If Americans were more honest, they would drop the word United from the name of their country. The States of America are disunited from one another by diverse political preferences and social attitudes as much as by geography. Now, when we say that the states are disunited, we imply that they once held together better than they do today. But did they?
Let’s not overstate the strength of their erstwhile union. Before the Articles of Confederation in the late 18th century, the union of the British colonies along the Atlantic coast of the North American continent was aspirational. Since the ratification of the Constitution in 1787, the status of the states as members of a federation forming a cohesive nation has hovered between the notional and the immaterial. When the Southern states seceded in the 1860s, the putative national identity that had bound them to the Northern states was proven to have been as thin and fragile as everyone had feared.
True, interstate transportation and commerce burgeoned after the Civil War (1861-1865), and advances in communication technology now reinforce the longstanding trend. We might be tempted to say that “cooperation among the states” has promoted American prosperity. But that would miss the mark: distinctions between the states are slight and irrelevant for many practical purposes. Americans can easily buy and sell over vast distances, driving from Seattle to Miami without having to certify their identity to border officials.
Not since the 1960s have Americans argued and fought in the streets among themselves with such vehemence. The revival of interest in secession is understandable. Arguments for secession specifically by states, however, are misplaced. In Break It Up: Secession, Division, and the Secret History of America’s Imperfect Union, published in August, journalist Richard Kreitner cites Calexit, the fledgling secession movement in California, and refers to “the increasingly geographic nature” of the partisanship that afflicts the nation. Of course, the geographic lines along which Americans are divided are far more numerous and intricate than the bright borders between states. Furthermore, one could argue, contra Kreitner, that the political and cultural polarisation that worries him (and all of us) transcends all manner of geographic boundaries as never before.
For many Americans, perhaps most, especially those under 40, a state is more an incidental, legal construct than an organic sovereignty with a unique history and body of customs and traditions. A Republican suburbanite in Huntington, New York, may well feel a stronger kinship with his political brethren in Huntington Beach, California, on the opposite coast, than with his Democratic neighbours who belong to the Park Slope Food Coop in Brooklyn, just down the road.
For a geography of political polarisation in America today, look to demography. Where the population is dense, people are more likely to vote Democratic; where it’s sparse, Republican. We speak of “coastal elites” and think “left wing”, but Surf City, North Carolina, population 2,400, is as conservative as any small town in central Missouri, while St Louis is as left-leaning as any big city on the Eastern Seaboard. To represent Red (Republican) and Blue (Democratic) America on a map accurately, we would need to use dots or pixels, instead of filling in each state with a solid shade of either colour.
That the Reds and the Blues find it so difficult to wall themselves off from each other, either in their physical environment or in cyberspace, exacerbates their mutual animus, which is no less destructive for being so often petty. History abounds with examples of the narcissism of small differences – the Irish versus the English, the Croats versus the Serbs.
In Europe as well as in America, the centrifugal impulse opposes the centripetal impulse with increasing urgency, as the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, while Scotland threatens to leave the UK. Catalans clamour to secede from Spain. As it watches the national governments in Budapest and Warsaw lapse into forms that resemble more their Warsaw Pact precursors than the liberal democracy that the European Union espouses, Brussels discusses the possibility of excommunicating Hungary and Poland.
Meanwhile, the United States has stated that it will withdraw from the World Health Organisation next year, and the president is intent on withdrawing America from the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, according to John Bolton, his former national security adviser – although Bolton’s report comes less as news than as confirmation of what Donald Trump has expressed publicly over the years. Trump has questioned whether the United States should join NATO in invoking Article 5 to defend a member nation (his example was Montenegro) that was small and of no great strategic significance. As for the precarious security of the Baltic states, “Estonia is in the suburbs of St Petersburg,” he has said, adding that much of the nation “is Russian” anyway. His defenders scoff at those who note his pro-Russian rhetoric, but he never speaks ill of Moscow, or well of NATO. Regardless of his motivation, the pro-Russia and the anti-NATO work together to support a geopolitical reconfiguration of Europe, such that Moscow eventually replaces Washington as the continent’s primary reference point and military nerve centre.
The transatlantic alliance as it was forged in the aftermath of the Second World War has represented the liberal values that survived authoritarianism on the right (Nazism and fascism) and then, after the longer struggle that was the Cold War, authoritarianism on the left (communism). The Kremlin now strives to rehabilitate the reputation of Stalin and to raise the volume on the role that the Soviet Union played in defeating Germany. Nationalist/populist parties in Europe and America, primarily on the right, look to Russia as an ally, in some cases while also dog-whistling to those who are nostalgic for the history and the aesthetics of the blood-and-soil movements that the Soviet Union allied with the liberal powers to defeat.
A few fundamental questions confront the country as polling day approaches. Should Americans unite? Or should they continue to divide themselves along cultural and ideological lines, for the sake of clarity? Should the United States withdraw from NATO and abandon the values – pluralism, fair elections, human rights, rule of law – that the alliance represents? Or should America be to the transatlantic alliance, such as it remains, a beacon of stubborn hope? For this writer, the questions answer themselves. Joe Biden, though no Churchill, is the only major presidential candidate who doesn’t scorn liberal democracy, which is the name for what stands between us and a return of the spirit of the 1930s.
Nicholas Frankovich is deputy managing editor of National Review
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