“Well, the first paragraph basically says it all. It begins with ‘The continued unity of the United States of America cannot be guaranteed.'”
his latest book, Divided We Fall: America’s Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation, which was released in September. Mr. French, who previously served as a staff writer at National Review, now is a senior editor at The Dispatch. In this conversation, Mr. French and Mr. Koenig discuss Divided We Fall’s treatment of the stark divisions that mark American politics and society, the extent to which the events of January 6th vindicated Mr. French’s March, 2020 assessment of the possible trajectory of American politics, and possible solutions to the dilemma, particularly a potential rediscovery of federalism.n February 15th, Thomas Koenig was joined by David French to discuss
A video of the conversation is available on YouTube.
Hi, I’m Tom Koenig. And I’m joined today by the senior editor of The Dispatch and Time magazine columnist David French. David, thanks so much for joining us.
Thanks for having me. I really appreciate it.
Yeah, of course. So we’re here today to discuss your new book Divided We Fall: America’s Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation. So I’m going to start with the most important question: What’s your book about?
Well, the first paragraph basically says it all. It begins with “The continued unity of the United States of America cannot be guaranteed.” And it says the reason for that is because there is no single truly important cultural, political, social, or religious force that’s pulling us together more than it’s pushing us apart. All of the big streams of culture, of religion, and politics are just pushing Americans further and further apart. And the rest of the book sort of amplifies that thesis. I mean, everybody knows we’re divided, right? So I don’t have to prove that we’re divided. But it talks about why it doesn’t look like it’s going to get any better. Why, in fact, it’s probably going to get worse: how we could break apart, I imagined two different scenarios. And the third part is how we can try to heal. And it’s not sort of a Kumbaya vision that says, “Well, we’ll just kind of—at some point—start liking each other,” but tries to get, you know, pretty brass tacks about how bad it is—and, what we can do about it without being too idealistic or utopian.
Yeah, so I want to dig into that first part, right, where you kind of lay out the problem. And there’s this concept of the law of group polarization that you might make a lot of. You have a full chapter dedicated to it.
Oh, yeah. Probably the most important single concept in the book.
Yeah. Right. So, it’s a good place to start.
I was hoping you could, you know, explain it to us in straightforward terms, like you do in the book, and kind of explain what its significance is in the overarching arc of why the union’s existence isn’t a given.
So, basically, the law of group polarization comes from an academic paper from Cass Sunstein. In 1999, Cass Sunstein—one of the most cited if not the most cited scholar in America—he wrote a paper called the law of group polarization. I remember reading it maybe a year or two afterwards and just thinking this is a really important insight. It just grew more insightful every year since, and, essentially, what it says is this: that when people of like mind gather, they tend to become more extreme. In other words, if you get together with a bunch of folks who are opposed to gun control, for example, by the end of the meeting, they’re going to be more opposed to gun control. If you get together with people [who] are convinced that we need to take dramatic efforts to stop climate change (and there’s no dissenting voices in that group), then people are going to be more convinced that they need to take dramatic action to attack climate change. And why is this so important? Why it’s so important is because we’re grouping together amongst people of like mind more and more and more. So, we have sort of two things happening [at] once. One is the big sort, where we increasingly live with people of like mind. And the other one is the law of group polarization, which means that American politics are growing more extreme. We used to have this sort of bell curve; [the] vast majority of people were in the center Right, center Left and is pushing down, down to the point where you have far more people than we ever have had before—or at least since we’ve been intentionally measuring it—at the far edges of the far-Right and the far-Left.
I want to get back to that in a bit. But I first wanted to actually jump to part three of the book where you kind of lay out solutions. I’m going to read a quick, just a quick line towards the end of the book, where you say, “Centralized control of an ideologically diverse and polarized nation is not only elusive but destructive. Healthy federalism can temper polarization by empowering self-governance.” I think that line kind of gets at the overarching theme of part three, which is kind of twofold. You want more tolerance—and you can talk a bit here about tolerance today, but it’s not actually true tolerance. That’s a moral virtue. And you also talk about decentralization. So, I want you to explain that, and then I’ll follow up with some questions about the law of group polarization and how it relates to this.
So, essentially, what I’m saying is that we have to re-embrace sort of the Madisonian vision of American democracy. How do you deal with what they worried about at the time, of the violence of faction? What Madison would say in Federalist Number 10 is you let many factions thrive. And how do you let many factions thrive? Well, one of the ways is federalism and localism: in other words, driving down government to the lowest possible level. Of course, you cannot localize a national defense, for example; you can’t localize interstate highways quite as easily. But there are many things you can localize or federalize.
My argument is: We will turn down the temperature of our politics, if you let Tennessee be Tennessee and California be California. In other words, if Tennessee, where I live in Tennessee, if Nancy Pelosi is less important to me, or if you live in California, if Marsha Blackburn is less important to you, then we can start to turn down the temperature of politics. But the barrier to that is pretty practical, and that is we’re increasingly intolerant of our political opponents; we don’t want them to prevail anywhere.
So, a victory for progressivism in California is sort of seen as a defeat for conservatism everywhere, and a victory for conservatism in Tennessee is sort of seen as a defeat for progressivism everywhere. And so, what we have to learn to do is essentially tolerate each other, and tolerance is a word, especially in conservative circles, that leaves a bad taste in people’s mouths because especially in many quadrants of higher education, the word “tolerance” is often seen more as a synonym for intolerance. There’s an awful lot of intolerance committed in the name of tolerance. I go back to the pseudonymous writer, Scott Alexander, who [was] talking about this very concept a couple of years ago, and he said [that] he’ll talk to some of his progressive friends, and he’ll say, “Are you tolerant?” And they’ll say, “Well, sure, I love people, regardless of race, sexual orientation, gender identity, ethnicity, etc.” And then Alexander will follow up and say, “Well, what’s wrong with those people?” And they’ll say, “Nothing, what are you talking about? Of course, there’s nothing wrong with them.” And then Alexander says, “But what are you tolerating then? Because tolerance implies there’s something to tolerate; there is something there that you have to overlook.” And so tolerance is not a synonym for affection. It’s much closer to acceptance. We have to have an attitude of acceptance that says, “I’m not going to try to dominate you. I’m going to try to accommodate you, and I want you to accommodate me.” And federalism is a way to do that. So, that’s one of the ways that I talk about this path forward.
You also talk about the Bill of Rights. The book is dedicated to James Madison, and I actually have a follow-up about that. But you talked about the Bill of Rights, and you talked about that there are limits to tolerance. We don’t [have] tolerate everything. We certainly don’t have to tolerate violations that fly in the face of the protections afforded by the Bill of Rights. Could you speak more to that point?
We’ve had unhealthy federalism in the American past, obviously, and unhealthy federalism is a federalism that essentially denies where local jurisdictions use their authority and autonomy to deny Americans in their jurisdiction of their fundamental and basic rights as Americans. For example, the most extreme version of this was slavery. American slaves enjoyed no rights in the Bill of Rights, just none. The next worst example, arguably, is Jim Crow, where the Southern states—they used their authority to deny black Americans the vast majority, if not sometimes the entirety, of their rights under the Bill of Rights.
And the Bill of Rights, I say, is our basic fundamental American social compact: free speech, free exercise of religion, right of assembly, petitioning the government for redress of grievances, the ability to have protection against the deprivation of life, liberty, and property without due process of law, unreasonable search and seizure, cruel and unusual punishment. I mean, all of these things where the individual is protected against state interference, this is our basic most fundamental American social compact, and so you can’t have a federalism of the Bill of Rights. You can’t sort of say, “Okay, well, you’re going to enjoy fewer free speech rights in Texas or California, and you’re going to enjoy fewer rights for against unreasonable search and seizure in North Carolina.” No, we have to have a comprehensive approach to the Bill of Rights [that] secures [these] basic liberties. But then beyond that, California can have a different health care plan; California can have a different climate plan; California can have different taxation. Now, they all do to some extent. But we need to increase their autonomy because the vast bulk of revenue and authority is still being sucked up to the federal government.
Yeah, and also the good thing about grounding our national political culture in what you call our fundamental compact in the Bill of Rights is that it’s a floor, not a ceiling. So, if another state wants to give additional rights in some space and constitutionally codify them, they’re more than free to do so.
Right, but there’s an irreducible minimum. In other words, the First Amendment does not vary in its meaning interpretation from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. It used to be that that American populations just flat out didn’t enjoy the protections of these rights. And a lot of people forget that the Bill of Rights originally applied only to Congress. So, for much of American history, you literally did not have a First Amendment right, if your local town council or your governor censored you, or if the local police broke into your home, there was no concept [of] federal constitutional right. And that’s a development more in the last 100 years—accelerating really, in the last, 60 to 70 years—where the comprehensive attachment of these basic rights in the Bill of Rights has begun to comprehensively attach to Americans. And so, what I say is, we have to let that process continue and mature. But at the same time, in many other ways, we got to let California be California and Tennessee be Tennessee.
So, about that point of letting California be California, let Tennessee be Tennessee, etc.—this push for decentralization, that can only happen with more tolerance, in the true sense of the word. I want to go back to Madison because you dedicate the book to Madison, and you do discuss Federalist 10. He’s coping with the same problem that you’re coping with: the problem with faction. In Federalist 10, Madison’s solution is to “extend the sphere,” making more factions. Do you see a tension between the push for decentralization for which you advocate and the underlying logic of dealing with factions that Madison lays out in Federalist 10?
No, I think what you’re talking about there is when you are talking about local federalism, which by the way, I would argue that the Federalist structure that I’m advocating is much closer to the Madisonian vision of the federal government than what we have now. Much closer. And so, I think the concrete way that you’re extending the sphere is, in many ways, by allowing this very big, broad, wide nation to live out its values in different communities. And what increased centralization does is it constricts this sphere because what centralization does is it gives one side or the other a disproportionate amount of power, in any given two-to-four-year cycle, just disproportionate. And what then happens is people begin to be concerned: Are you going to constrict the sphere when the opponent has power and leave me out, leave me sort of on the outside looking in? And so I think that this sort of Madisonian vision of extending the sphere, really, the practical way to do that is with a greater degree of federalism, a greater degree of localism, where these national elections matter less to my life.
So, “lower the stakes” will hopefully lower the temperature of our national political discourse or enmity. And one last follow-up—as a potential pushback against the argument that you lay out in part three—is if you talk about geographic sorting extremists, the law of group polarization (how if you’re around like-minded folks, you’re going to push more and more in one direction), is there any concern as you devolve power, that you’re opening the door up for more extremism. Or, do you think that putting more power in the hands of local communities would perhaps temper some of this extremism because it would force people to put their money…
To grow up and be responsible.
So, a couple of things: One, and a lot of people said, if you do let California be California and Tennessee be Tennessee, doesn’t that just exacerbate the big sort? In other words, people who like California’s values will head out there…and my argument there is that’s happening. I mean, that this is happening; people are already moving where they feel more comfortable, and, as they do, it creates a self-perpetuating cycle. So how are we going to accommodate to this reality? Because it’s not like we’re going to say, “You know what, we need a lot more ideological diversity in California, so, I need about a half a million people from the South to move to California and about half a million people from California to move…” That’s just not going to happen. You’re not going to re-sort America. So, how do we live? How do we accommodate this? And the answer, I think, is by granting greater autonomy so that the sort isn’t threatening. If California has its greater autonomy, and lesser authority over me, [the] California politicians—I’m not as threatened by it. I’ll start to feel about as strongly about California politics as say I do about Ontario politics. Ontario is really different from Tennessee and its politics, but I don’t care because Ontario doesn’t affect me.
Now, it’ll never be quite like that in a unified country, but the more we can get it to where California being California is not seen as a direct threat. In other words, Kamala Harris, for example, has all the power she needs if she runs for president [in] 2024 [or] 2028 or whatever and wins that she has all of the power to bring that sort of California-style ideology into the entire United States. Then, the other thing is I do think that if you give more power to local governments, local governments kind of have to grow up. They got to govern; they have to do real stuff. And I think—just as a general matter—one of the cures for a lot of the extremism that plagues our country right now is people have to grow up and govern, and the more we kick everything up to the presidency—and to a lesser extent, the judiciary—the fewer people have to grow up and govern. Everyone else gets to just be a pundit, and they get to be a pundit, riling everybody else up more and more and more. My colleague, Jonah Goldberg, talks about Congress [as] the Parliament of pundits and that really is what it’s become. And it’s gone from the intention, which was to be the most powerful branch of government, to the reality, which is by far the least powerful.
Yeah, so that point about putting money where mouths currently are could tamp down on some of the extremism that we’re seeing.
And it would decrease that sense of threat, that mutual threat, which I think leads us into a discussion of part two, where you lay out these hypothetical secession scenarios, which are chilling. It’s really grounded—like what gets you from just polarization and contempt and the enmity that we have today to real disintegration. And it has to be—I think you make this argument—that it’s that threat. When the threat becomes real enough in someone’s head, in a group of Americans’ heads, it can lead to real-world consequences. And to relate that to current events, I want to talk about January 6th, the lead up to January 6th, the aftermath thereof. Has this accelerated the potential push towards some sort of crack-up that you’re talking about as a real possibility? Do you worry that we’re closer than we otherwise would have been?
I think we’re closer than I thought we would be at this point. So, I was saying that essentially, if you take all of these trends that we’re dealing with, then you project them out, not in the short term, but the medium term, then it’s essentially like building a bonfire. You’re laying down the kindling, and you’re putting down the dry wood and maybe adding some fuel, and all that it awaits is the spark away. Once the fire starts to blaze, it often goes in unpredictable ways. I finished the book in March, right when the coronavirus pandemic was just beginning to hit and really impact our lives. In a functioning country, you would see some of what you saw in other countries, which was a kind of a rallying effect, this kind of we’re all in it together. That lasted for us, I don’t know, four or five days. And then we just went right at it and then back at it. Then, by the summer you have violent riots in cities from coast to coast. Then, you have an election conducted under unbelievable amounts of tension. Then, the entire election contest that culminates in an actual attempted insurrection, to overthrow the results of a lawful election through physical force and intimidation, which was astonishing to see, just astonishing. Now, I do feel like we’ve kind of gone through a phase, a very short phase where everyone is sort of thinking, “Oh, my goodness, what just happened here?” And some people are taking stock and saying, “How did it get this bad?” A lot of people are doubling down and minimizing the seriousness of what occurred on January 6th, then rationalizing it. So, I do think that we are far more angry with each other, suspicious of each other, far more cognizant of threats from each other than I thought we would be by February, 2021, even when I finished the book in March of 2020.
Yeah, and one follow-up—and we can close with this—is this rise of people willing to take political disputes or differences, points of enmity, and kind of push them to try to resolve them outside the bounds of the normal electoral and political processes. We saw that in the summer; we saw that especially, obviously, on January 6th. But, in the longer term, I wanted to bring up this point that Noah Rothman in Commentary magazine recently wrote a piece on how these state Republican Parties, these state GOPs
They’re going nuts.
Yeah, they’re going insane. They’re crazy. And why? Because they don’t seem to necessarily be trying to win elections, so much as just air grievances to be a funnel for pro-Trump, anti-Left hatred, or whatever you want to call it, contempt. That should worry us, right?
It should worry you, especially when you have a two-party system. And so that, as a general rule (absent the smallest of exceptions), if you’re upset with the party on the Left, you’ve got one other option, and it’s the party on the Right. The party on the Right right now is overrun at the grassroots. I’m not talking like your normal soccer mom taking her kids to baseball practice and then hustling off to the next family engagement, like the normal folks who are just, they’re Republican or Democrat, and they’re just living their lives. I’m talking about this layer of activists, who essentially control the parties. They’re very angry. They’re very angry. Not all of them, but, as a general rule, it’s a very angry group of people, and a lot of them are really deeply in the grips of some pretty wild conspiracy theories. Some of the things, the censure motions and other things you’ve seen have trafficked in these conspiracy theories. I mean, my goodness, the head of the Texas GOP has entertained secession. When the book came out in September, they said, “Did you really want to use the secession word?” And I said, “Look, I thought a lot about this, should I use the secession word in the title? Is that being too alarmist?” And then fast forward to December [and] January, and the Texas GOP, the head of the most powerful, largest GOP in the country, is talking about secession.
So you do have this layer of volcanic anger and deep suspicion and a lot of conspiracy theorizing. And a lot of this, look, if you tell people for years that America is over if the other side wins, if you tell people for years that the other side hates you and wants you dead, then guess what, some people are going to believe it. They’re going to believe America is over if the Democrats win or they hate me and they want me dead. And it’s going to radicalize people, and some people will start to act like America is over. You tell people enough that America will end if the Democrats win, and some small percentage [of] people will say, “Well, that means taking matters into a very extreme direction.” So, that’s where we are, and a lot of the work that is ahead for the GOP is how does it deal with a party that—at many states, at the grassroots—is captured by its angriest fringe, conspiracy-addled fringe. Again, not everywhere, but in many jurisdictions. I hear from Republicans who relate to me things they hear in county committee meetings that would just make your hair stand on end. And so, yeah, that’s where things are now. And there’s an enormous project, I think, for the good of this country of making the GOP healthy again.
Yeah, and I think books like this Divided We Fall can be a part of that project, part of retethering the rhetoric to reality and making sure that we keep the Republic and tone down some of the rhetoric and make sure that we keep this union intact going forward. And you’ve certainly done your part in pushing this book out there, and I hope people read it. David, thanks so much for joining us.
Thanks so much for having me. I really appreciate it.