The long hand of history: Political Polarisation in the US – Part 2Jul 27, 2023
“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.” So said Marjorie Taylor Greene in a tweet in February this year. Greene is a Republican Member of Congress and could be running mate for Donald Trump.
She can be dismissed as a publicity seeking populist but polling by Bright Line and You Gov in June 2021 is worrying. Surprisingly large proportions of voters were prepared to consider joining a regional grouping of states in preference to remaining part of a unified country. Sixty-six percent of Republican voters in the Southern States were prepared to consider leaving the Union while 47% of Democrat voters in California were also prepared to do the same. The pollsters caution that expressing a view is very different from acting on it.
The Civil War was sparked by a secession attempt by the slave owning states but is America really on the verge of another attempted secession?
History and geography
US history has been marked by differences and sometimes conflict between states. The Civil War is the obvious example, but the Reconstruction period, the growth of Jim Crow laws institutionalising racial discrimination in the South, the Agrarian Revolt of the 1890s against the Gilded Age industrial states and the tensions of the Civil Rights movement across the 1950s, 60s and 70s all had a strong geographic focus.
Successive Presidents after WWII were successful in reducing these differences between states. But in the last decade laws differing sharply between Republican and Democrat states on issues ranging from gun control, through abortion, to environmental, energy and social welfare policies and LGBTQI+ rights and voter participation have been enacted.
History is at play here. Republicans had long dominated the mid-west appealing to pietistic protestants – just as they now do to the Evangelical movement. In the South the Democrats had held sway. This changed dramatically after Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Johnson is reputed to have said to his press secretary ‘Well, I think we may have lost the south for your lifetime – and mine.’
In one of the great ironies of American political history the Republican party – the child of the Great Emancipator President Abraham Lincoln – developed the Southern Strategy based on exploiting the racial anxieties of white Southern voters to capture those Democratic districts. A recent review of consistently worded Gallup poll questions from the period before and after the Civil Rights Act has found that nearly all the Democratic losses were driven by white working class voters’ racial prejudices.
The stability of these differences between states over time is obvious when you consider that in the Agrarian Revolt the Populist William Jennings Bryan captured 22 of the 45 states in the 1896 Presidential election. In 2016 Trump captured 16 of those 22 – the other six are now swing states. Bryan failed to become President because lower population in these states meant that the Electoral College was less to his advantage than in Trump’s case. While Bryan was a Democrat, over the decades following the Civil Rights Act of 1964 those Southern Democrat districts were progressively captured by Republicans.
This geographic separation between Democratic (Blue) and Republican (Red) voters makes it easier to identify those who do not share your political preferences as an “alien other”. A shared perception of historical “oppression” can motivate voters and be invoked by activists. The frequency with which the confederate flag appears at Trump rallies is not coincidental.
Most states send Senators of the same party to Congress
Are there any grounds for fearing that secessionist tendencies could spill over into armed conflict or terrorism as they have in so many other countries?
Growth in the militia movement
The legitimate state monopoly over the use of coercive force is a defining characteristic of the modern state. Countries where the use of coercive force is widely distributed in private hands – warlordism – are at a risk of becoming failed states. There is no risk of that in the US, but the wide availability of weapons and tensions around militias and National Guard forces raise the risks of domestic terrorism.
The Second Amendment of the US Constitution reads “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed”. Since the Supreme Court’s decision in the District of Columbia v Heller in 2008 this has been interpreted as underpinning an individual’s freedom to own and carry weapons and some Federal and state gun control laws seeking to limit or constrain this right have since been struck down.
Since the 1990s there has been a surge in private militias – current estimates are that there are 200, most being state based but with Oath Keepers, 3 Percenters, Boogaloo Bois and Redneck Revolt being national organisations. They are often quite heavily armed and participate in protests alongside the neo-fascist Proud Boys as in the January 6 insurrection. Many in the militia movement are increasingly openly supportive of right wing politicians (Sean Tenaglia: Regulating Armed Private Militia Gatherings: a Constitutional State-Level Proposal to Promote Public Safety in a Post-Heller World William and Mary Law Review Vol. 63). They falsely claim that state laws regulating militias are in breach of the Second Amendment.
The National Guard is the last resort coercive force available to State Governors. It is answerable to the State governor but paid for by the Federal government and subject to Federal call out as a reserve force. But increasingly there is tension between those roles. In the wake of President Biden’s inauguration and in direct conflict with his wish to cool the confrontations at the border with Mexico, Texas Governor Abbott called out the National Guard to patrol, and the Governor of South Dakota, which has no border with Mexico used funds donated by a wealthy supporter to finance sending troops from South Dakota’s National Guard to join Republican states border forces in 2021 and again this year.
It is far too early to suggest that the US will be torn asunder by states seeking to leave the union. But it is not impossible to see a future in which there could be armed secessionist cells posing national security hazards. A lot will depend on next year’s Presidential race – the wisdom of the Republican and Democrat conventions and the self-discipline of the candidates.
You may be interested to read Part 1 of this series:
View all the articles of this five part series.