One year ago, as America celebrated its 245th birthday, I wrote that “it is increasingly and depressingly clear that America is becoming two very different countries: a blue one and a red one, with little in shared identity and vastly different health and economic outcomes.”
As unimaginable as it might have seemed then, on this Fourth of July, America is in even worse shape: more divided and more polarized, and there is little reason to expect that we will come together any time soon.
America is in even worse shape than last year: more divided and more polarized.
Americans will always be united by geography, fated to live on the same parcel of land between two massive oceans. But Americans no longer share the same creed (if we ever did). Blue-state and red-state America exist in different political realms, with opposing values, belief systems, cultural touchpoints and even civil rights.
From an economic and social development standpoint, these widening cleavages have long been evident. People in blue-state America live longer than their red-state counterparts. 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 be members of a union and more likely to be vaccinated against Covid-19. In red-state America, family income is lower, and so, too, is economic productivity.
Consider this: According to a 2020 report by the Brookings Institution, Joe Biden won 509 counties in 2020, which encompass fully 71 percent of America’s economic activity. Donald Trump’s losing base of 2,547 counties represents just 29 percent of the economy. In blue- and red-state America, there are two economic trajectories. One is vibrant, diverse and growing. The other is stagnant, struggling and moribund — and it is about to get worse for women now that they no longer have full control over when to have children. These divisions are also happening within states: Blue metro areas 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 economically vibrant and culturally diverse blue-state America be willing to subsidize its red-state brethren, particularly as the latter try to impose their extremist views on guns and religion to women’s rights?
It’s in the recent abortion decision that we can best see the outlines of a true national crack-up. There are many ways to think about the Supreme Court’s reckless and legally dubious decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, but at its core, the Dobbs case, and abortion in general, is an issue of human rights. It’s about bodily autonomy and whether women have the right to make their own decisions about when or whether they have children. Women who have the misfortune of living in red-state America are now, in effect, second-class citizens stripped of their most basic reproductive freedoms.
Quite simply, where you are born in America will dictate how many rights you have and whether you are considered a citizen with equal protection under the law. This creates discomfiting analogies to the antebellum South and the era of Jim Crow. While that may seem extreme, it’s astonishing to consider that more than 170 years after the Fugitive Slave Act declared that people who’d fled North to escape slavery could be tracked down and returned to bondage, red-state legislatures are thinking about ways to prevent women from traveling across state borders to secure abortions.
A legal system in which geography and not the Constitution determines rights will hasten the dissolution of America. Travel to red states for pregnant women now becomes more fraught. If an emergency arose, such as a miscarriage or an ectopic pregnancy, would doctors be restricted from providing life-saving treatment? Will companies (particularly those owned by foreign investors) be more reluctant to locate their operations in states where female employees will have limited reproductive rights? How many pro-choice blue-state parents will decide against sending their daughters to universities in red-state America? Parents of trans or LGBTQ children are already asking these questions.
A legal system in which geography and not the Constitution determines rights will hasten the dissolution of America.
It’s one thing for states to have different cultural values. That’s not new. What is different is that there are now different rights available to those in red and blue America.
Those hoping there might be a political solution to our dilemma should probably not hold their breath. Because, for all of Trump’s assaults on our democratic institutions, they largely pale next to the attacks unfolding in red-state America. Voting restrictions, increasing partisan gerrymandering, attacks on LGBTQ rights, changes to school curriculums and anti-protest laws are eroding the basic civil rights of red-state citizens.
Just last week in Wisconsin, the Republican-dominated Supreme Court validated 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, once again, disregarded the protections afforded Black Americans in the Voting Rights Act by allowing congressional maps that limit Black voting power to remain in place. And in what may have been the most ominous sign for American democracy last week, the Supreme Court announced that it in its next term it will take up independent state legislature theory.
If it is accepted by the court, it would give state legislatures the power to gerrymander voting districts, pass more onerous voter suppression legislation and, potentially, overturn election results. Indeed, John Eastman, the attorney who told Trump that state legislatures could choose a losing candidate’s electors after a presidential election grounded this harebrained strategy in independent state legislature theory.
If the court were to endorse this position (and at this point nothing the conservative majority of the Supreme Court does would come as a surprise), then red states would, in effect, become one-party fiefdoms in which Democrats have no legal ability to win elections.
Is that America’s future? Obviously, it’s too soon to tell, but the trend lines are increasingly clear. 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 truly say we’re united?