Can the Fragile American Union Survive This Election?
Richard Kreitner on the Future of Political Fragmentation
For nearly 250 years, we Americans have done whatever we could to avoid deciding once and for all whether we actually want to be one country. Skeptics of the Union have been branded as treasonous malcontents—especially by those who harbor their own doubts. It was the wrong time to talk about it during the Revolution, because there was a war to win. Then the confederation was too fragile to bear such scrutiny. The new Constitution repressed the real causes of nation-rending disputes—slavery, above all. Union-minded propagandists crafted an appealing story about the country’s origins in order to argue that an irrevocable federation had been created even before independence. After the Civil War, historians, politicians, and other memory-keepers played down the North’s own dalliances with disunionism and dismissed what had once been a national obsession with secession as merely an eccentricity of the antebellum South.
Recovering this long-forgotten history should free us from the shackles of post-Appomattox orthodoxy and complacent, consensus-minded clichés. It should encourage us once again to think of our continent-spanning federation as a means to certain ends—such as those specified in the Declaration of Independence—rather than an end in itself.
Even some of the framers of our Constitution came to feel America had grown “too big for union,” as the discouraged New England scribe Fisher Ames put it, and isn’t that even more true now, in a country four times the size with a population sixty times as large? If the radical abolitionists of the 1840s thought the Slave Power held such complete control over the government that no progress toward emancipation could be made within it, shouldn’t we wonder whether we’re fast approaching the day—if it has not already arrived—when the Money Power’s control over our politicians has become so deeply entrenched, so ineradicable, that no remedy can be found within the existing political system? If some of the populists of the 1890s and 1930s considered secession a possible solution to the unaccountable power of Wall Street, will those of our day come to that conclusion too?
How long will Americans rightly terrified by the coming climate chaos work within a system that appears utterly incapable of doing anything to wean our country off a way of life that has rendered human beings an endangered species? Our government appears to be irrevocably broken, and we are running out of time. “We must, indeed, all hang together,” Benjamin Franklin reportedly warned his fellow delegates in Philadelphia in the summer of 1776, “or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.” It was good advice at the time. But the world has changed. It’s tempting, some days, to take a different view: With the seas rising much faster than they were in 2008, when Barack Obama said he hoped posterity would remember his election as the moment the planet began to heal, we may soon find the only choice is drowning together or allowing ourselves to part. Should America keep thwarting international action to address climate change, destroying the Union rather than preserving it might become, as Lincoln put it, “the last best hope of earth.”Our political discourse is civil war by other means—we sound as if we do not really want to continue to be members of one country.
The breakdown in constitutional government is nearly complete. At the federal level, every branch is mired in a legitimacy crisis from which the future offers little hope of easy extraction. Whatever happens in the 2020 elections and those to come, Democrats face enormous hurdles to enacting policies that enjoy widespread popular support—even policies on which the fate of humanity may rely. The Electoral College favors small, typically conservative states and narrows the political playing field to a handful of battlegrounds. Partisan gerrymandering, endorsed by an artificially stacked Supreme Court, means that in some states, Democrats can win nearly half the votes but fill only a quarter of congressional seats. The Senate remains, as it was in 1789, a bastion of aristocratic privilege and a boon to smaller, typically more conservative states. Thanks to Mitch McConnell’s maneuvers to block President Obama from naming judges to federal courts—essentially a coup d’état—Republicans will likely maintain a stranglehold on the judicial system until the middle of this century.
Many Democrats seem to think a coming demographic shift will hand power to them permanently, but there are too many structural obstacles in place that could allow—indeed, that were designed to allow—a small minority of disproportionately wealthy and white people to hold on indefinitely.
Consider what has happened in North Carolina and Wisconsin, where the election of Democratic governors in 2016 and 2018, respectively, was swiftly followed by the enactment of laws stripping their offices of power. Will the growing national majority be content to rely on the passing inclinations of a few berobed octogenarians to cement any legislation that does happen to squeak through the stalemated political process? Why should they? Democrats cheered when the Obama administration, stymied by Republicans in Congress, resorted to government by executive fiat, little minding the inconvenient truth that any measure so enacted could be overturned just as easily by a Republican successor—as nearly all of them have been. There’s no saying what will happen as the unstoppable force of democratic politics crashes into the immovable object of oligarchic control. Growing talk of abolishing the Electoral College and packing the Supreme Court is only a taste of the norm-smashing to come. Nineteenth-century abolitionists predicted, correctly, that either slavery or the Union might endure, but not both; the same might be said today of the Union and minority rule.
Our political discourse is civil war by other means—we sound as if we do not really want to continue to be members of one country. Well-meaning historians have mined the national past to show that “the soul of America” has triumphed over greater difficulties before and will again. Yet the Union’s survival has always been as much a matter of chance and contingency as flag-waving and will. At nearly every step it required morally indefensible compromises that only pushed problems farther into the future. There never was any guarantee that the country would survive, and there is none now, no matter how frantically we rap out those mystic chords of memory on keys weakened from overplaying.
The erratic, contingent creation of this country suggests its boundaries are not written in stone. “Everything is negotiable,” the current president likes to say. Many things are unimaginable until they become reality.
In the years to come, the idea of pulling the plug on the whole experiment may appeal to some who never imagined themselves as secessionists, especially those who have long defended the exercise of federal power. Progressives may awaken from the century-long dream that a system designed by and for the rich can be wielded for noble ends. Maybe only shrinking the sphere whose extension James Madison defended as necessary for neutralizing movements for “an abolition of debts [and] an equal division of property” can reverse our steady march toward plutocracy. Alexander Hamilton acknowledged as much in 1804, days before his death, when he warned that disunion would make democracy “more concentrated in each part, and consequently the more virulent.” Now that so many of us have become devout Hamiltonians, maybe he ought to be taken at his word.
From Break it Up by Richard Kreitner. Used with the permission of Little, Brown and Company. Copyright © 2020 by Richard Kreitner.
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