Will America Split? History Says ‘Yes’

The curious case of Texas v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania was a short-lived but portentous controversy. Forty percent of the states joined forces to challenge the presidential election results maintained by roughly another 40 percent of states, with roughly 20 percent of states caught somewhere in the middle. The Supreme Court punted the case.

The Supreme Court seems to have made peace with its own irrelevance vis-à-vis the irremediable schism between two halves of the country. The Texas-led half is not, despite some people’s surface reading, a resurrection of the confederacy. Territorially the states that joined Texas’s case form a column reaching from the Mexican to the Canadian border, including the northernmost state, Alaska, and Indiana. Georgia and North Carolina, obviously, are not aligned with Texas anymore, while several northern states like Ohio are moving toward alignment with the red camp.

In cultural terms, the California-led states have reversed their historic position on civil rights and now oppose the fundamental purpose of the Fourteenth Amendment and equal protection under the law (which I review in some detail here.) In their successful pleading to the Supreme Court, they rejected the notion that outside forces can intervene in a state’s voting or judicial process, thereby resurrecting the arguments from former confederate states about their right to block African Americans from suffrage through practices like a poll tax, literacy test, or KKK-style voter intimidation.

“But the courts said so!” is a cold argument to raise given the history of Dred Scott, Plessy v. Ferguson, and Korematsu v. United States.

Similarly, the California-led states continue to claim that hundreds of sworn affidavits by allegedly disenfranchised Trump supporters are not real evidence. Most 19th century slave narratives were written by African Americans who fled to the north. Many slave narrators detail how southern courts would not permit black people’s eyewitness accounts as testimony in any case. Even though the narratives usually included authenticating documents as an appendix. White people had to attest to the truthfulness of black people for their accounts to be accepted as proof of anything.

Because Trump supporters haven’t been enslaved or, in most cases, descended from people who have, the blue states seem to believe that it is acceptable to treat their testimony as weightless, but the basic inequality of due process nonetheless undoes much of the civil rights movement.

The nation’s current divide is partly geographic but mostly cultural and juridical. The Texas-led states, despite including parts of the former confederacy, now stand for the rule of law and the civil rights protections of the 1868 14th Amendment. The California-led states now seek to undo over 150 years of human rights laws so that they can override the suffrage and petitions of a “suspect class” (Republicans).

Polling indicates that neither side is budging on the question that best serves as a litmus test: whether the election of Joe Biden is legitimate. About half the country believes it was not because they share Texas’s understanding of what citizen rights are and what constitutes evidence. Half the country believes the election was legitimate because they share California’s understanding of citizen rights as framed by context and by goals, with any means being justified by the right goals, depending on the group involved.

For the first time in anyone’s living memory, we have to contend with the real possibility that the United States will split into separate nations. The split will not look like the 19th century Civil War and may not even be a war at all. Looking at history, I’ve come upon the following possible precedents in history that may help us understand the potential outcomes.

The Fall of Western Rome

In 476, the western half of the Roman Empire fell, sacked repeatedly by “barbarians.” The last Roman emperor was deposed by outsiders invading the city. The eastern half, later known as the Byzantine Empire, carried on until the Turks crushed the last stronghold in 1453.

The California-led states look a lot like the western half of the Roman empire heading into the 5th century. Their territory contains much of the history and glamor of the United States, including Wall Street, Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and Washington, D.C.. But like the ancient city of Rome, the concentration of wealth and power brings its own instabilities, which is why, ironically, the half of the empire that actually contained Rome fell 1,000 years before the eastern offshoot.

The eastern half of Rome was Greek-speaking and contained Egypt, the province that produced most of Rome’s grain. Justinian, arguably the first eastern emperor severed from the west, took the complex laws of Rome’s history and compiled them into a famous legal code. The Byzantines considered themselves Roman.

The Texas-led states could likely become something akin to the Byzantine Empire as the California-led states collapse under their own decadence. The California-led states will probably have more riots, greater class conflict, more tension due to unregulated immigration, and greater psychological dysfunction due to their rejection of Christianity and the nuclear family.

Perhaps the blue states descend further into anarchy as the red states pursue increasing levels of administrative separation to keep their chaos at bay. The Texas-led states, like the Byzantine Empire, are less glamorous but contain a great deal of natural resources and agriculture. If they hold the line against chaos, they have a viable chance of surviving and carrying on the traditions dear to the Republic.

The Division of Israel Into North and South

After King Solomon’s death, Israel split into a northern and southern kingdom. They had separate dynastic successions even though both of them claimed, on some level, to worship the same deity. The southern kingdom, containing Judah, had much of the same depravity that infected the northern kingdom, but benefited from several good kings that managed to bring moments of reform: people like Asa, Hezekiah, and Josiah. The northern kingdom had particularly awful figures like Ahab and his wife Jezebel.

The mismanagement in the two kingdoms doomed them both, though Judah lasted about 136 years longer than the northern kingdom. By 722 B.C., the northern kingdom was wiped out by the Assyrians. By 586 B.C., the southern kingdom was wiped out by Babylon.

While arguably less likely than the Roman example, the Israel example could give us a glimpse of how a United States split might proceed. Constant movement around the country has rendered it practically impossible for the Texas-led states to shield themselves from the prevailing culture of the California-led states. While we saw an ethical distinction between the two realms in Texas v. Pennsylvania, that distinction might be superficial or short-lived. If the Texas-led states are bound to become an only slightly less offensive version of the California-led states, then we may be heading toward a twofold disaster like Israel’s.

Blue America might collapse a century before red America, but red America would not, in this model, last 1,000 years more the way the Byzantine Empire outlived Rome.

The Breakup of the Soviet Union

In the Soviet Union’s demise, one major nation emerged with contiguous territory and a large population, Russia. Around its margins, 15 independent nations emerged, with smaller populations.

While I would never grant moral equivalency between the United States and the USSR, consider the 1990s breakup as a framework for a 2020s or 2030s breakup of the United States. The California-led states are not a contiguous territory, but rather fragmented and isolated regions: two coastal arcs with outlying states like Georgia, North Carolina, Illinois, Colorado, and New Mexico. In many ways Georgia and Oregon have about as much in common as Lithuania had with Armenia.

The blue states are not only geographically removed from each other but also culturally conflicted between themselves. New York and Los Angeles are together in their Democratic affiliations, but if there were no Republicans, what would unite them? What would keep them together as they face the mundane strains of taxation, shared security burdens, and intraparty rivalries like Hillary Clinton versus Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden versus Andrew Yang?

The Soviet Union model is persuasive inasmuch as the Texas-led states are easier to conceptualize as a coherent nation with common cultural and religious values. The California-led states would easily break up into a smattering of smaller republics each going its own way.

Can a split be avoided? Time will tell. A president other than Biden might hold more promise, but I anticipate that he and Kamala Harris will be too weak and ungenerous toward the country’s other half to soothe tensions and hold the country together. It will probably just get worse from here.

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