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How a “National Divorce” Could Actually Unite Americans

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“Far from giving up on the American project, national divorce aims to renew and deepen our ability to live in harmony together.”

This Presidents’ Day, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) took an issue that has long been at the fringes of American politics and brought it to the center of our discourse: national divorce. Her tweet exploded with over 33 million views and earned primetime discussion across cable news. The negative response was swift. Utah’s Republican Governor, Spencer Cox, called the idea “evil,” while other prominent Democrats and Republicans explicitly conflated this idea with civil war.

National divorce has entered the American conversation amid an era of increasing division, so it is unsurprising that it was introduced by one of the United States’ most polarizing political figures. But even though many people view the prospect of national divorce as being rooted in hostility and alienation, this is a fundamental misunderstanding. Far from giving up on the American project, national divorce aims to renew and deepen our ability to live in harmony together.

The American system of representative democracy sought to take the raw power that had defined governments throughout history and force it to respond to the will of its constituents. Rather than needing violent revolution to replace a government, our conflicts could be addressed through peaceful electoral processes. This was a landmark improvement, but the new American system still left largely unresolved the issue that drives all political struggles (violent or electoral): the desire to use political power to control others.

The gradual diversion of power from the local and state level to the federal level has further compounded the unresolved desire for control over our fellow citizens. Beginning with the Federalist victory in 1789 to replace the Articles of Confederation with the Constitution, we have now come to a point where few Americans even know who their local representatives are, and most activists seeking change appeal straight to the national level. Additionally, increasing cultural and ideological heterogeneity have led to multiple incompatible visions of how society should be run, and our nation’s growth has led to an increase by the tens of millions in the population of the 49% needing to bend to the will of the 51%. When the entire population of the United States was barely over six million in 1801, the half of the population forced to submit to the other half was only three million; today, the losing half counts over 165 million. 

On the one hand, national divorce is a proposal for the 49% to gain greater self-determination. But what makes national divorce different than violent means to achieve such ends is that it asks for both sides of the divorce to recognize that independence is in their mutual self-interest. No longer need resources and effort be wasted on trying to control others who do not want it, and the 51% can have a stronger majority to ensure their stability and bypass the partisan gridlock that currently limits them. Thus, national divorce is equally as much a proposal for the 51% to say, “I no longer seek to use my power to control you; I wish to let you be free.” The advice for troubled relationships that “If you truly love someone, you must be willing to let them go” feels bittersweet, but those who have been in the position to need that advice know its wisdom.

However, unlike a marital divorce, national divorce is merely a proposal to separate our politics. Many critics of national divorce have correctly pointed out that there is no clean way geographically to divide the United States into fully red and fully blue countries, never mind the extent to which our cultural and familial ties are intermingled nationwide. Even after a national divorce, Americans will be forced to share a society together, but no longer will half that society be able to use the force of government to control the other half. As such, while national divorce cannot fully cure our culture wars, such a split would drastically lower the stakes that have made them so heated. It becomes much easier to have political conversations across ideological lines when the threat of another’s views being forced upon one no longer underlies such conversations. Those concerned by how difficult political discussions have become, how they have torn apart our social ties, and how they have impeded our ability to use spirited debate to advance progress ought to delight in how national divorce could reinvigorate these core elements of the classical liberal vision.

The main benefit of national divorce can be reduced to simple mathematics: If our current political divide is approximately 51% blue and 49% red, under one national government, we leave 49% unhappy (possibly worse when the electoral college and gerrymandering lead the minority to political control). But if we divide our nation into two territories that are each 75% blue/red, then the population unhappy with its government is cut in half. In reality, a divorce that slices all of the United States into two geographically distinct nations along partisan lines is probably not the most likely version to occur. A single state divorcing might be the most politically plausible, or multiple states or regions might divorce into multiple nations. Regardless, the smaller and more ideologically homogenous the nations, the better the math leads to more people being satisfied with their government. If one cares more about his neighbor’s happiness than controlling his life, national divorce is the loving choice.

Political theorist Murray Rothbard challenged Americans broadly supportive of the ideals of freedom (yet who believe the current American union is necessary to protect it) to question their premises. “While laissez-faireists should by the logic of their position, be ardent believers in a single, unified world government, so that no one will live in a state of ‘anarchy’ in relation to anyone else, they almost never are. And once one concedes that a single world government is not necessary, then where does one logically stop at the permissibility of separate states? If Canada and the United States can be separate nations without being denounced as being in a state of impermissible ‘anarchy,’ why may not the South secede from the United States? New York State from the Union? New York City from the state? Why may not Manhattan secede? Each neighborhood? Each block? Each house? Each person?”

Rothbard’s radical libertarian vision of each person being his own nation may have little precedent, but national divorce of the type being proposed today has plenty. The toxic association secession has developed in post-Civil War America has made selling national divorce an uphill battle, but it is a curious association given the United States’ founding in secession from Great Britain, as well as Texas having joined our nation following its secession from Mexico. While American secession does not have a peaceful history, worldwide there are numerous examples of peaceful national divorce to help guide us. The breakup of the Soviet Union, of Czechoslovakia, of the formerly unified Sweden-Norway, of Iceland and Denmark, the transition to independence of the majority of former colonial territories, and Brexit provide further case studies. Many critics of national divorce incredulously ask how we could ever possibly deal with our military, national debt, monetary policy, borders, international trade, and more in an endless game of whack-a-mole, but few have spared even a moment to look at the existing examples to see what has already worked. Brexit took years of research and negotiation before it could be executed, and American national divorce would surely be even more complex, but just because the details of the divorce would be complicated is not a reason to believe it is not worthwhile. 

National divorce is not something that can happen tomorrow; it has neither enough support nor the details of any kind of realistic plan. However, as our nation’s culture further divides and faith in our political institutions continues to decrease, secessionist sentiments are likely to continue to grow. Our nation and the world’s history with bloody secessionist violence ought to inspire fear. But rather than unsuccessfully attempting to clamp down on people’s yearning for self-determination until it boils over, we have the ability today to start preparing for a better alternative. If we can start the conversation now, open minds to the idea, and study to build toward a workable plan, we can ensure peace and the American people’s continued and strengthened friendship and flourishing.

Joseph (Jake) Klein is the Director of Media Production at the Foundation Against Intolerance & Racism (FAIR). He served as an executive producer on the feature film No Safe Spaces and a producer on The Politically Incorrect Guide series. He is also the author of the upcoming book Redefining Racism: How Racism Became “Power + Prejudice.” He can be found on Twitter @josephjakeklein

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