The polarization of American politics, a trend that started long before Donald Trump ran for president, is not gathering steam. If anything, it speeds up.
Last month, it got a boost from a new source: A conservative Supreme Court majority pushed hot-button issues back to the states — not just abortion, but gun control and environmental regulations, with more likely to follow.
Americans were already divided over abortion rights; now, thanks to the court, they can debate the issue in a dozen or more state legislatures.
The result is a box of new questions from Pandora: Can a state ban its citizens from traveling elsewhere to have an abortion? From buying mifepristone pills through the US mail? From just looking for information about abortion options?
The struggle will not be confined to state borders. It is already becoming a virtual war between the states. Texas passed a law allowing citizens to sue abortion providers in other states for treating Texan women. The Missouri legislature is considering similar legislation. In return, California has not only passed a law protecting its citizens from liability for aiding an abortion, but Governor Gavin Newsom has also pledged to provide a “sanctuary” to out-of-state women who wish to undergo the procedure in his state. .
Nor is abortion the only question that states are contesting. Texas Atty. Gene. Ken Paxton said last week he is ready to take a Roe-like challenge against the 2015 Supreme Court decision guaranteeing same-sex marriage rights. The New York legislature last week passed a series of new gun control rules to counter the Supreme Court’s decision to repeal the restrictive covert-carrying law. In the Midwest, Democratic Illinois blames Republican Indiana for Chicago’s flood of illegal guns. And despite the court’s decision to limit the Environmental Protection Agency’s power to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, California plans to move forward with stricter state-level regulation.
“It’s very hard to find an area where the divisions between states aren’t growing,” Donald F. Kettl of the University of Maryland, a leading scientist on federalism, said last week. “You can see it in income, education, health and basic governance – and now, how we count the votes after Election Day. It’s becoming more and more common that the government we get depends on where we live.”
Those growing disparities have prompted some experts, and even some scholars, to suggest that the United States is sliding into a second civil war.
“We’re clearly closer to a civil war than we were fifty years ago,” Harvard’s Robert D. Putnam, an eminent and balanced sociologist, told me. “The only comparable period in our history is, I think, 1850-1860” – the decade leading up to the Civil War.
One particularly troubling factor: our divisions have become self-reinforcing. Primaries in Gerrymandered districts reward politicians who act as ideological purists, not moderate compromise seekers. More Americans are telling pollsters that they mistrust people on the other side of the political divide. Some even decide where to live based in part on political loyalty, a trend first noted by Texas journalist Bill Bishop in his 2008 book “The Big Sort.”
sen. Missouri Republican Josh Hawley celebrated that phenomenon last month when he touted the Roe decision as “a turning point” that could tighten the GOP’s hold on power in red and purple states by pushing Democrats somewhere. to go elsewhere.
“Red states will become more red, and purple states will become red, and the blue states will become a lot bluer,” Hawley predicted.
The good news is that protests, lawsuits, and moving to new states are nonviolent actions. They don’t add up to civil war in the Ft. Summer feeling.
But according to the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, smaller-scale political violence is already on the rise, especially among the far right. About 1 in 3 Republicans and 1 in 5 Democrats agreed that “at some point it may soon be necessary for citizens to take up arms against the government,” a poll released last week showed. was released by the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago.
Few, if any, reputable scholars think a shooting war is likely anytime soon.
“There are still many balancing mechanisms built into our system — not just politically, but also economically,” Putnam said. He noted that red states and blue states are fully integrated into one national economy, unlike in the 19th century. “The cost of an economic break for both sides would be enormous,” he said.
Kettl agreed – halfway through.
“Our ability to muddle through and find a balance has been eroded,” he said. “The danger is that we will slip back into the kind of interstate tensions that arose in the 1850s. I don’t think we’re there yet, but I’m worried.”
As for off-the-shelf solutions, both came empty.
“I don’t have to prescribe therapy,” said Putnam, who spent much of his career building cohesion in American communities.
Perhaps the only way to mitigate these divisions is through old-fashioned political competition — not just in national elections, but critically in the state and local elections that Republicans have learned to dominate. It took a generation or more for the tide of polarization to kick in. Reversing it will also be the work of a generation.