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Feature 11.30.2020 15 minutes

The Separation

parting-ways1

A proposal for a renewed America.

Editors’ Note

We present the following pseudonymous essay as an example of what thoughtful people of good will are increasingly thinking and saying in private about the future of America. The author is not a young radical or part of some strange new online intellectual sub-group. On the contrary, the following was written by someone who served as an officer in the United States military, worked in Congress and on presidential campaigns, is founder and principal of a private partnership, and holds multiple Ivy League degrees. Also, as is apparent from the essay below, the author understands what America and the American Right is or was in a manner that at the very least overlaps considerably with what the Republican establishment and neoconservative movement has held for decades. —Eds.

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Lincoln Stirs

In a city of monuments, it is THE monument. Lincoln sits in silent judgment of the Nation he gave a new birth. I came to Washington four decades ago and memorized these words:

In this temple,
As in the hearts of the people,
For whom he saved the Union,
The memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever.

America is bound by an Idea, as no other nation is bound. When this Idea was disputed, Lincoln held America in his hands and drew it close. Some nights, the colonnade empty, the great figure would appear to stir. Past is prologue, and the Idea of America is again contested. This is not another polemic in the conflict or an appeal to some mythical “center.” This is a proposal to the two Americas that exist today.

Extraordinary Division

Division in the United States is extraordinary and irreconcilable. Most still dispute this. “America has faced internal strife many times,” they say. “We always figure it out.” The 1960s are typically proffered as a key example. But this is emotive self-delusion. Decades of spendthrift depletion of stockpiled institutional stability mislead us in the belief it is inexhaustible. Perhaps it is reticence to confront the monster in the room. But reality dawns earlier every day.

Carbuncles of division cover our body politic. The strife is economic, cultural and political.  A 2019 Brookings study was titled “America has two economies—and they are diverging fast.” They do different jobs, in different industries, in different places, for different pay. “Not only do the two (political) parties adhere to different views, but they inhabit increasingly different economies and environments.”

Another study concluded the “Red and Blue states vary so much in their economic trajectories that they may as well be two distinct countries within the United States.” The outlines of the two cultural camps are clear: on one side are “traditional,” rural, religious gun owners who hunt and love high school football. On the other are “progressive,” urban, secular soccer players who never want to touch a gun. Simplistic but accurate. The map of the states allowing high school football in 2020 is indistinguishable from a map of the states that voted for Trump in 2016.

Economic and cultural differences drive political division. Pew Research Center has a dynamic chart of political polarization from 1994-2017. A picture is worth a thousand words: a once-fat political center is disappearing, squeezed like a balloon, creating two opposing ends.

Among respondents with “high science knowledge,” Pew found 89% of Democrats and 17% of Republicans think human activity contributes a great deal to climate change. Policy aside, well under half of Democrats and Republicans believe they share “other values and goals.”

Experts say partisanship can be healthy, but “hyperpartisanship” poisonous. In 1960, 5% of Republicans and 4% of Democrats did not want their children to marry across party lines. Today, a majority of both hold this view.

One might expect a pandemic—a “war”—to be unifying. But COVID-19, unlike 9/11, has had the opposite effect. The off-label efficacy of Hydroxychloroquine became a divisive issue. The virus cut along familiar lines, state authority in service of communal objectives clashing with individual liberty and its risks.

We don’t need academia to tell us about division. Everywhere, lines are being drawn. California restricted travel to Oklahoma over LGBTQ rights and OK reciprocated. Remember when companies just made things? Buying a can of garbanzo beans or a pair of sneakers is now a political act.

Watch the last five minutes of Frank Luntz’s Frontline interview for America’s Great Divide. Mask vs. no mask. Open vs. close. Kiernan vs. Sorkin. Fox vs. CNN. 1619 vs. 1776. Global warming vs. forest management. Greta Thunberg vs. Nick Sandmann. Black Lives Matter vs. All Lives Matter. Coworkers, neighbors, fathers and daughters, husbands and wives: has it ever been like this? Everything assumes a political polarity.

A chasm has formed. When I came to Washington, Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan led their parties. At times their conflicts were bitter. But even with the Executive and the House split, the federal government made significant progress. What was striking was the relative accord. Both men loved America in the same way. They opposed Communism, shared the same global enemies, and believed Americans were the “good guys.”

Today, many consider this patriotism naïve. Tip wanted higher taxes and social spending but disavowed socialism, if not as stridently, with Reagan. Policy differences between the Trump Administration and the Republican Party prior to his election exceed the differences between Reagan’s and O’Neill’s parties, never mind Trump’s and Pelosi’s. Tip and Ronnie were “friends after six”; Nancy and Donald do not speak.

With George Floyd’s death, we crossed a Rubicon from incivility to chaos. America witnessed the same tragedy but saw two mortal sins; one the knee of racism on a man’s neck, the other the bloody hands of anarchy on America’s neck.  Smoldering cities prove race remains a problem in our country. Why this is so may be our greatest divide.

Vague calls for a “national conversation” or emotive spectacles from celebrities obscure the problem and solution. Those calling for dialogue expect a monologue. But it is not clear that one America will continue to respond to charges of “systemic racism” and “white privilege” with polite nods or cowed silence. A guilty plea is demanded from an accused convinced she was far from the scene of the crime.

Contempt is a combination of disrespect and hate. A recent study found levels of contempt between Republicans and Democrats similar to that between Israelis and Palestinians. Plato said the perfect state was one in which the citizens weep and rejoice over the same things. Recently, an attempt was made to assassinate two L.A. County Sheriffs. A demonstration outside their hospital wished for their deaths.

The Problem is Fundamental

Consent-based political systems require shared, fundamental “ends.” In his 1957 study of democracy, Anthony Downs wrote: “A two-party democracy cannot provide stable and effective government unless there is a large measure of ideological consensus among its citizens.” The “means” may sustain dispute, but foundational assumptions must be shared.

The American nation has a unique identity, in which values and principles play a central role. We do not all share blood, soil, or a thousand years of common history. True, we are not solely an idea. We do share some blood, soil, and centuries of history in complicated, varied ways. But Gunnar Myrdal wrote in 1944 that Americans had “something in common: a social ethos, a political creed.” He called it the American Creed. Jack Kemp called it The American Idea. A combination of liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism and free markets created a “civil religion,” a “nation with the soul of a church.”

For older Americans (like me) this was a civic inheritance. The World Wars and the Cold War provided all-too-real storybook villains who made explicit by contrast what America stood for. America’s education systems, grade school to university, supported the Idea. Homo Americanus shared a political genome.

But what if the American Idea lost its power? What if it came to seem antiquated? What if it was even an outright lie? When America asks, “who are we?” the problem is not that we cannot answer. The problem is we hear two answers.

In my lifetime, America shared basic ends. One issue, abortion, created sharply drawn camps driven by unappealable convictions. These are “ideological oppositions,” and they create division that, in the words of Vox’s Lee Drutman, “devolves into a pure contest between ‘us’ and ‘them’—[where] there is no bargaining, because there are no negotiable principles, just team loyalties.”

Today, many issues divide us just as starkly as abortion. Is America exceptional, a rare gift, or a systemically racist abomination? Are the police murderers or under-appreciated, trustworthy public servants? Will climate change immolate mankind or is it a hysterical overreaction? Do all the guns in America reflect an embarrassing anachronism or a natural right? Should we retain an “old nationalism” or a borderless, multicultural world? The truth the mind knows, or the truth the spirit knows?

According to Drutman, “over the past half century or so, partisan identities have become much more closely aligned with other social identities. Partisan divides now overlay religious divides, cultural divides, geographic divides and racial divides.” Already in After Virtue (1981), Alasdair MacIntyre noted that “patriotism cannot be what it was because we lack in the fullest sense a patria.” He foresaw that a lack of shared foundational values would lead to unresolvable conflicts between fragmented communities within what had once been one nation.

The vehemence of that conflict is exacerbated by the hypertrophy of government. The side in power controls a gargantuan fiscal and administrative apparatus that shapes our livelihoods, health, religion, education and family itself.  For anything not touched by the bureaucracy, the winners appoint the judges that shape everything else.

Sociology and technology also conspire against us. Democracy is interpersonal. But, to cite one example in the genre, we now “bowl alone.” Technology has accelerated an atomizing, individualizing transformation. I comprehend this firsthand. Facebook cultivates rage; the algorithm is for division. Technology is a delivery with a “no return” policy.

Washington is a standoff.  Yes, conflict is part of our political history. Brooks caning Sumner in the Senate is the favorite “it has been worse” anecdote. But it is worse. In decades observing the House and Senate, I have never seen today’s pettiness, enmity, and dysfunction.

When the Article III branch legislates for the Article I branch, the Supreme Court assumes unintended powers. Nominations to the Court become national un-maskings, not of our worst selves but our true selves. The lesson from the Kavanaugh confirmation was cautionary: America listened to simple testimony and reached precisely opposite conclusions. With respect to Amy Coney Barrett, on both sides we heard, “they would do the same thing to us.”  This sounds like a rationale for genocide, not republican government.

Our Constitution created a republic designed to protect the “natural rights” of individuals.  The rights precede even the will of majorities. The Progressive movement, old and new, harnesses majoritarianism to expert administration to achieve its positivist goals. Individual rights are often a hindrance.

The difference is essential. The gridlock we see today does not reflect a failing Constitution but one performing as designed. The Progressive agenda is grinding against inalienable rights. We hear the rumbling in the pillars of our system; why should North Dakota get two senators? Why shouldn’t the District of Columbia be a state? The Electoral College should be abolished. A “packed” court looms.

There is commonality among our partisans today. Watch CNN or Fox News: “Liars,” “hypocrites,” “unstable,” “totalitarians bent on destroying democracy.” Change the proper nouns and the outrage is identical.

Historically, a report from someone like Robert Mueller held non-partisan sway. But we are in a post-truth era. Counselor Durham could find almost anything, the tally of Hunter Biden’s largesse keep mounting, and half the country will dismiss it all. According to Pew, 72% of Democrats and 77% of Republicans agree that the sides “cannot agree on basic facts.”  We now speak “my truth.” This is not cognitive dissonance: it is cognitive division.

What is the Future?

How does this end for America? This is the question on anxious lips and the problem that should be consuming our leaders. Despite looming conflict, few have thought through this existential question. Even fewer have a plan.

The consensual, legitimate transfer of power defines democracy. Whether the United States met that criterion in 2016 is debatable. In 2020, it seems less likely to do so. Many look to this election for resolution, but it is an epiphenomenon. Either outcome would further the dialectic of division. In this annus horribilis for America, with viruses, fires, floods and riots, this election seems a fitting end.

“Fixes” like non-partisan elections are not a solution. Forcing most citizens to be governed by those poorly representing their deepest convictions will fail. Gerrymandering is a problem. But gerrymandering did not create our ideological division and only aggravates it on the margin. Electoral plumbing is at best a Band-Aid on a compound fracture. Our divisions are the problem.

Perhaps Donald Trump is jarring because he represents something we have not seen. Instinct told him that we are not one America but two. He did not create the divide in America, but he did prevail because of it. Appeals to unity from both parties have never sounded less sincere—like disclaimers at the end of an advertisement. The middle is gone.

Here is one example: What if the Speaker and President actually spoke and sought compromise on climate change? Pelosi’s America wants to spend trillions to avert a threat to life on Earth. Trump’s America believes the threat wildly exaggerated and likely a hysterical fabrication. What is the compromise between hoax and existential threat?

Don’t mistake a symptom for the disease.  Recall the photograph of President Trump hugging an American flag. Trump is the political id of one America. They don’t want their country “fundamentally transformed”; they love it the way it is. Donald Trump is the result of a fracturing, dysfunctional polity whose leaders have lost credibility. Removing the man will not change the forces that created him.

Our times are Lincoln’s. For decades, politics attempted to accommodate the “peculiar institution” with individual liberty. The Missouri Compromise, the Compromise of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, all attempted to reconcile irreconcilable ends. But the conflict could not be resolved within the system. Bayonets accomplished what the Constitution could not.

Perhaps no contemporary issue can be compared to slavery. But, taken together, the multitude and significance of our present differences at least equal those of the 1860s. The current political system cannot bridge the divide between the two Americas. The Constitution is not broken, the People for whom it was created are broken. Like the lead-up to the Civil War, there may be compromises and snatches of harmony. But the moving average of division will increase.

The election of Lincoln marked the beginning of the Civil War. Fort Sumter was fired upon six months later. Trump’s election is the analogue in our “cold civil war.” Like Lincoln, he was elected by one out of two Americas. Perhaps today’s Sumter was the “resistance,” the “insurance policy” of the Russia investigations.

Maneuver and skirmishing have been constant since. Denial is a psychological defense mechanism. Does the idea that Russia was the reason Trump won amount to denial by half the country? Trump’s victory as malfeasance, a mistake, allows the elephant in the room to be dismissed: their countrymen, co-workers, neighbors and friends voted for this man and just did so again.

We feel like two people because we are two people. The signs are unmistakable. Our most divisive issue is our symbol of unity. Factions like BLM and blue lives matter have their own flags. Our heritage, revered by half of America, is being vandalized and toppled by the other half. Our most popular sport now begins with two anthems.

America is like an old married couple. The kids are gone. In a long, imperceptible process, we have grown apart. We do different things, like different things, and have become different people. Habit, inertia and memories of our past obscure the implications. Clear eyes see what we do not—a separation is as sad as it is inevitable. The hard question is not, “how do these two Americas live together?” They don’t. The hard question, the right question, is: “how do they live apart?”

A Separation is the Answer

America needs a separation, not a divorce. The objective is to save America—not destroy it. The Separation is an orderly agreement allowing Red and Blue America political living space while acknowledging the practical bonds of geography, commerce, currency, debt, diplomacy and military force. Secession as pique, willy-nilly, by individual or small groups of states, will end badly. Divorce by secession will again require mariticide.

In the course of human events, it can become necessary for people to relax the political bands connecting them. America is divided, but it is interesting that both sides still claim fealty to the Constitution. This is non-partisan: America has a genius for designing constitutional government. This trait must serve us again.

Is tampering with the founders’ work sacrilege? The Constitution is the foundation of the longest-surviving representative government in history since antiquity. But the founders’ success wildly exceeded their expectations. Most believed the Constitution would last thirty years. Change was not an affront: it was their expectation.

The founders, those prudent men in powdered wigs, provided for change to adapt the times to timeless principles. The Constitution has been amended 27 times and is itself a course correction from the Articles of Confederation. The founders’ work was designed to be living, not a relic to be worshiped.

The Rationales for Separation

For “Red” America: No one “wins” this civil war. But if anyone loses, it’s you. Your base is older, less educated, poorer, and barely growing. You accuse the Left of living in a dream world, but you are waiting for Ronald Reagan to come back. The voters who will determine America’s future have never heard of Reagan and do not care to learn.

Both sides think their ideas will prevail; how are yours doing? America has steadily become less religious and patriotic as the scope and power of government increase. Respect for the national anthem is optional, but BLM is mandatory in corporations, sports leagues, and schools across the nation.

This should not be a surprise. You forgot Reagan’s famous admonition: freedom “is never more than a generation away from extinction.” It must be defended to be preserved. Perhaps your inheritance made you complacent. The media, entertainment, and schools at every level became cadres for your adversary. Social media, the medium of our times, pays the smartest people in the world to secretly turn you blue. You didn’t oppose all this: you paid for it! You surrendered the nation’s ideological operating system. The election of Donald Trump was a breaking of glass and pull of the emergency brake.

You hear the clock ticking. You hold weaker cards but you are still in the game. The Separation is a Sara Conner opportunity. Repair to places where you can regain your strength, build communities and institutions that support the spiritual, rights-oriented, limited government of the founding. This is the Benedict Option, but you get to pick entire states as opposed to a farm in upstate New York.

For “Blue” America: You have the momentum; you are winning the strategic battle. You have marched through the institutions and are closing on Ideological Hegemony. Your enemies are in general retreat. But advances have roused your opponent, and the easy victories are in the past. They now feel Silicon Valley constricting their political oxygen. For some time their leaders seemed uninspired, complacent, sheepishly mumbling lines about tax cuts. But Donald Trump is evidence this has changed. They will fight like people who understand they have everything to lose.

You also hear the clock ticking. Can you wait for victory? Your agenda is pressing: “common sense” gun laws, protecting abortion rights, a real carbon policy, and universal healthcare. Defeating the folks with the guns, senators, and Justices will demand time you don’t have.

But there is also this; why wouldn’t you want the Separation? You are richer, better educated, and younger. You live in places with beaches and work in cool industries. You have Hollywood, Broadway and almost all the best restaurants. You control two-thirds of national GDP. Why wouldn’t you let them go?

And there are benefits for both: Avert the conflict, relieve the pressure in our civic piping, and avoid whatever a modern Gettysburg looks like. Second, Americans will be doing something. Americans still possess what Tocqueville saw: the “tumult” and “clamor” of civic energy. This is a “big plan that would stir men’s blood.” Third, today’s division results in law and policy that, if it gets promulgated at all, is neither fish nor fowl. The Separation will allow widely differing but fully formed, coherent laws and policies.

Varied approaches become laboratories for better government. The competition between the two Americas will generate a civic engagement not seen since the revolution. One of the darkest aspects of today’s politics is the barely hidden cheerleading for failure. We root against our own leaders and betray the nation. Separated, each will strive for the success of its vision in full.

How Would the Separation Work?

The answer for America is old and familiar, not experimental and unproven: Federalism. The greatest problem the founders recognized was designing a centralized power to govern a diverse, free people. Jefferson doubted it was possible. It took 200 years for him to be right.

The Separation is not a departure as much as return to the Constitution of the founders. The Articles of Confederation foundered on the three key functions required of the federal power: an effective army, a unified foreign policy, and a treasury that can incur liabilities for national functions. The federal government would retain its authority and taxing power for these functions.

Activities outside these spheres and the refereeing of interstate issues would be seated with the states. Broader latitude is provided to the states to effect and fund policies for their citizens. Blue states would no longer “subsidize” Red states. Greater funding for everything from climate change to social programs will be possible. The dust would be blown off the 9th and 10th Amendments.

The return of self-government to a more local sphere has two benefits: laws that better fit the people they bind, and the invigoration of citizens provided greater powers of self-determination. Nothing creates frustration like the powerlessness of distance from the opaque bureaucracies and legal chambers that direct American’s lives.

America needs action, not theories. The Separation can be effected with a limited number of amendments to the Constitution: 1) a new amendment circumscribing the federal mandate to conform with the core functions above, 2) adjustment of the 16th Amendment to tie the taxing power to these functions, 3) elimination of the 17th Amendment so the state legislatures again elect Senators, 4) a new amendment formally providing the Supreme Court the power of judicial review but focusing that power on matters related to federal and interstate issues (i.e., the final word on the right to bear arms, free speech and abortion would be in state courts), and 5) a new amendment providing federal term limits.

The working transformation would be in the legal and practical changes enabled by the constitutional changes. As in other amendments, a sentence would add: “the Congress will have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.” Change of this magnitude would be phased in. The Separation would accelerate the “national sorting” that is already in process. Americans may choose to move if and when it makes sense for them, reflecting the significant geographic comingling of Red and Blue Americans. In some cases parts of states may seek to join other states (e.g., eastern WA with ID).

Of course, there are many questions and problems. This is a metaphorical appeal for heart surgery, not a manual for the procedure. The military will remain a neutral force, drawn from and based widely in the nation. The use of military force will be subject to a higher bar when two constituencies must be convinced—an improvement both Americas increasingly support.  The homeland requires more attention and resources.

The entanglement of our national finances (liabilities like Social Security and the debt) may present the most complex problem. America’s greatest power is not its military but the printing press for the world’s reserve currency. The United States should not upset its ability to finance itself at negligible rates of interest.

But what could alarm America’s creditors more than the current dysfunction? The Fed balance sheet has doubled overnight; we are beset by trillion-dollar spending proposals written during Redbull-fueled all-nighters by Millennial House staffers with BAs in English. Not only have we failed to shore up the solvency of entitlement programs: we have made it into an issue that cannot be discussed. Circumscribing the mandate and spending of the federal government and allocating more of the management of our liabilities to the states would be a positive step.

The debt and transfer payments like Social Security and Medicare would remain national liabilities with tax claims on the States. But states would have the ability to assume transfer payment liabilities in exchange for extinguishing their related obligation to the federal government. States would be problem solvers. We note the relative effectiveness of state government, more practical than partisan. Why not reward states with more authority to solve the nation’s problems? The Separation does not create one dollar of additional liability. It provides a better mechanism for addressing those liabilities which already exist.

The instrument to effect the Separation exists in the Constitution: a Convention of States (COS). Fifteen states have already passed resolutions calling for a COS. The COS’s problem is the nation’s problem; nothing requiring broad consensus (38 states are required to ratify Amendments) will happen on a partisan basis. But a COS makes as much sense for Tom Steyer as Mark Levin.

One army, one currency, separate but still the United States. Every four years we cheer “USA” for the same Olympic team. The bumper sticker is simple: “Choice and Freedom.”

Difficult but Unavoidable

Decision-making is relative. Hard choices are taken to avoid harder ones.  Extraordinary challenges summon the creativity and resolve to match. Was drafting the Constitution any different? In America, we choose paths “not because they are easy but because they are hard”: we believe “it can be done.”

The change proposed is significant, but so are the changes that make it imperative. The Separation will not divide the nation; it will organize it rationally around division that already exists. The Separation and COS may not work, but the status quo does not work. You could call it the Flight 93 Convention.

We are not mid-19th-century America. We are a superpower and leader of the free world.  Our prior station allowed a long, nasty family disagreement. Today, we cannot excuse ourselves for years of internecine gridlock.  Efficacy is required now.  China is watching, but will not watch for long. America’s internal conflict will result in one of two outcomes: one side crushing the other after a long, costly, perhaps violent struggle or an extended, debilitating standoff. In either case, America is unlikely to survive.

Accelerating conflict may make the Separation seem obvious. Perhaps overturning Roe v. Wade is the catalyst.  A Trump come-from-behind victory would make the Separation immediately actionable for half the country. But the other half finds the looming Biden-Harris administration just as intolerable. How we categorize the government of the 49% depends on its compatibility with the rule of the 51%. The two Americas avow their disagreements. The Separation respects reality and seeks peaceful co-existence. Rejection of the outstretched hand would say much about the future.

America Reborn

America was reborn after slavery. America needs a third birth. Lincoln said the Constitution is the “frame of silver” for the ideas of the Declaration of Independence, which are the “apple of gold” in the center. Today there are two American Ideas: “what America has been against what it wants to become.” America must adjust the frame to accommodate both Ideas.

True, the Separation could lead to divorce. But I believe it will be temporary. The best ideas and leaders will prevail and gather our people, the power of union will again be evident, and absence will remind us of our glories together.

As a house separated, we avoid being a house divided. Let us cool down, build closer to home, and perhaps renew our appreciation for one other.

Salvation for America will require leadership. The American story is inseparable from the men and women who have stepped into the breach for her. Taking the microphone from Washington, D.C. and dispersing power would shake our current leadership Etch a Sketch. The Clinton, Bush, and Obama syndicates, complicit in our demise, would be diminished.

But a fresh generation of leaders is now required.

They say hard times make great people, and we are entering hard times. Where are our Lincolns? We wait to know their names.

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