The great American divorce

We aren't acting like people who want to remain part of the same polity

A wedding cake.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

American politics is starting to feel like a fight to the death between well-meaning patriots out to defend the good of the country and madmen who aim to destroy it. But who are the patriots and who the madmen? That depends on whether you're a Republican or Democrat.

Living in the western suburbs of Philadelphia (79 percent for Joe Biden), I mainly talk to Democrats. But this past holiday weekend, I visited family in the rural Midwest (a county that went 69 percent for Donald Trump), and there it was mainly Republicans. On our visit I didn't talk to anyone who bought into conspiracies about stolen elections. But I did meet people who think the Democrats would create a country with much less freedom and prosperity. They therefore favor Republicans doing everything in their power to stymie Biden's agenda in Congress and everything they can to take charge in 2022 and 2024.

I know where I stand. I haven't voted for a Republican since the 2002 midterm elections, and the intensity of my hostility to what the GOP has become over the past two decades has increased with each passing year and reached new heights after the appalling events of Jan. 6, 2021. I can't see myself ever voting for a Republican again.

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But here's the thing: Republicans are Americans, too, and however wrong or misguided I believe them to be, they are my fellow citizens. They get as much say in our country's future as I do. We simply have to find a way to live with each other — or we will begin to search out ways of no longer living with each other at all.

One senses a growing mutual exasperation in America — something verging on disgust at the prospect of having to share rule, and even a common polity, with them. As the child of a rancorous divorce, I recognize the feeling. This is what it feels like when a family has turned the corner into hopelessness, with the process of dissolution fully underway. We're sharing the same space, but we're staying out of each other's way whenever we can, with each faction talking only to itself about how awful they are.

On our recent trip to the Midwest, we passed through the permeable membrane that separates the two sides of our national divide. It happened, in symbolic terms, somewhere on the Pennsylvania turnpike, when we passed a white truck trailer that someone had parked on a bluff a hundred yards away from the highway with a series of political messages scrawled across its sides in bright paint. Big red letters, dwarfing the others, read "TRUMP," while smaller blue words ringed the truck, summarizing a list of priorities: "USA." "God." "Guns." "Pro-Life." "Coal." "Oil." And then, in slightly larger letters that seemed to serve as a summing up of the whole: "NO Socialism."

That's the other America, right there. My America has kept its six-months-past-due "Biden/Harris" yard signs placed proudly at the curbside, along with placards proclaiming "Black Lives Matter" and "We Believe in Science," announcing to anyone who might pass by that good, smart people live here, not the bigots and ignoramuses who voted for the other guys.

When you're from a deep blue part of the country, arriving in a small town in the Midwest can feel a little like touching down in a foreign land — and the same might be said for a Trump-supporter from a rural county who visits New York City or San Francisco. But of course the destination isn't a different country. "The United States of America" encompasses us both.

This is clearer when we cut through the nonsense about Red and Blue states — an account that feeds into fantasies of amicable national dissolution or erasure of our ideological enemies. If mom lives in the bedroom at the end of the hall and dad sleeps on the other side of the house, and if the two of them learn to avoid each other in the bathroom, kitchen, and other common spaces, then divorce might seem easy. One or the other will just move out and away, increasing the distance everyone already feels and leaving the other to take over the vacated space in the family home.

What if the Union had bid the South good riddance when the Confederate States of America were declared? Why couldn't it play out that way right now?

Because I didn't really cross into another America halfway between Philadelphia and the Ohio border, like some North Korean dissident fleeing across the DMZ. The border between the two Americas wends its crooked way across the country, cutting right through communities, and through my own part of Pennsylvania as well. Twenty percent of my neighbors voted for Trump (just as 30 percent of the people in my family's midwestern county voted for Biden). Fifteen miles away from where I live in multiple directions, that number is much closer to 50 percent. There's even a house down my street that defiantly flew a Trump flag four years ago and then again last fall. This prompted the family that lives next door to post a series of multicolored handmade signs perpendicular to the street loudly declaring in black magic marker: "WE" "DO" "NOT" "SUPPORT" "RACISTS."

We are inescapably intertwined — deeply enmeshed in a family feud with no means of amicable separation, and no resolution, in sight.

Of course such feuds do sometimes fade and come to an end. But there are so many incentives working against it in 2021. The country is so closely divided, with the divisions so deep and with so little overlap between the factions, that each party feels it needs to promote panic to ensure maximal turnout. The prospect of the other side winning has become an existential threat to the country itself — and anyone on either side who resists the drive to demonize opponents gets treated like a traitor to the cause of defending against a diabolical enemy. This sense is amplified further by media companies that increase their profits by feeding the fires burning in the minds of partisans.

Once again, I know where I stand. I don't lie awake at night fretting about "socialism." But I do consider the GOP's efforts to use various institutional tricks to win maximal power while failing to win popular majorities or even pluralities to be civically corrosive — and its Trump-inspired flirtation with outright defiance of the results of free and fair elections genuinely dangerous.

But in truth, I don't simply, or even mainly, fear these developments because I see authoritarianism on the horizon (to paraphrase the headlines of countless opinion columns over the past few months). I fear them far more because such efforts are an expression of political desperation — the actions of a party that considers losing unacceptable. I also fear them because they will drive Democrats to their own acts of desperation, which will justify more Republican panic which will justify more Democratic alarm — with all of it, on both sides, motivated by the intensifying conviction that the only legitimate outcome is for one's own party to rule uncontested.

Partisan disagreement over policy and even zero-sum cultural disputes are one thing. But liberal democracy — self-government, the system itself — only works if the rules for the alternation of political power are considered legitimate by everyone. What just a few years ago was a sharply polarized partisan environment is now rapidly becoming a battle over these common rules, with the two parties no longer able to reach or maintain consensus about what those rules should be, about what should be considered legitimate.

That's bad. And not the behavior of people who want to remain, or are capable of remaining, part of a common political enterprise.

Americans are increasingly acting like they want out, though they have no plausible way to effectuate a divorce. Where that contradiction will lead us is anyone's guess. But none of the options are especially appealing.

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