A year ago, as America celebrated its 245th birthday, I wrote that “It is becoming increasingly and depressingly clear that America is becoming two very different countries: one blue and one red, with little shared identities and vastly different health and economic outcomes.”
As unimaginable as it seemed then, on July 4, America is in even worse shape: more divided and more polarized, and there’s little reason to expect us to meet anytime soon.
America is in even worse shape than last year: more divided and more polarized.
Americans will always be united by geography, destined to live on the same stretch of land between two vast oceans. But Americans no longer share the same faith (if we ever did). America in the blue and red state exists in different political domains, with opposing values, belief systems, cultural touchpoints and even civil rights.
From an economic and social development point of view, these increasingly widening fault lines have: been clear for a long time† People in the blue state of America live longer than their counterparts in the red state. They are less likely to live in poverty, more likely to have access to health care, less likely to die from gun violence, more likely to join a union and more likely to be vaccinated against Covid-19. In the US red state, household income is lower, and so is economic productivity.
Consider this: According to a 2020 report from the Brookings InstitutionJoe Biden won 509 counties in 2020, accounting for 71 percent of U.S. economic activity. Donald Trump’s losing base of 2,547 counties represents just 29 percent of the economy. In the blue and red state of America, there are two economic trajectories. One is vibrant, diverse and growing. The other is stagnant, struggling and dying – and it’s about to get worse for women now that they no longer have full control over when to have children. This division also takes place within states: blue metropolises that are the engines of economic growth for their states are increasingly at odds with the poorer, more culturally conservative red counties that surround them.
It’s worth asking: how much longer will the economically vibrant and culturally diverse America of the blue state be willing to subsidize its brethren in the red state, especially as the latter try their extremist views on guns and religion? to impose on women’s rights?
It is in the recent abortion decision that we can best see the outlines of a genuine national crack-up. There are many ways to think about the Supreme Court’s reckless and legally questionable decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, but at its core, the Dobbs case, and abortion in general, is a human rights issue. It’s about physical autonomy and whether women have the right to make their own decisions about when and whether to have children. Women unlucky enough to live in the American state are now effectively second-class citizens who have been deprived of their most basic reproductive freedoms.
Quite simply, where you were born in America determines how many rights you have and whether you are considered a citizen with equal protection under the law. This creates inconvenient analogies to the antebellum South and the Jim Crow era. While that may seem extreme, it’s amazing to think that more than 170 years after the Fugitive Slave Act declared that people who had fled north to escape slavery could be tracked down and returned to slavery, the legislators of the red state thinking about ways to prevent women crossing state lines to secure abortions.
A legal system in which geography and not the constitution determine rights will hasten the dissolution of America. Traveling to red states for pregnant women is now getting more fraught. If an emergency occurs, such as a miscarriage or ectopic pregnancy, would doctors be restricted from providing life-saving treatments? Will companies (particularly those owned by foreign investors) be more reluctant to locate their operations in states where female workers will have limited reproductive rights? How many pro-choice parents in the blue state will decide not to send their daughters to universities in the American state? Parents of trans or LGBTQ children are already asking these questions.
A legal system in which geography and not the constitution determine rights will hasten the dissolution of America.
It’s one thing that states have different cultural values. That’s not new. What’s different is that different rights are now available for those in red and blue America.
Those hoping for a political solution to our dilemma should probably not hold their breath. Because, despite all of Trump’s attacks on our democratic institutions, they largely pale in comparison to the attacks unfolding in the red state of America. Voting restrictions, increasing partisan gerrymandering, attacks on LGBTQ rights, changes to school curricula and anti-protest laws are affecting the basic civil rights of red citizens.
Last week in Wisconsin, the Republican-dominated Supreme Court endorsed a Republican strategy of refusing to confirm replacements for governor-appointed positions to prevent them from being filled by the state’s Democratic governor. And last week, the Supreme Court again ignored the protections afforded to black Americans in the Voting Rights Act by allowing congressional passes that limit black voting rights to stay in place. And in what was arguably the most ominous sign for American democracy last week, the Supreme Court announced that in its next term it independent state legislature theory†
If passed in court, it would give state legislators the power to change voting districts, pass tougher voter suppression legislation and potentially reverse election results. Indeed, John Eastman, the attorney who told Trump that state lawmakers could pick a losing candidate’s voters after a presidential election, based this brash strategy on the theory of the independent state legislature.
If the court endorsed this view (and at this point, nothing would come as a surprise to the conservative Supreme Court majority), then red states would essentially become a one-party system in which Democrats have no legal ability to win elections.
Is that the future of America? It’s too early to say, of course, but the trendlines are getting clearer. If states no longer agree on a similar set of ideals or democratic practices or even adhere to the same set of laws or constitutional rights, can anyone really say we are united?