Because our political system requires majority control to rule, the rise of two predominant parties is an inevitable result. If you don’t want one party, the only practical solution is to support the other. But what do you do if you dislike them both?
As time has passed and America’s internal political impasse has deepened almost to the bone, it has become clear how voters might wish to punish one party but not necessarily want to reward the other: roughly half the public, or more, dislikes the major parties. Gallup polling on favorable or unfavorable views of both major parties has found neither party has had more support than opposition since at least the 2012 election, the last time that more people approved of the Democratic Party (51 percent) than disapproved of it (43 percent). Republicans’ ratings have been lower for longer than those of Democrats; they last were above water in January 2011, at 47-43 percent, right after they took control of the U.S. House of Representatives. Per Gallup, the GOP has not enjoyed favorable ratings from more than 50 percent of the public since February 2005, right as George W. Bush started his second term as president.
Democrats likely look at the comparative numbers and crow that they are “winning” because their ratings have been higher than those of the Republicans, and for a longer time.
Wrong. Neither side is winning. Both parties are losing, even though Republicans have managed to win a lot of elections this decade despite having lower levels of public support.
Aside from committed partisans who are firmly locked in behind one major party or the other, people aren’t rooting for either one. It’s sort of like the recent Super Bowl LII between the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles. Aside from those teams’ fans, most people would only have been truly happy about the result if somehow neither team won.
We can’t make any progress as a nation if both major parties are crippled by the fact that they’re both hated by a majority of the public, and neither can forge consensus on its own. Anything Democrats support, most of the country will reflexively oppose, and vice versa for Republicans. One side can “win” a contest, just as the Eagles did in Super Bowl LII. But no matter who wins, no progress will be made, because the loser will resist whatever the winner wants to do.
Why is this? Is it because both parties have parts of their agendas that are anathema to half the country? Or is it more basic—tribal? Is it as simple as the ongoing contempt that many rural people have for urban people, and vice versa? Or is it just that one party is viewed predominantly as the party of white, straight, traditionalist Christians and the other is seen as the party of everyone else?
It’s all of that and more, and that begs some serious questions. Mostly it poses the question of what do you do with a country where we simply just can’t get along—where we are at a political impasse so profound that we can’t agree on simple questions, much less passing a budget?
Disgraced former presidential candidate John Edwards spoke during his campaign of there being “Two Americas,” and he was correct. There are two Americas, though not in the way he meant. While he may have been speaking of the chasm between the wealthy few and the many who are struggling to get by, there are also two distinct and diametrically opposed American cultures: one that is primarily urban and pluralistic in its outlook, and one that is primarily rural and conformist; one that sees a diverse future and rejoices, and another that sees the same future, recoils, and redoubles its efforts to stop it.
If the divide were strictly geographical, the answer would be as obvious as it is simple: split the baby in half. An America divided into two nations would still be economically and militarily strong enough that each new country would be safe, secure and prosperous.
But it isn’t that simple. The vast, underpopulated red swathes of the “heartland” break the blue urban centers and college towns into isolated islands dotting the landscape. “Blue America” doesn’t have any geographic continuity except along the coasts, and even some of the coastal areas have pockets of red. And almost every red state has its islands of blue dots. In Texas, Austin, Dallas, El Paso, Houston and San Antonio stare out from the map like the bright blue eyes of a red-faced giant.
These two Americas clearly are not identical twins, but they aren’t fraternal twins, either. They are conjoined twins with shared organs. Splitting these babies in half is a task that would bedevil Solomon. However, as long as these two remain joined, they also can’t go anywhere unless they both agree on the direction—or unless one becomes dominant and forcibly drags the other along. Neither mutual stagnation, nor the relationship between captor and captive, is a desirable outcome.
So what do we do? Some would say the answer already exists, in the form of federalism, but American federalism also has its conundrums. The main one has been the fact, for better or worse, that the federal government has taken on a much greater role relative to the powers of the individual states than the founders originally envisioned. However, this has not been entirely a bad thing. Without robust federal intervention, there may never have been an end to evils such as slavery. And certain things are better done on the federal level than at the state level: national defense, a monetary system, interstate commerce (including highways and aviation), the National Park System, and international diplomacy.
But perhaps devolving most existing federal power to the state level will end up being the most mutually acceptable path forward for both conservatives and liberals who don’t want to be dictated to by people who don’t share their values.
Of course, the current state structure would also need to change. As noted earlier, every state has its own regional divides. Some parts of predominantly liberal California are very conservative, and some parts of ruby-red Texas are deep blue. The northwestern corner of Indiana is much more politically and culturally aligned with neighboring Chicago than it is with the rest of the state. To put the most people with the most congenial state governments would involve some serious redrawing of borders.
In some cases, isolated liberal cities and perhaps some blue-tinged neighboring areas could become “city states.” In other cases, large metropolitan areas might be clustered together. The new state of Chicago, for example, might hug the southern and southwest edges of Lake Michigan from Milwaukee to Michigan City, Ind., with an arm reaching west to take in Madison, Wis., and another arm reaching east to South Bend, Ind. The new state of New York would be centered on New York City and might include neighboring sections of Westchester County, New Jersey and Connecticut. The new California might start at San Diego and follow the coast north to Eureka, with arms reaching inland to include Sacramento and Fresno. The border between Maine and New Hampshire might be redrawn from east to west rather than north to south.
The federal government would remain in charge of some of the aforementioned areas like defense and interstate commerce, and there would need to be some agreements on basic human rights. But beyond that, each of the newly constituted states would be free to govern themselves as their voters see fit. Liberal states could ban assault weapons and institute checkpoints at their borders to screen for them, if they so chose. Conservative states could allow schoolteachers to pack heat. Because states would be drawn to maximize the number of the predominant political persuasion and minimize the number of those in the political minority, each state would have overwhelming consensus on political decisions, and relatively few people would have to be governed in a way they find objectionable. It wouldn’t be perfect—there would be some people who find themselves on the wrong side of the new lines—but most would be contented with their lot.
This is, admittedly, not an especially likely solution. However, if America is going to break the pattern of gridlock and resistance, it is going to have to think of some innovative solutions. At some point, the only other option will be for one side to permanently crush the other, or try to. We’ve been there before, and it is amazing, given how the North let the South off the mat so quickly, how little the Civil War actually resolved compared to how much blood was shed. Formal slavery was quickly replaced by a Jim Crow system that was slavery in all but name, and many of its vestiges (mass incarceration of people of color, voter disenfranchisement, and all manner of systemic racism) remain alive and well today. In fact, you could say we’re still fighting the Civil War, and you wouldn’t be wrong. And with the current situation we have, there is no end in sight. It may be time to admit that neither side can permanently defeat the other and that both sides need to stake out their own territory and govern it as they see fit.