Tag Archives: polarization

MTG’s dream deserves a serious response

If we don’t want a “national divorce”, we need to start discussing ideas rather than trolling each other.

During my week off from writing the Sift, I preached a sermon about democracy to the Unitarian Universalist church I attend, First Parish in Bedford Massachusetts. My theme was that ultimately democracy rests not so much on processes and laws as on a shared spirit among the People: a desire to be united as equals, and to work together to govern ourselves. If a People has that spirit, it will come up with sound democratic processes for choosing leaders and making laws. But if it doesn’t, the best processes in the world will ultimately turn into empty rituals.

In the course of that talk, several ideas came up that aren’t relevant to what I want to say in this post. But I closed with a plea to try to overcome polarization: Democracy rests on an assumption that your fellow citizens are (not totally, but to a considerable extent) rational beings, capable of listening to each other and changing their minds. If you come to the conclusion that they’re not, then democracy stops making sense: Why go through all this public discussion if nobody’s listening? Why protect your opponents’ freedom of speech if nothing they might say could possibly make a difference?

In that part of the talk, I was echoing themes from Anand Giridharadas’ recent book The Persuaders. In the long run, democracy can’t survive just by each side rabble-rousing its base to get a big turnout, while rejecting as heretics anybody who isn’t in 100% agreement. That’s a path towards civil war, not democracy. Real democracy is a messy process of coalition-building: I may not agree with you on everything (or even like you much), but I can work with you on this and compromise up to here. “Politics makes strange bedfellows,” says the proverb.

Since I was talking to UUs, I could invoke the Universalist side of our heritage. Universalism centers on the doctrine of universal salvation: God is not going to give up on any of God’s creatures by condemning them to eternal damnation. [1] Today, Universalism typically gets a more secular interpretation: No one is ever beyond hope; even the most unlikely people can turn their lives around. The final line of my talk expresses a Universalist faith applied to politics:

No matter how stubborn they are or how many times they have been hoodwinked, no one is completely incapable of seeing Truth.

MTG’s divorce. As luck would have it, my faith was tested almost immediately: The next day, Marjorie Taylor Greene started tweeting about a “national divorce“.

We need a national divorce. We need to separate by red states and blue states and shrink the federal government. Everyone I talk to says this. From the sick and disgusting woke culture issues shoved down our throats to the Democrat’s traitorous America Last policies, we are done.

For obvious reasons, most people interpreted this tweet as a call for secession — more or less what the confederate states did in 1861. Mitt Romney, for example, responded like this:

I think Abraham Lincoln dealt with that kind of insanity. We’re not going to divide the country. It’s united we stand and divided we fall.

Fox News host Laura Ingraham also protested: Ronald Reagan came from California and Donald Trump from New York, so conservatives should be careful about exiling those states to a different union.

But taking people seriously as potential partners in democracy means letting them clarify their views. If your goal is to turn people against each other, you jump on any poorly worded statements your opponents make and go off to the races, spinning them into something monstrous (as Fox News often does with unfortunate liberal slogans like “defund the police” [2]). But if your goal is to move forward as a self-governing people, you welcome the possibility that your opponents’ statements are actually not as horrible as they may sound at first. [3]

So on Tuesday, MTG posted a 13-tweet storm that elaborated on her “national divorce” idea. In this version, it’s clearly not a Confederate-style secession, but more like a return to the Articles of Confederation that the Constitution replaced: It’s a federalism where the role of the national government is drastically reduced and the sovereignty of the states correspondingly increased. She emphasizes the rhetorical differences between red and blue states, but nothing in her plan makes a formal division of the union into two camps. Rather, every state is divorced from every other state, forming a loose confederation rather than a nation. “Red” and “blue” would be tendencies rather than separate countries.

The main part of the “divorce” model that stays in the restatement is the justification:

irreconcilable differences: inability to agree on most things or on important things

Liberals and conservatives look at the world so differently, she claims, that they can’t come to any mutually acceptable compromises at the national level. So let’s remove those issues from the federal government and push them down to the states.

I have no idea how serious she is about this, but I imagine this vision appeals to a significant minority of the country. (As I said in my sermon: “Leaders may act in bad faith, but many follow them in good faith, believing what they have been told.”) So I think it calls for a reasoned response [4], which I’ll make in a series of small points that lead up to my main reason for opposing the idea.

This is not going to happen anytime soon, so everybody should calm down. This kind of reorganization would require a sweeping constitutional amendment, which would need to be ratified by 38 states. So any bloc of 13 could prevent such a thing from happening. According to one measure, the 13th most liberal state in the country is New Jersey. So here’s a rule of thumb: If you can’t picture some conservative amendment being ratified in New Jersey, it’s not going to happen.

With that in mind, MTG’s proposal should not be treated as an imminent threat. As Jamelle Bouie puts it, she “has a dream”. For comparison, Bernie Sanders dreams of an America that looks more like Denmark. We should be able to talk about such visions without losing our minds.

Most states aren’t any more monolithic than the US as a whole. As Bouie points out, Americans don’t split neatly into red states and blue states, so it’s far from obvious that you can dodge partisan discord by pushing decisions down to the states. [5]

And if it makes sense to push decisions down to the states, why not further — to the cities or towns or counties? If it’s wrong for the United States to shove liberal ideas “down our throats” in red Georgia, isn’t it also wrong for red Georgia to shove conservative ideas down the throats of blue Atlantans? The same question would apply to Texas/Houston, Tennessee/Nashville, Missouri/St. Louis, and so on.

In addition, one of MTG’s other proposals — that Democrats who migrate from blue states to red states should have to wait five years to vote — indicates that she lacks confidence Georgia will stay red for much longer, if everybody who lives there gets to vote.

A national divorce would be an economic disaster for the red states. Most conservatives understand (and disapprove of the fact) that the government taxes high-income individuals to pay benefits to low-income individuals. But they seldom connect the dots and realize that in the aggregate, government taxes people in high-income states to pay benefits to people in low-income states.

In general, red states are low-income states, and are being subsidized by higher-income blue states. If you list states by per capita income, the richest red state, Alaska, doesn’t show up until #14. If you look at the list in the other order, blue New Mexico is #47. Then you find some Biden-supporting purple states near the middle: Georgia (#32), Nevada (#29), and Michigan (#26). Otherwise, the bottom half of the list is entirely red. [6]

According to SmartAsset.com, the states most dependent on the federal government economically are West Virginia, New Mexico, Mississippi, Alabama, and Alaska. The least dependent is Connecticut.

The federal government is big because that’s what the American people want. A decades-old paradox in American polling is that Americans will tell you they want the federal government to spend less, but when you ask specifically about the programs the government spends almost all its money on — Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, defense — they’re all popular. People like to imagine that trillions of dollars can be slashed from the budget without taking away anyone’s healthcare or job or pension, but it’s just not true.

One way Greene shrinks the federal government is by sharply reducing America’s role in the world:

The federal government would have to maintain the Department of Defense but it would need to return to it’s original purpose. The United States border and our national security would be the border the DoD would defend.

Periodically, isolationism becomes popular, but it always eventually gets outweighed by a stronger national trait: Americans hate bullies. Support for Ukrainians is high right now because Russia is trying to bully them. But suppose that support fades and we pull back from all our foreign entanglements, as MTG wants. I’ll make a prediction: As soon as refugees start arriving from Chinese-occupied Taiwan and Russian-occupied Poland, Americans be asking why our leaders let that happen.

Nobody likes this divorce proposal better than America’s enemies do. Splitting the United States into fifty pieces with an isolationist foreign policy would be a dream come true for China, Russia, Iran, and a bunch of other bad actors around the world.

Her glowing vision of red states’ post-divorce future is not based in reality.

Think about the inherent contradictions in this sentence:

Red states would likely ban all gender lies and confusing theories, Drag Queen story times, and LGBTQ indoctrinating teachers, and China’s money and influence in our education while blue states could have government controlled gender transition schools.

Red states will ban all sorts of things. There will be an official state ideology about gender, and speaking out against it will be branded as “lies” or “indoctrination”. [7] If parents have other ideas and try to raise their children accordingly, they may be cited for “child abuse” and risk having their children taken away by the state. Banned theories don’t even have to be false, just “confusing”. (If that’s the criterion, I propose banning quantum mechanics from state universities.) Free performances freely attended will be outlawed if state bureaucrats disapprove.

And yet, it’s the blue states that will have “government control”.

But MTG’s vision of crime and safety is where she goes furthest into fantasy.

Crime rates would be very low. Red state citizens would be safe. Criminals would be locked away swiftly when they broke the law. Justice would be served.

Policing is mostly under state and local control now, so we can look at actual results rather than into our imaginations. The states with the highest murder rates are all red states: Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Missouri, Arkansas, South Carolina, Tennessee. When USA Today ranked states by violent crime, red Alaska was the most dangerous state. Six of the seven red states listed above — not Mississippi, interestingly enough — were also in the top 10, which was filled out by blue New Mexico and purple Nevada and Arizona.

The least dangerous states were in the Northeast: Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire. New York was 25th, right in the middle, and less dangerous than Florida (21st).

And if you’re worried about you or your children getting killed with a gun, you’ll want to seek out states with sensible gun laws: Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Hawaii, Rhode Island. Stay away from Alaska, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Oklahoma.

Police officers would be well trained, paid, equipped, and seen as heroes once again, not portrayed as racists thugs.

Remember that economic disaster I warned about? Under the divorce settlement, red states would almost all have severe budget problems, which would probably lead to cuts in police pay and equipment. As for police being “portrayed as racist thugs”, that’s not being pushed down from Washington, it’s bubbling up from the outraged Black citizens of cities like Memphis and Louisville. (If you remember, the George Floyd protests happened while Trump was president, so the national government was not pushing them.)

Maybe red states will be able to quell that outrage with the kind of top-down thought control they’re already starting to practice: If nobody is allowed to learn about racism or discuss anything in racial terms, maybe nobody will notice that cops keep killing Black people for flimsy reasons. But achieving that kind of result will require a lot of repression. Banning a few textbooks won’t get it done.

Her vision is a response to the Right’s failure to convince the majority of Americans. If you want to drastically shrink the federal government and shift responsibilities to the states, the easiest way to do it is to rewrite to the federal budget and change the laws. Greene is in Congress, so she can propose such a thing any time she wants.

But it wouldn’t pass, because that’s not what the American people want. That’s why Republican fantasies of a much-smaller federal government revolve around terrorist tactics like threatening to push the United States into default. (As a gangster might put it, “Do what we want or the world economy gets it.”)

If their ideas were popular, they could have run on another “Contract With America” last fall. They could have publicized a detailed and drastically reduced budget proposal, swept into office with large majorities in both houses, and dared President Biden to veto a plan the American people had just endorsed.

But in fact Republicans still have not specified the cuts they want, even vaguely, because they know that the more specific they get, the less popular their proposal will be.

MTG knows the electorate is against her, so she wants to change the electorate. Her ideas can’t win on the national level, so she wants to shift the playing field to the states — but not to the cities, where (again) she would lose. She’s not expressing a principled position, she’s venue shopping.

The real reason I don’t like this? I’m an American. So far, I have the feeling that I’ve just been nibbling around the edges of the divorce proposal. Practicalities aside, what really engages my emotions here is the symbolism: What Greene is arguing, at its most basic level, is that we should all go back to identifying with our separate states rather than with the United States.

This was a popular view before the Civil War, when people started seeing “the United States” as singular rather than plural. (Before the War, an American was likely to say, “The United States are …”. After, popular usage changed to “The United States is …”.)

According to the American Battlefield Trust:

Because of his reputation as one of the finest officers in the United States Army, Abraham Lincoln offered Lee the command of the Federal forces in April 1861. Lee declined and tendered his resignation from the army when the state of Virginia seceded on April 17, arguing that he could not fight against his own people. 

Lee’s “people” were Virginians, not Americans. That’s what Greene wants to go back to: fifty sovereign entities loosely amalgamated for defense and a handful of other purposes. Ex uno, plures.

That’s not how I feel. In my lifetime, I’ve lived in four states: Illinois, Michigan (for college), back to Illinois (grad school), Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and then back to Massachusetts. But none of those moves felt like a change of identity, because all along I’ve been an American.

I still carry with me a hodge-podge of local loyalties: I root for Michigan State’s sports teams, and still have a soft spot for Chicago’s Bears and Cubs, even though the Patriots and Red Sox long ago captured my primary affections. (Inexplicably, I was always a Celtic fan, back to the days of Bill Russell and John Havlicek. Michael Jordan arrived in Chicago just as I was leaving.) I have friends all over the country, and can’t imagine thinking of them as foreigners. When I go to the national parks, I don’t feel like a tourist: The Grand Canyon, Yellowstone — they’re mine, because I’m an American.

Boston has a great old state house, but it will never spark the feelings I get from the US Capitol. Ask me who my governor was on some date in the past, and I’ll probably have to look it up. But I know all the presidents. (When I was Eurailing across the continent in the 1980s with a friend and my future wife, we tried to list them and came up one short. A few cars down, we found a tour group of American teachers, who remembered Rutherford B. Hayes.) What states do the US Olympic athletes come from? I have no idea and little interest in finding out. They’re Americans, like me.

Maybe Marjorie Taylor Greene is tired of being an American and wants to identify as a Georgian instead (at least until Georgia finishes turning blue). But I don’t even know what you call somebody from Massachusetts. (Moving.com suggests “Massachusettsans”, which is a mouthful. When I lived in New Hampshire, we called them “Massholes”.)

In short, it’s important to me to keep being an American. No matter how annoyed I sometimes get with Greene and her MAGA allies, or how mystified, embarrassed, and occasionally horrified I am by what’s been going on lately in red-state legislatures, I’m not interested in a divorce.

Maybe we should try counseling. I’ll bet a counselor would recommend that we stop trolling each other.

[1] Back in the 3rd century, the Christian theologian Origen taught that even the devils in Hell would eventually see the light and be brought back into unity with God. Personally, I don’t believe in literal devils or a literal Hell, but I see an awe-inspiring beauty in Origen’s vision.

[2] Rolling Stone explains defunding the police like this:

When cities start investing in community services, they reduce the need to call police in instances when police officers’ specific skill set isn’t required. “If someone is dealing with a mental health crisis, or someone has a substance abuse disorder, we are calling other entities that are better equipped to help these folks,”[Lynda] Garcia [from the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights] says.

Virtually no one who says “defund the police” means that they want to let violent criminals run wild. So if that’s the position you’re arguing against, you’re avoiding the real issues.

[3] President Biden was practicing this attitude during the State of the Union, when he accepted Republicans’ outcry that they didn’t intend to cut Social Security. “So folks,” he said, “as we all apparently agree, Social Security, Medicare is off the books now, right? All right, we got unanimity.”

Similarly, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg allowed former President Trump to claim that he had nothing to do with rolling back safety regulations on trains, which may have contributed to the rail disaster at East Palestine. Rather than accuse Trump of lying, Buttigieg graciously invited bipartisan unity: “So if he had nothing to do with it, and they did it in his administration against his will, maybe he could come out and say that he supports us moving in a different direction.”

Of course, you can interpret this kind of talk as some sort of political judo, using your opponents’ own momentum to wrong-foot them. But whatever the motive, if both sides practiced such judo, they would stumble towards agreement rather than dig in for trench warfare.

[4] A lot of the tweetstorm looks like trolling to me, and in the spirit of democracy I refuse to troll back, though I will use this note to parry unfair attacks. Her expectations of what blue states will do are almost all based on some demonic fantasy about what liberals want. For example:

In a National Divorce, the left could achieve their dreams of total and complete lawlessness.

Really? Somehow liberals are both tyrannical and lawless. We plan to institute a police state as soon as we get done abolishing the police.

And blue states would be free to allow illegal aliens from all over the world to vote freely and frequently in their elections like the DC city council wants. Dead people could still vote. Criminals in jail could vote that is if blue states even have jails or prisons anymore. Maybe blue states would let kids vote too. I mean why not, if the left says children can chop off their genitals or breasts, surely the left would let them make permanent important adult decisions like voting.

Again, I’m not sure who says “children can chop off their genitals or breasts”, and I suspect she’s just making that up. (A vanishingly small number of minors — under 18 but definitely not “children” any more — are having gender-related surgeries after their parents have had extensive consultations with psychologists and medical professionals. I suspect this is like the vanishingly small number of third-term abortions: Each individual case has unique circumstances that might evoke your empathy if you knew them.)

Non-citizens are not voting in our elections. As I first noted in 2013, dead people voting is a zombie myth that never dies no matter how often it gets debunked. And there’s probably somebody somewhere who would substantially lower the voting age, but I’m not sure who they are.

blue states would likely eliminate the anthem and pledge all together and replace them with anthems and pledges to identity ideologies like the Trans flag and BLM. Perhaps some blue states would even likely have government funded Antifa communists training schools. I mean elected Democrats already support Antifa, so why not.

Most Democrats I know doubt that Antifa really exists, at least in the form conservatives imagine. I have not heard a single elected Democrat say “I support Antifa”, and I doubt MTG has either. If there’s a flag specific to trans people (rather than a rainbow flag that represents everyone) or a pledge of allegiance to BLM, I don’t know about them.

[A commenter has pointed out that there is a trans flag, which (as I said) I didn’t know about. It looks like this:

But nobody has ever suggested that I pledge allegiance to it.]

I will confess that she has me pegged in one way: I think “The Star Spangled Banner” sucks as a national anthem. I’d happily replace it with “America the Beautiful”, which is not only singable but is also about our country rather than about a piece of cloth. But that’s a personal gripe, and I don’t know how many other liberals agree with me.

Anyway, I interpret this kind of trolling as an effort to turn Americans against each other rather than solve problems. I have parried a few unfair attacks, but I refuse to strike back with, say, a Handmaid’s Tale vision of the dystopia MTG might prefer. Both sides should try to deal with what their opponents actually say before launching hyperbolic attacks.

[5] Kansas, for example, is about as red as any state. But last summer a referendum to give the legislature power to ban abortion failed by a wide margin.

[6] People who believe that conservative government promotes economic growth need to account for Mississippi: A Democrat has been governor of Mississippi for exactly 4 of the last 31 years, and yet that state has been near the bottom of just about all economic rankings that whole time.

[7] This is already happening in Florida, and is being widely imitated in other red states. Florida’s Don’t-Say-Gay and Anti-WOKE laws contain lists of banned ideas that teachers can be fined or even imprisoned for telling their students about. No blue state has laws anything like this. Liberals also have been known to object to certain books, but only conservatives want to imprison librarians.