How Will the United States Break Up?

The United States of America is breaking apart.

Covid-19 has dramatically accelerated a process underway since at least the 1990s and gaining speed since 2012.

For decades now, the United States has been stagnating, proving incapable of enacting meaningful reforms needed to survive the difficult first half of the 21st Century.

The causes of the USA’s terminal decline run deep, with unresolved contradictions piling up over centuries. Americans are only now perceiving the rot because the out-of-control pandemic has revealed its chronic lack of internal investment — and because the ubiquity of cell phones has revealed the brutality at the heart of the violent State that has come to dominate the Federal Government.

Like any organism, a country that cannot adapt to changing times will die. And the United States is far from the first powerful nation to face terminal decline and collapse.

There was the Soviet Union in the 1980s, its elderly leadership facing economic collapse, years of military stalemate in Afghanistan, and a public that no longer believed in the Soviet Dream. It broke into its constituent Republics by the middle of the 1990s.

The sun didn’t set on the British Empire well into the 20th Century — most people forget that there were millions of soldiers from Britain’s many colonies in Asia and Africa fighting fascism right alongside the Tommies from England.

But after decades of slowly losing bits and pieces (including what became the USA) the British Empire finally collapsed and transformed into the Commonwealth in the 1950s after exhausting itself in two World Wars, freeing countries like India, South Africa, Australia, and Canada from direct control. Less than a century later, Scotland too may exit the UK, leaving the British Empire reduced to England, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

In fact, every European Empire has collapsed since the end of the 19th Century — Spain, Portugal, Belgium, France, Italy, Germany, and even the Dutch held extensive colonies abroad they only gave up in the 1950s and 1960s. And just over a century ago the map of Eurasia was filled with names you’ll never see again, like the Austria Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and Prussia.

Countries live, countries die — quickly if they are not well-cared for. And the United States of America certainly hasn’t been for a long time, if the present state of things is any indication.

Some look to the upcoming 2020 Presidential Election as a balm, the moment when things will turn around, but I am deeply skeptical. First the Republicans, now the Democrats, have adopted rhetoric calling the final result and the peaceful transfer of power — the mark of a democratic government —into question.

The Republicans have adopted the position that any apparent loss would be the result of fraud, likely focusing on the mail-in voting made necessary by Covid-19. No matter how many votes are yet to be counted on election night in 2020, the GOP candidate is certain to declare victory and claim the Dems are trying to steal the election.

The Democrats, in response, have begun to allege that the Incumbent simply won’t leave office unless forced. This rather strangely ignores the more dangerous likelihood of the GOP using technically legal tactics — essentially hacking the Constitution — to win the day through the court system and/or state legislatures it controls. If this occurs, the Democrats may claim the election result is fraudulent, leading to a legitimacy crises in Washington D.C.

Even if a peaceful transfer of power does happen in January 2021, the United States federal government will still face a terrible crisis, with the GOP using the same tactics employed to great effect against the Obama administration to stymie any substantive progress. And if the Incumbent remains in office through devious means, this unprecedented situation will further accelerate the split of America.

Americans, sadly, no longer share common ground on a wide variety of issues, but especially in how to apply the Constitution. The United States is increasingly divided into tribes clustered into Blue and Red camps held together mostly by fear of the other side winning.

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Pew Research Red Blue Independent Views Comparison
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Pew Research Red Blue Gap

Several different data-driven models of this split are available, each slightly differing but pointing to the same conclusion: Americans are irreconcilably divided on key questions.

Pew Research Center political typology
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Hidden Tribes Groupings

With a different, more flexible federal system of government, this could be mitigated. But the USA has a strong two-party system, each party a coalition of identity groups each receiving their news from for-profit media companies who optimize their programming for ratings in order to attract subscribers and/or advertisers. This political-media complex creates political division and offers simplistic narratives to describe it, reducing politics to a kind of team sport with engaged, but powerless, spectators.

Without a strong countervailing force to dispel this dynamic — and the emergence of social media has only amplified it — the divisions cracking America apart will widen until the country can no longer hold together. Unfortunately rhetoric, symbolic politics, and public debate don’t themselves bring about needed change — they have mostly served to alienate the third of American voters who aren’t well-served by the present system.

So like many countries before, the United States is likely to crumble. Within the next decade, unless the national trajectory fundamentally changes.

The question I’ve been asking myself for a few years now is what such a breakup might look like.

Some people might look at a map of the United States and assume that it would split into 50 or so individual entities, but I disagree. This forgets that pretty much all state borders were drawn up in an extremely arbitrary manner in a process of expansion that only ended with the admission of Alaska and Hawai’i as states in the 1950s. The map of the USA has looked very different in the recent past.

You’ve got the pre-European version, where peoples are grouped mostly according to the local environment, which tends to have a strong impact on the economy and culture.

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Kroeber’s Regional Classification of Indigenous Groups

Then there’s a time, a quarter-century before the American War of Independence in 1776.

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French, British, and Spanish colonial possessions in 1750

Here’s how the 13 Colonies looked in 1775, on the eve of the war:

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13 Colonies of British America

Soon after Independence was won, the Indian Reserve was aggressively colonized. In the South this led to the Seminole Wars, Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal policies, and too many other atrocities.

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Trail of Tears

After all, one of the express purposes of the American Revolution was to get rid of the British restraints on colonial expansion into Indigenous Territory. After decades of importing poor white people to work in the northern states, there was a lot of pressure for expanded access to land to pacify the many Indentured servants whose terms of service were ending.

And, of course, in the South the plantations demanded more land to be worked by their Black slaves.

The expansion continued, “Manifest Destiny” driving a colonization effort of incredible speed up right up to — and through — the Civil War.

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US Expansion

After the Civil War reunited the United States under one federal government, Manifest Destiny continued, with the states of the American West taking their modern shape during a new round of genocidal Indian Wars.

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Indian Wars

Territorial expansion didn’t end once the United States reached the Pacific, however — by the First World War in 1914 the USA had acquired a number of colonies abroad, mostly by force.

While Alaska and Hawai’i were later admitted to the Union as states, Guam, American Samoa, the Marianas, and Puerto Rico remain territories without formal representation or the same rights as full states. For a long time, the Philippines were a colony of the United States too, along with Cuba.

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American Empire in 1900

Since the end of the Second World War, the United States has undergone dramatic shifts in terms of its economic and demographic composition. New waves of migration from Central America, Asia, and elsewhere have brought the population to around 330 million people as of 2020.

Since the Second World War ended in 1945, the population has been steadily shifting to the west and south. In 1948, California had 25 Electoral College Votes, and New York had 47. In 2016, California had 55, New York 29 — same as Florida, which had only 8 in 1948.

And this is merely a relative shift. The national population more than doubled between 1948 and 2016, from around 150 to 320 million.

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Election 1948
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Election 2016

And in this time — almost as long as the oldest of the Baby Boomers have been alive — American politics and society has also radically shifted. And under the surface of the Red-Blue divide lurk deeper historical divisions that are becoming particularly relevant in a time when the climate and environment are rapidly shifting to a new, more uncertain phase.

So how might the country, as it stands now, split apart? The 2016 Election offers a few clues on how it could go, if the situation does indeed reduce down to Red against Blue in the end.

Here is how the vote looked from the county level:

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2016 Election Result by county, shaded by vote share.

While this makes the country look pretty Red, it’s important to remember that most U.S. counties are incredibly rural, and the GOP has focused its appeal in recent years on these rural voters. Many of those counties have only a few thousand people, and are a better way to look at state-level divides than charting out the scope of Red America as a whole.

This state-level view is good to compare to the county-level map above because it illustrates how most people in a mostly-red state (at the county level) like Illinois or Nevada in fact live in a small group of densely-populated counties that drive the statewide results.

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2016 Vote distribution by state

The following is a map I put together in QGIS for the Continental United States in 2017, using a simple decision rule looking at the raw margin of votes at the county level to expand the Blue areas to encompass more rural Red areas surrounding them.

This gives a set of contiguous regions where either Red or Blue has a strong majority:

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County-level Red-Blue, shifted to keep population centers contiguous

A sharp eye will note a few obvious errors in this, most notably in the cramped counties of the Southeast where I failed to notice cities like Atlanta and Birmingham were inadvertently grouped in the Red zone as a result of their conservative suburban rings.

If the United States were to split into successors along mostly Red-Blue lines, with counties grouped together so as to create a set of reasonably compact majority-party districts, here’s what you get based on the map above:

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The USA broken into 24 coherent Red or Blue successors

This would be an incredibly messy process, with state governments effectively dissolving. Maybe if the Coronavirus pandemic takes an even weirder turn, or something goes truly insane in D.C. leading to another civil war. But even then, there are just too many other structural factors that would likely come into play if the United States were to completely collapse.

State borders may be arbitrary and afflicted with severe partisan divides, but each does represent a legal governing entity with Constitutionally-mandated rights and responsibilities. Even if the US federal government disappeared tomorrow, the states would still exist, have budgets, and a widely-accepted responsibility to carry on.

More importantly, most states are represented at all levels of government by one dominant party, with the other being culturally anathema to most voters because it is perceived to be affiliated with other parts of the country. This is a big part of what underpins the severe Red-Blue divisions at the federal level, in fact — competition between states.

Note the geographic links between Red and Blue states:

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From Ballotpedia “state government trifectas”

Compare this to the non-partisan Cook Political Report ratings for seats in the House of Representatives:

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Cook Political Report PVI Index

And here’s how the closely-divided US Senate looks:

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270towin Current Senate Map

The truth of the United States is that it isn’t.

No continent-spanning nation of 330 million people could ever possibly be.

That’s the entire point of federalism — separating powers between different levels of government. It maximizes everyone’s freedom to live as they like under a common set of basic rules — so long as they can agree on what those are and what they mean.

This is no longer possible, and so America has divided. The question now is only how long it will take for public awareness and demand for systematic reform to catch up with this reality — and what will be left of America when the moment comes.

Neither side is going to be able to maintain total control over the other given the regional strength of partisanship and the federal nature of the Constitution.

One possibility, taking into account but not entirely evading the Red-Blue divide, would be to simply start all over again, and redraw the state map completely:

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The New 48 States (Puerto Rico and Pacific Islands, both to be states, not shown)

This re-do of all the states would match up with current political dynamics and the country’s metropolitan regions, which if pictured would form the core of each new state.

Or the United States could even split into a series of Megaregions, if economic concerns override everything else in the end.

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USA Megaregions

But in reality what is more likely to happen is that groups of states with like-minded populations will begin to develop their own institutions to replace those lost as the federal government seizes up and potentially even dissolves.

Regionalism is, perhaps, the United States’ best hope — and the most viable pathway to a form of disintegration far less extreme than might otherwise be the case.

There is in fact no particular reason that the Constitution needs to be administered from one federal capitol in Washington D.C.

Americans could, if 3/4 of state legislatures agree, Amend the Constitution to establish three, four, even five or six regional federal capitols, linked together by a residual structure in D.C. but otherwise autonomous.

Just by looking at the maps above, a few ways this could shake out quickly come to mind. You could have three regions:

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USA to 3 Autonomous Regions

Though this would leave a lot of people in Idaho, Wyoming, and Utah rather unhappy, and lumps together two American regions that are, in truth, quite distinct: the Pacific and the West.

Going with four regions might look like this:

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USA to Four Autonomous Regions

Though I admit a personal dislike for the similarity the South has to the old Confederacy in this version.

Five is a good number, and offers another look at how the split might be effected, using the 2016 election as a guide to create three “Red” and two “Blue” regions:

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USA to Five Autonomous Regions

This map does leave the Northeast oddly split into two different chunks, and truth be told, the Great Lakes really ought to remain a unit, as together they exhibit a strongly regional economic and social identity.

Which brings me to six, my personal favourite:

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USA to Six Autonomous Regions

To me this makes the most geographic sense, has a decent degree of flexibility (Nevada could go with the Pacific, Iowa the Plains, for example, depending on how the local population votes), and “fits” with my sense of America’s basic cultural divides. Pacific American, Western American — these will fit better and better over time.

Truth is, just to administer all the laws, programs, and policies of the federal government across the fifty states has already led to the functional division of the government into districts.

Here’s the Court system:

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Court Regions

Environmental Protection Agency:

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EPA Regions

Even the electric grid — which is shared with Canada!

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Regional Electrical Connections

The Federal Bureau of Investigation gets even more granular:

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FBI Field Regions

And there are so many more — too many for one post.

In my preferred scheme of a six-region split, Oakland, Denver, Houston, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Detroit would become regional federal capitols.

This spreads the federal government out instead of concentrating everything in D.C., which has become the very definition of an imperial capital detached from the realities of life in the rest of the country.

Each region would start under the control of one party with a mandate to effect popular reform. However, the simple act of splitting into regions would have the effect of restoring political competitiveness to a huge swath of America.

Why?

Because the dominant party would have no excuses for failure, and also a dramatically reduced ability to blame people living in distant cities or rural counties for all local problems.

The Beltway political-media complex would no longer haveprivileged access to the halls of power.

Better yet, free from having to be associated with the wings of their own party seen as too radical for the average voter in each region, the other party would be able to adapt its messaging and avoid getting caught up in national issues not relevant to the area. This would induce more political competition, leading to more choice and representation for all voters.

Would a planned breakup of the United States federal government, Amending the Constitution to allow for autonomous regional federal governments, be a seismic change in the course of American history?

Of course. That’s the point.

The longer the USA goes without something giving, the worse things will get before thing settle down.

You can’t expect a political, economic, and social system in the throes of disintegration to pause and catch its breath, then return to better days. Once some things break, it’s impossible to just stitch them back together.

Division is coming. Division is here. Time to adapt, America.

*Post 2020 Election Update***

It should go without saying that the end of a 240-year, 45-president run for the American tradition of a peaceful transfer of power has all but locked in the collapse and fragmentation of the United States in the next ten years.

The best bet for the United States and the world now looks something like this, with each Region becoming largely autonomous, with a devolved federal government able to interpret the Constitution as suits citizens in its area of responsibility:

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Made with Mapchart.net

Each of these regions is a sustainable chunk with a definite political majority. Remember that most of the red counties below are sparsely populated, while a few blue counties represent major metro areas. Yet the starkness of the divides match the brutality of the election rhetoric that culminated in the January 6 Capitol Attack.

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2020 Presidential Election shaded by strength of majority in each county

Given the extreme political divides tearing apart states like Pennsylvania, Georgia, Oregon, and Washington, it seems likely that eventually multiple states will fragment along with the federal government, creating the Regions outlined above.

The USA will evolve, whether it wants to or not. The only question now is how to give it a soft landing that won’t result in widespread violence.

Author of Bringing Ragnarok. Independent Research Consultant.

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