Biden administration) are challenging in federal courts. On the other hand, the six GOP-appointed justices have shown no hesitation about overturning blue state initiatives, such as gun control measures that conflict with their reading of the 2nd Amendment, or LGBTQ protections they argue infringe on religious liberty or free speech. “Given the make-up of the courts, it’s difficult for blue states to be hopeful about this,” says Kettl.
The biggest challenge created by the widening distance among the states is where to draw the line between local leeway and preserving a baseline floor of nationally guaranteed rights in every state. Racial segregation, after all, was justified for 70 years on the ground of respecting “local traditions.”
From both Congress and the Supreme Court, the general trend in American life from the 1950s through the 2010s was to nationalize more rights and to restrict the ability of states to curtail those rights. Now, though, the red states are engaged in the most concerted effort over that long arc to roll back the “rights revolution” and restore a system in which people’s basic civil rights vary much more depending on where they live.
“It is certainly good to have a chance to have a contest over basic values, and that’s one of the great strengths of the American republic,” says Kettl, co-author of the new book “Bridgebuilders: How Government Can Transcend Boundaries to Solve Big Problems.” He continued: “But there is also a basic question of the fundamental rights of individuals and whether the balance of power in deciding them ought to lie” with states or the nation as a whole.
The chasm between the civil rights and liberties available in blue and red states has widened to the point where it will be highly explosive for either side to attempt to impose its social regime on the other. If Democrats win unified control of the White House and Congress in 2024 and pass legislation to restore a national floor of abortion or voting rights, red state leaders would likely sue to block them (even though abortion rights are popular in several of them). This Supreme Court majority could prove receptive to such challenges. Conversely, the fear that Republicans will seek to pass national legislation imposing the red state rules on blue and purple states, particularly on abortion and guns, may be the best Democratic asset in the 2024 presidential race in the key swing states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Arizona.
Michael Podhorzer, the former long-time political director for the AFL-CIO, has argued that the wave of restrictive red state social laws has simply made more apparent something that has long been true: that the red and blue parts of the country are so divergent in their values, priorities and even economic structures that they are more accurately described as separate nations than separate regions. In his mind, what’s changed isn’t that these different regions – or different nations – have divergent approaches on both social and economic issues, but that the Trump-aligned MAGA movement ascendant in the red states is now pursuing such an extreme and even anti-democratic (small d) agenda.
Eric Liu, co-founder of Citizen University, a non-partisan organization that trains people to work together on local problems across ideological, racial and other boundaries, agrees that Trump and much of his movement represent a unique threat to the future of American democracy. The nation, Liu says, now faces the challenge of doing two things at once: countering and isolating that threat to democracy, while building a bigger coalition for cooperation and consensus-building among what he calls (borrowing from Richard Nixon’s phrase) the “silent majority” of Americans who want to coexist.
Liu counsels that lowering the temperature does not require an artificial level of agreement between people of differing views: “It’s OK to argue it out. It’s necessary to argue it out because America is an argument.” But it does, he believes, require both sides to commit to respecting the democratic process and staying engaged with the other when that process produces decisions they don’t support. “That means to recognize that politics is not a one-and-done, winner-take-all, wipe-the-other-side-off-the-face-of-the-earth, scorched earth endeavor,” he says.
Even more important, strengthening the nation’s bonds, he believes, requires people on both sides of the political divide to see the other “as three-dimensional, complicated, sometimes contradictory human beings.” The best way to achieve that, he says, is to work together to solve local problems. Liu’s group tries to facilitate that through programs like Civic Saturdays that promotes collaborative local actions, or initiatives that bring together rural and urban residents around shared concerns.
Such interactions, Liu believes, can nudge the US toward the national unity it celebrates on July Fourth. But he acknowledges there’s no assurance this patient nurturing of civic connection can overcome all the forces in politics, the media and communications technology blowing toward separation. Even the most carefully cultivated garden, after all, may not survive a gale-force wind.
“It is totally not a given that we get through this,” Liu told me. “The United States does not get to assume that it lasts forever.”