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America Is Growing Apart, Possibly for Good

The Atlantic logo The Atlantic 6/24/2022 Ronald Brownstein
© The Atlantic

It may be time to stop talking about “red” and “blue” America. That’s the provocative conclusion of Michael Podhorzer, a longtime political strategist for labor unions and the chair of the Analyst Institute, a collaborative of progressive groups that studies elections. In a private newsletter that he writes for a small group of activists, Podhorzer recently laid out a detailed case for thinking of the two blocs as fundamentally different nations uneasily sharing the same geographic space.

“When we think about the United States, we make the essential error of imagining it as a single nation, a marbled mix of Red and Blue people,” Podhorzer writes. “But in truth, we have never been one nation. We are more like a federated republic of two nations: Blue Nation and Red Nation. This is not a metaphor; it is a geographic and historical reality.”

To Podhorzer, the growing divisions between red and blue states represent a reversion to the lines of separation through much of the nation’s history. The differences among states in the Donald Trump era, he writes, are “very similar, both geographically and culturally, to the divides between the Union and the Confederacy. And those dividing lines were largely set at the nation’s founding, when slave states and free states forged an uneasy alliance to become ‘one nation.’”

Podhorzer isn’t predicting another civil war, exactly. But he’s warning that the pressure on the country’s fundamental cohesion is likely to continue ratcheting up in the 2020s. Like other analysts who study democracy, he views the Trump faction that now dominates the Republican Party—what he terms the “MAGA movement”—as the U.S. equivalent to the authoritarian parties in places such as Hungary and Venezuela. It is a multipronged, fundamentally antidemocratic movement that has built a solidifying base of institutional support through conservative media networks, evangelical churches, wealthy Republican donors, GOP elected officials, paramilitary white-nationalist groups, and a mass public following. And it is determined to impose its policy and social vision on the entire country—with or without majority support. “The structural attacks on our institutions that paved the way for Trump’s candidacy will continue to progress,” Podhorzer argues, “with or without him at the helm.”

[Read: Beware prophecies of civil war]

All of this is fueling what I’ve called “the great divergence” now under way between red and blue states. This divergence itself creates enormous strain on the country’s cohesion, but more and more even that looks like only a way station. What’s becoming clearer over time is that the Trump-era GOP is hoping to use its electoral dominance of the red states, the small-state bias in the Electoral College and the Senate, and the GOP-appointed majority on the Supreme Court to impose its economic and social model on the entire nation—with or without majority public support. As measured on fronts including the January 6 insurrection, the procession of Republican 2020 election deniers running for offices that would provide them with control over the 2024 electoral machinery, and the systematic advance of a Republican agenda by the Supreme Court, the underlying political question of the 2020s remains whether majority rule—and democracy as we’ve known it—can survive this offensive.

Podhorzer defines modern red and blue America as the states in which each party has usually held unified control of the governorship and state legislature in recent years. By that yardstick, there are 25 red states, 17 blue states, and eight purple states, where state-government control has typically been divided.

Measured that way, the red nation houses slightly more of the country’s eligible voting population (45 percent versus 39 percent), but the blue nation contributes more of the total U.S. gross national product: 46 percent versus 40 percent. On its own, the blue nation would be the world’s second-largest economy, trailing only China. The red nation would rank third. (Podhorzer also offers a slightly different grouping of the states that reflects the more recent trend in which Virginia has voted like a blue state at the presidential level, and Arizona and Georgia have moved from red to purple. With these three states shifted into those categories, the two “nations” are almost equal in eligible voting-age population, and the blue advantage in GDP roughly doubles, with the blue section contributing 48 percent and the red just 35 percent.)

[From the July/August 2021 issue: How America fractured into four parts]

The hardening difference between red and blue, Podhorzer maintains, “empowers” the 10 purple states (if you include Arizona and Georgia) to “decide which of the two superpower nations’ values, Blue or Red, will prevail” in presidential and congressional elections. And that leaves the country perpetually teetering on a knife’s edge: The combined vote margin for either party across those purple states has been no greater than two percentage points in any of the past three presidential elections, he calculates.

The increasing divergence—and antagonism—between the red nation and the blue nation is a defining characteristic of 21st-century America. That’s a reversal from the middle decades of the 20th century, when the basic trend was toward greater convergence.

One element of that convergence came through what legal scholars call the “rights revolution.” That was the succession of actions from Congress and the Supreme Court, mostly beginning in the 1960s, that strengthened the floor of nationwide rights and reduced the ability of states to curtail those rights. (Key moments in that revolution included the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts and the Supreme Court decisions striking down state bans on contraception, interracial marriage, abortion, and, much later, prohibitions against same-sex intimate relations and marriage.)

Simultaneously, the regional differences were moderated by waves of national investment, including the New Deal spending on rural electrification, the Tennessee Valley Authority, agricultural price supports, and Social Security during the 1930s, and the Great Society programs that provided federal aid for K–12 schools and higher education, as well as Medicare and Medicaid.

The impact of these investments (as well as massive defense spending across both periods) on states that had historically spent little on public services and economic development helped steadily narrow the gap in per capita income between the states of the old Confederacy and the rest of the country from the 1930s until about 1980. That progress, though, stopped after 1980, and the gap remained roughly unchanged for the next three decades. Since about 2008, Podhorzer calculates, the southern states at the heart of the red nation have again fallen further behind the blue nation in per capita income.

Jake Grumbach, a University of Washington political scientist who studies the differences among states, told me that red states, as a group, are falling behind blue states on a broad range of economic and social outcomes—including economic productivity, family income, life expectancy, and “deaths of despair” from the opioid crisis and alcoholism.

[Read: America’s red-blue divide is about to get starker]

Defenders of the red-state model can point to other measures that show those places in a more favorable light. Housing is often more affordable in red states; partly for that reason, homelessness has become endemic in many big blue cities. Red-state taxes are generally lower than their blue counterparts. Many red states have experienced robust job growth (though that’s been heavily concentrated in their blue-leaning metro areas). And red states across the Sun Belt rank among the nation’s fastest growing in population.

But the big story remains that blue states are benefiting more as the nation transitions into a high-productivity, 21st-century information economy, and red states (apart from their major metropolitan centers participating in that economy) are suffering as the powerhouse industries of the 20th century—agriculture, manufacturing, and fossil-fuel extraction—decline.

The gross domestic product per person and the median household income are now both more than 25 percent greater in the blue section than in the red, according to Podhorzer’s calculations. The share of kids in poverty is more than 20 percent lower in the blue section than red, and the share of working households with incomes below the poverty line is nearly 40 percent lower. Health outcomes are diverging too. Gun deaths are almost twice as high per capita in the red places as in the blue, as is the maternal mortality rate. The COVID vaccination rate is about 20 percent higher in the blue section, and the per capita COVID death rate is about 20 percent higher in the red. Life expectancy is nearly three years greater in the blue (80.1 years) than the red (77.4) states. (On most of these measures, the purple states, fittingly, fall somewhere in between.)

Per capita spending on elementary and secondary education is almost 50 percent higher in the blue states compared with red. All of the blue states have expanded access to Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, while about 60 percent of the total red-nation population lives in states that have refused to do so. All of the blue states have set a minimum wage higher than the federal level of $7.25, while only about one-third of the red-state residents live in places that have done so. Right-to-work laws are common in the red states and nonexistent in the blue, with the result that the latter have a much higher share of unionized workers than the former. No state in the blue section has a law on the books banning abortion before fetal viability, while almost all of the red states are poised to restrict abortion rights if the Republican-appointed Supreme Court majority, as expected, overturns Roe v. Wade. Almost all of the red states have also passed “stand your ground” laws backed by the National Rifle Association, which provide a legal defense for those who use weapons against a perceived threat, while none of the blue states have done so.

The flurry of socially conservative laws that red states have passed since 2021, on issues such as abortion; classroom discussions of race, gender, and sexual orientation; and LGBTQ rights, is widening this split. No Democratic-controlled state has passed any of those measures.

Lilliana Mason, a Johns Hopkins University political scientist, told me that the experience of Jim Crow segregation offers an important reference point for understanding how far red states might take this movement to roll back civil rights and liberties—not that they literally would seek to restore segregation, but that they are comfortable with “a time when states” had laws so “entirely different” that they created a form of domestic apartheid. As the distance widens between the two sections, she said, “there are all kinds of potential for really deep disruptions, social disruptions, that aren’t just about our feelings and our opinions.”

To Podhorzer, the growing separation means that after the period of fading distinctions, bedrock differences dating back to the country’s founding are resurfacing. And one crucial element of that, he argues, is the return of what he calls “one-party rule in the red nation.”

With some complex but telling statistical calculations, he documents a return to historical patterns from the Jim Crow era in which the dominant party (segregationist Democrats then, conservative Republicans now) has skewed the playing field to achieve a level of political dominance in the red nation far beyond its level of popular support. Undergirding that advantage, he argues, are laws that make registering or voting in many of the red states more difficult, and severe gerrymanders that have allowed Republicans to virtually lock in indefinite control of many state legislatures. Grumbach reached a similar conclusion in a recent paper analyzing trends in small-d democracy across the states. “It’s a really stacked deck in these states because of this democratic backsliding,” Grumbach said.

The core question that Podhorzer’s analysis raises is how the United States will function with two sections that are moving so far apart. History, in my view, offers two models.

During the seven decades of legal Jim Crow segregation from the 1890s through the 1960s, the principal goal of the southern states at the core of red America was defensive: They worked tirelessly to prevent federal interference with state-sponsored segregation but did not seek to impose it on states outside the region.

By contrast, in the last years before the Civil War, the South’s political orientation was offensive: Through the courts (the 1857 Dred Scott decision) and in Congress (the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854), its principal aim was to authorize the expansion of slavery into more territories and states. Rather than just protecting slavery within their borders, the Southern states sought to control federal policy to impose their vision across more of the nation, including, potentially, to the point of overriding the prohibitions against slavery in the free states.

It seems unlikely that the Trump-era Republicans installing the policy priorities of their preponderantly white and Christian coalition across the red states will be satisfied just setting the rules in the places now under their control. Podhorzer, like Mason and Grumbach, believes that the MAGA movement’s long-term goal is to tilt the electoral rules in enough states to make winning Congress or the White House almost impossible for Democrats. Then, with support from the GOP-appointed majority on the Supreme Court, Republicans could impose red-state values and programs nationwide, even if most Americans oppose them. The “MAGA movement is not stopping at the borders of the states it already controls,” Podhorzer writes. “It seeks to conquer as much territory as possible by any means possible.”

The Trump model, in other words, is more the South in 1850 than the South in 1950, more John Calhoun than Richard Russell. (Some red-state Republicans are even distantly echoing Calhoun in promising to nullify—that is, defy—federal laws with which they disagree.) That doesn’t mean that Americans are condemned to fight one another again as they did after the 1850s. But it does mean that the 2020s may bring the greatest threats to the country’s basic stability since those dark and tumultuous years.

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