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Instead of War, How About Civil Divorce?

— November 29, 2021

The U.S. is reaching diminishing returns from increased complexity. If we can’t live with each other, can we opt for a civil divorce?

Last week I wrote about the way our country’s current trajectory is uncannily mirroring the road to our (first) Civil War. With Portland serving as our modern day Bleeding Kansas, violent Twitter posts taking the place of caning Congressmembers, and increasing numbers of proxy skirmishes between polarized citizens, it seems as though there’s nothing we can do to avoid falling into a less-than-jaunty Boogaloo. However, what if there were a way to have what we might call a “civil divorce,” going our separate ways rather than a bloody serious re-enactment of the original?

It may happen whether we pick up arms or not.

Over time, our culture has become far more complex, and our governance more Byzantine. Complexity naturally increases as more people live and work together. Not since the colonization of the North American continent and subsequent Revolutionary War has it been possible to have a government so small that it can be “drowned in a bathtub,” as Grover Norquist so vividly put it. In 1776, the total population of all thirteen colonies was about 2.5 million people. That’s slightly less than the present-day population of Chicago, IL. Being “President” of Chicago would probably be a lot simpler than being President of the United States in 2021.

The House of Representatives used to grow by one representative for each 30,000 people. However, in 1929, the House was capped at 435 members, lest the governing body grow too unwieldy to be effective. California has 53 House members, which may seem like a lot until you realize that 747,425 Californians have to share each Representative. Wyoming’s 581,075 residents share their single Representative, but collectively, that means each person in Wyoming has a greater voice in government than does the average Californian. (It makes one wonder why California isn’t leading the charge for a civil divorce from the rest of us.)

All of which is to say that our government, however vast, can’t be doing a very good job of reflecting Americans and what we want or need from Washington to “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty.” People from California, Texas, Massachusetts, Wyoming, Michigan and Georgia, to name a few, don’t want to live the same way under the same laws. And while there are compelling reasons to grow the House, or merely strengthen the Federalist principles (that is, to give states more power relative to the federal government), these solutions may not satisfy actual separatists at this point. Doing nothing and letting tensions boil over means war. Is there a way to turn that into a civil divorce instead?

The world has changed a lot since 1648. That’s when the Thirty Years War ended, and the Peace of Westphalia ushered in the concept of national sovereignty. The idea that European powers would stop interfering in each others’ domestic affairs in order to keep the peace was eventually enshrined in the charter of the United Nations. However, the concept of sovereign nations may not be as useful as it once was. Countries must now defend themselves not only against their neighbors, but against non-state actors. The internet transcends borders, enabling instant financial transactions and even cyber attacks regardless of geopolitical boundaries, and it’s much harder to bring one nation’s justice to another nation’s anonymous (or wealthy) criminals. Increasingly, climate change, economic collapse, and political breakdown are spawning a new migration age. Big, complex nation states might become a thing of the past, whether we fight each other or not.

There’s no shortage of predictions that the United States will eventually break up. Whether it becomes two different nations, five, these seven, those seven, eleven, twelve, or some other configuration of regional identities, it’s clear that we’re really just a bunch of turkeys wearing a trenchcoat that calls itself a country. Perhaps we had a little “help” from Russian operatives chiseling away at deep racial divides and homegrown xenophobia in order to bring us to the brink, but they didn’t create the rifts. They only magnified and reflected our problems back at us. As recently as July-August 2021, a survey of about 2000 Americans found that 77% of Trump voters and 59% of Biden voters either somewhat or strongly agreed with the idea that red or blue states should secede.

Perhaps we have failed at the test of whether this nation can long endure. At some point, unhappy couples should probably stop fighting and opt for a civil divorce. Do it for the children.

An altered map of the United States.
2016 US Presidential election voting results by county. Red for Donald Trump. Blue for Hillary Clinton. Shade scaled by percent of vote. County size scaled by population. Image by Mark Newman, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. CC BY 2.0

It’s the “how” that’s the problem. We are no longer as geographically divided by a Mason-Dixon line as we were in the 1860s. Now, it’s metropolitan, urban areas that lean relatively blue, and rural hinterlands that lean relatively red, whether the states they’re in are blue, red, or more often, deep purple. If we’re trying for a bloodless, civil divorce, how do we unwind that without a lot of pain and an epic relocation effort which would certainly be resisted at every turn?

And yet, would it be better to spend the next several years engaged in pitched battles with your neighbors, coworkers, and the cousins you just argued with at Thanksgiving? You have the tacticool gear, the patriotic-branded bucket of garden seeds, and the ammo stashed in your crawl space, but are you willing to spend ten years watching your kids grow up in a war zone? Are you ready for 6.75 million American dead, 60 million in refugee camps, and none of your favorite grocery stores, bars, or WalMart open? If you couldn’t wear a mask, why do you think you’re ready to endure this privation? Any adversarial nation would take advantage of a newly disintegrating America, do you think they wouldn’t choose that moment to invade? Don’t you realize what it would do to the price of gasoline? Have you truly thought this through?

Maybe it is time, at long last, for that civil divorce, but giving up isn’t as easy as it sounds. Until then, we’re going to have to find a way to live together. Sure makes expanding Congress sound appealing all of a sudden, doesn’t it?

Related: Bleeding Kansas, Gosar, and What’s Next


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