How Will the United States Break Up?
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 cheap communication 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.
The Soviet Union disintegrated mostly peacefully in the early 1990s after a decade of economic decline and military defeat in Afghanistan — sound familiar?
Countries live, countries die —faster if they are not well-cared for. And the United States of America certainly hasn’t been for a long time.
Legal scholars are pointing to the 2024 Presidential Election as a likely nightmare, using Trump’s behavior in the 2020 Election as guide, finally awakened to the fact that America is on the precipice.
They’re right — I only wish they’d started paying attention to the evidence that the United States is in a systemic crisis early enough to do any good.
I, on the other hand, have been right time and time again about American politics over the past five years. Here’s a passage I wrote in an earlier version of this piece drafted in March of 2020:
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.
Reflect on the 2020 and 2021 you’ve witnessed, Americans, and think about the predictions made by your favorite partisan pundits.
Who was more right, looking back — any of them, or me?
The reason I can make accurate structural predictions is that I spend years in academia developing a systems-based framework for evaluating and managing wicked social problems.
Medium doesn’t much like pieces that run longer than about a twelve minute read, so I can’t lay it all out here.
What I can do is point out some of the key drivers of America’s collapse, a process with better than 50/50 odds of breaking the country apart in a great red-blue divorce by the end of this decade.
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.
The two-party system is a machine designed to further these divisions. Americans are deluded into thinking there are two sides to every issue, when in fact there are multiple perspectives that are, increasingly, tied to regional cultural values.
When politicians speak, they use rhetoric — charged statements with particular meaning to some group — to demonstrate affiliation. This generates support and eventually turnout.
In the two party system, the media and politicians work together to create a team sports environment where one side’s win is seen as an apocalyptic failure. This doesn’t work in politics, which is by necessity a power game of constant give and take.
In America, each party is a forced coalition of identity groups each receiving their news from for-profit media companies who optimize their programming for ratings in order to attract advertisers or subscribers. Money is now considered political speech, allowing the wealthy to buy politicians behind the scenes while the public is encouraged to believe this is normal. This political-media complex creates political division then offers simplistic narratives to describe it, encouraging people to believe this to be true democracy.
Without the emergence of a countervailing force strong enough 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 change.
A significant percentage of Americans now condone political violence to achieve their team’s aims. The situation is escalating, with America’s leaders incapable of doing anything about it.
Like so 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, as someone with scholarly training in geography, is what a breakup will 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 this forgets that pretty much all state borders were drawn up in an extremely arbitrary manner. The map of the USA has looked starkly different in the fairly recent past.
There’s the pre-European version, where peoples are grouped mostly according to the way they dealt with the local environment:
Here’s America a quarter-century before the American War of Independence broke out in 1775.
The wealthy of the Thirteen Colonies, on the eve of the war, were as much concerned about preserving slavery and expanding into Indian Country as they were taxes on tea.
Naturally, 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 to recount, including the Trail of Tears
After decades of importing poor people from Britain to work in the northern states, the wealthy landowners who descended from the early colonists pushed the former indentured servants west. In the South the plantations demanded ever more land to be worked by their Black slaves.
Manifest Destiny drove a colonization effort of incredible scope right up to the Civil War, with Mexico suffering severe territorial losses of land it had taken from the indigenous of the Southwest.
After the Civil War reunited the United States under one federal government, Manifest Destiny accelerated, the states of the American West taking their rather rectangular modern shapes during a new round of genocidal Indian Wars.
Naturally, few of these borders match up with geographic realities on the ground that had governed life for generations.
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 — notably, both became the central focus of foreign policy crises in the twentieth century.
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 over 330 million people.
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.
And in this time — almost as long as the oldest of the Baby Boomers have been alive — American politics and society have 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 2020 Presidential Election offers a few clues on how it could go. Here is how the vote looked from the county level:
While this makes the entire 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, with their opponents at places like MSNBC adopting anti-rural bigotry in response. 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 map offers a better view of how America’s voting population is distributed:
A Brookings Institute analysis examining the possibility of a second civil war recently argued that unlike in 1861, America lacks a distinct geographic-political divide — this is obviously not the case. This argument represents a form of gaslighting, as even in the 19th century states were deeply divided internally, with whole counties in the South voting to remain in the Union.
There is more than enough geographic contiguity for fighting to break out between coherent Red or Blue aligned regions.
When centralized political authority breaks down — and this is not always a bad thing, just ask Latvia, Lithuania, or Estonia — more localized authority tends to step into the void. The United States of America is legally a federation under the Constitution — if ever there comes a day when the two parties’ supporters refuse to share the same federal government, it collapses.
You could see, after a contested 2024 election where — once again — both candidates claim victory, state legislatures choosing to recognize different Presidents. Republicans now believe the last election was stolen despite all evidence to the contrary, and their rhetoric is trending towards calls for an uprising.
Democrats, if they perceive legal maneuverings or voter suppression tainted the results of the 2024 Election, might reject it and resort to nationwide protests. Though the military would struggle to remain neutral, it is possible that national guard or militia units would form and take effective control of geographically contiguous regions under the orders of their elected state government. The federal Congress could even split into rival factions each lacking a quorum to conduct business.
A second civil war scenario starts out looking something like this:
Conflict would center around controlling state capitols across the New Borderlands, each side trying to build a big enough coalition to force a quorum in a federal government with enough heft to restore unity. It would quite possibly end with the West Coast and Atlantic Northeast becoming independent countries because their relative geographic isolation makes them difficult to control.
This kind of open fight is, however, unlikely because of strong differences within each side’s coalition. Democrats on the West Coast are not the same as those in the Atlantic Northeast. Republicans in Alabama are not the same as the ones in Utah.
A more likely outcome of a contested Presidential election and breach in the federal government sees states cluster into regions tied together by shared infrastructure and political views:
State borders may be arbitrary, but each does represent a legal governing entity with Constitutionally-mandated rights and responsibilities. Even if the US federal government disappeared tomorrow thanks to a meteor or nuclear bomb or merciful aliens, the states would still exist, with budgets and a responsibility to serve their people most would accept.
Few people in America want violence, the political rancor is driven by a diseased system in perpetual crisis. Most states are represented at most or all levels of government by one dominant party, with the other being culturally anathema to most voters there 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 with distinct economic interests. There’s a reason red states like fossil fuels, and blue states don’t. Guess where most of the fossil fuel industries and their workers are concentrated?
It’s not Connecticut.
The truth of the United States is that it isn’t.
No continent-spanning nation of 330 million people is or can ever possibly be. Even China is nowhere near as united as its government pretends — that’s why Beijing is so obsessed with dominating Hong Kong and Taiwan as Moscow is Ukraine.
America is extremely unlikely to fall to a fascist dictatorship or even to go to open war with itself precisely because it is so large and complex. Neither side, Red or Blue, 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.
Americans just don’t like each other that much anymore.
If violence after a contested 2024 Presidential election spirals out of control, the political geography of America implies that not only the country but many states will divide.
How? Most likely, according to the economic and social influence of major urban areas, perhaps like so:
When you get down to basics, governments form to solve a problem. When America’s federal and state governments fail too badly for too long, some other political coalition will emerge and replace the old system.
This could be a very good, or a very bad, outcome — only time will tell. What can be said with confidence is that regional geographic self-interest will drive the emergence of contiguous self-governing regions capable of keeping people inside safe and engaging predictably with neighbors.
Some form of structured regionalism is the United States’ best and possibly only hope of surviving the next decade reasonably intact. There is in fact no particular reason that the Constitution needs to be administered from one federal capitol in Washington D.C.
Truth is, just to administer all the laws, programs, and policies of a federal government spanning fifty states has already led to the functional division of America’s federal government into districts.
Here’s the Court system:
Environmental Protection Agency:
Even the electric grid — which is shared with Canada!
The Federal Bureau of Investigation gets even more granular:
And there are so many more — too many for one post. Truth be told, re-wiring the federal government’s political accountability structures and decentralizing them 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, is the most rational option.
The Beltway political-media complex would no longer have privileged access to the halls of power, the ability to set Americans against each other in the perverse two party system sham we’re taught to call democracy.
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 change, the worse things will be before it dies.