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By Jamelle Bouie
Marjorie Taylor Greene, now one of the most influential Republicans in the House of Representatives, says it is time for Americans to consider a national divorce.
“Tragically, I think we, the left and right, have reached irreconcilable differences,” Greene wrote a few days ago on Twitter. “I’ll speak for the right and say, we are absolutely disgusted and fed up with the left cramming and forcing their ways on us and our children with no respect for our religion/faith, traditional values, and economic&government policy beliefs.”
And how will this national divorce work in practice? Greene says that “red” states and “blue” states will simply go their separate ways.
On education, for example, “Red states would likely ban all gender lies and confusing theories, Drag Queen story times, and L.G.B.T.Q. indoctrinating teachers, and China’s money and influence in our education while blue states could have government-controlled gender transition schools.”
On gun policy, in red states, “law abiding gun owners wouldn’t go to jail for shooting an attacker” while in blue states, “the left could achieve their dreams of total and complete lawlessness.”
The federal government would still exist, Greene explains, but it would be a minimal state, devoted to border security and defense — an update, of sorts, of America under the Articles of Confederation. Everything else would be up to the discretion of the states, including voting and elections.
“In red states,” Greene wrote, “they would likely pursue one day elections with paper ballots and require voter ID with only the red state citizens or even red state tax payers voting. And blue states would be free to allow illegal aliens from all over the world to vote freely and frequently in their elections like the D.C. City Council wants. Dead people could still vote. Criminals in jail could vote that is if blue states even have jails or prisons anymore.”
You can probably tell, from the substance of Greene’s comments, that this “national divorce” is more paranoid fantasy than serious proposal. Even so, it rests on a set of ideas and tropes that are in wide circulation with the public at large.
Let’s start with the idea that individual states constitute singular political communities, meaning that there is a real distinction between Americans who live in “big states” versus “small states,” between the residents of Montana and those of Massachusetts. There’s also the idea that partisan divides between states represent fundamental differences of culture and interest. And then there’s the idea, underneath all this, that states are, or ought to be, the fundamental unit of representation in the American political system.
Taken together, those ideas make a “national divorce” seem, if not likely, then at least plausible. But there’s a problem. States are not actually singular political communities. There are partisan divides between states, even large ones, but they do not represent fundamental differences of culture and interest. And although states play an important role in the American political system, they are not the autonomous, nearly independent units of either Representative Greene’s imagination or the folk civics that shape political understanding for tens of millions of Americans.
It is true that, in debates over representation during the Constitutional Convention of 1787 in Philadelphia, small state delegates insisted on equal representation of states in at least one chamber of Congress, so that they might preserve their interests against those of the larger states. William Paterson of New Jersey worried that his state would be “swallowed up” by Virginia, Massachusetts and others if the Senate were apportioned by population, like the House. Likewise, Luther Martin of Maryland called apportion by population “a system of slavery for ten states.” For these delegates, the states were sovereign units with distinct interests that deserved representation in Congress.
For James Madison, chief architect of the Virginia Plan and a fierce proponent of proportional representation in the House and Senate, this was nonsense. Far from unitary, each state was, in his view, a collection of diverse and divergent factions — of a “greater variety of interests, of pursuits, of passions” — that could only speak with a single voice on issues of broad agreement and consensus.
On this question of representation and apportionment, the upshot of Madison’s theory of faction was that states, as states, did not have interests to represent in Congress.
“States possessed interests,” the historian Jack Rakove explains in “Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution,” “but these were rooted in the attributes of individuals: in property, occupation, religion, opinion, and the uneven distribution of human faculties. Moreover, since congeries of interests could be found within any state, however small — witness Rhode Island — the principle of unitary corporate representation was further undercut.”
Madison lost the battle for proportional representation in the Senate — small-state delegates threatened to torpedo the convention rather than accept an outcome that might undermine their influence in the national legislature. But he would return, years later, to this argument about the nature of the states, and the divergent interests within them, in a letter written just before his death.
Addressed, in substance, to critics of majority rule like John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, Madison again challenged the idea that states represent distinct and singular political communities.
In Virginia, he notes, there is “a diversity of interests, real or supposed” and “much disagreement” on questions of infrastructure and “public patronage.” If majority rule threatens abuse of power in national government — because one interest may grow in size over another — then it would have to do the same within in each individual state, rendering “a majority government as unavoidable an evil in the States individually as it is represented to be in the States collectively.”
But let’s say you could split each state into its constituent interests, so that majorities would not form against it. Well, then, Madison says, you would find yourself in the same situation as before: “In the smallest of the fragments, there would soon be added to previous sources of discord a manufacturing and an agricultural class, with the difficulty experienced in adjusting their relative interests, in the regulation of foreign commerce if any, or if none in equalizing the burden internal improvement and of taxation within them.”
No matter how small you go, in other words, you run into the simple fact that there’s no such thing as a truly homogeneous political community. There will always be differences of belief and interest, and the only way to deal with them in a representative, republican government is through deliberation and majority rule.
What was true in the 18th and 19th centuries is true now. A “national divorce” is only possible if the states represent singular political communities. But they don’t. A conservative, deep “red” state like Oklahoma still has liberal, “blue” cities and suburbs with conflicting interests. If you tried to divide conservative rural areas from liberal urban ones, you’d quickly find that within those subdivisions lie profound political differences between both individual people and groups of people.
We are not actually 50 separate communities tied together by a single document. We are a single, national community of diverse and divergent interests in every corner of the union. The states aren’t hard borders of culture and politics, and there’s no way to divide the country so that all Americans live in their own camp, with their own side. Perhaps, if conservatives and Republicans win enough elections, we’ll have a vastly smaller and less expansive federal government than we do now. But that will not solve the problem of political conflict and majority rule; it will simply push the problem down to the next level of government.
What advocates of a “national divorce” or some other separation want is a resolution to the struggle of democratic life, a point at which they must no longer contend with alternative and conflicting ways of living. But that is just another fantasy.
The great virtue (or perhaps curse) of democracy is that it doesn’t settle — it keeps moving. There are no final victories, but there are no final defeats either. There is only the struggle for a more humane world or, for some among us, a more hierarchical one.
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