For the first time in my adult life, it’s easy for me to foresee the possibility of a genuine constitutional crisis in the United States of America. The scenario is simple. Imagine that either Joe Biden or Donald Trump wins the 2020 election in a close race. There is a surge in voter-suppression claims and mail-in ballot controversies.
Partisans refuse to concede, and they declare the election illegitimate. President Trump himself has indicated he may not accept the outcome.
What happens then? Well, according to a scenario planning exercise at the Transition Integrity Project, a bipartisan coalition of former officials concerned about the disruptions to the 2020 election, the result in every scenario except a Biden landslide would be “street-level violence and political crisis.” But what kind of political crisis? Could we ever again reach the point where American polarization could trigger “massive resistance” to federal authority or even outright national division?
For the past several years, I’ve been watching the increase in partisan enmity in the U.S. with growing alarm. Multiple social, cultural and religious factors are converging to create a particularly toxic political stew. America is being pulled apart. This phenomenon is geographic, ideological and spiritual.
Thanks to the decades-long “big sort”–a phenomenon outlined by Bill Bishop in his excellent 2009 book–Americans are increasingly clustering in like-minded communities, and surrounding yourself with people who think like you think has a profound effect. As Cass Sunstein articulated, when like-minded people gather, they tend to grow more extreme.
His “law of group polarization” holds that people who agree with each other grow more enthusiastic in their beliefs and agreement. If like-minded Second Amendment advocates gather, they grow more opposed to gun control. If like-minded environmental activists gather, they grow more committed to fighting climate change. As geographic separation increases, ideological divisions are magnified.
America is becoming extremely efficient at creating superclusters of like-minded citizens. White evangelicals famously delivered 81% of their 2016 votes to Donald Trump. Manhattan gave 87% of its vote to Hillary Clinton. She won 91% of the vote in Washington, D.C., and 84% of the vote in San Francisco.
Almost 80% of Americans live under unified, one-party rule. A total of 36 states–15 Democratic and 21 Republican–have “trifecta” governments where one party controls the upper house, the lower house and the governor’s mansion. Minnesota is the only divided legislature in the entire U.S.
Moreover, states where red and blue dominate are not scattered randomly across the map. The West Coast and New England are bastions of blue rule. The South and large sections of the upper Midwest represent the red heartland.
Now, let’s throw in another ingredient–enmity. It is clear that partisan Americans dislike each other a great deal. We live separately, snarling at each other across a growing divide. The result is a politics of fear and rage, where policy differences often take a back seat to the list of grievances that red possesses against blue and blue against red.
Nothing I’m outlining here is new. Commentators have called our dysfunctional politics a form of “cold civil war,” and the assumption is that one side or the other will win, dominate the opposition and rule a united country.
That’s certainly a possibility, but it’s not a certainty. When immense geographic regions share a common culture, believe their most fundamental values are under attack and lose confidence that the Democratic process will protect their interests, unity is not always the result. Just ask the colonists who sought to secure liberty in 1776. Just ask the Confederates who sought to secure slavery in the 1860s.
Over the past decade, I’ve heard committed partisans say out loud that they would be “happy” to be rid of states like California. I’ve heard (and read) men fantasizing and theorizing about a second Civil War. Right-wing insurrectionist groups have even formed for the purpose of fomenting civil strife. Look at the smoke drifting from U.S. cities from coast to coast. Watch far-right and far-left protesters square off in street battles. There is a crackling tension in the air.
My proposition is simple: In an atmosphere of increasing negative polarization and geographic separation, we can no longer take our nation for granted. We must intentionally care for the state of our union.
In “Federalist No. 10,” James Madison wrestled with the challenge of “the violence of faction.” How does a nation deal with competing factions? Not through oppression and not through uniformity but rather through pluralism–by letting many different political flowers bloom. A broad diversity of interests and groups helps prevent any interest or group from attaining dangerous dominance. In his words, “the increased variety of parties comprised within the Union, increase this security.”
Why do we rightly worry that a contested election would result in far more tension and even violence than 2000’s battle between George W. Bush and Al Gore? In part because our competing sides do not trust that if they lose they will still be free and secure in the land that they love. They fear domination. They do not trust the possibility of accommodation.
I’ve been writing and speaking about national polarization and division since before the Trump election. Two years ago, I began writing a book describing our challenge, outlining how we could divide and how we can heal. The prescription isn’t easy. We have to flip the script on the present political narrative. We have to prioritize accommodation.
That means revitalizing the Bill of Rights. America’s worst sins have always included denying fundamental constitutional rights to America’s most vulnerable citizens, those without electoral power. While progress has been made, doctrines like qualified immunity leave countless citizens without recourse when they face state abuse. It alienates citizens from the state and drains confidence in the American republic.
That means diminishing presidential power. A principal reason presidential politics is so toxic is that the diminishing power of states and Congress means that every four years we elect the most powerful peacetime ruler in the history of the U.S. No one person should have so much authority over an increasingly diverse and divided nation.
The increasing stakes of each presidential election increase political tension and heighten public anxiety. Americans should not see their individual liberty or the autonomy of their churches and communities as so dependent on the identity of the President.
But beyond the political changes–more local control, less centralization–Americans need a change of heart. Defending the Bill of Rights requires commitment and effort, and it requires citizens to think of others beyond their partisan tribe. Defending the Bill of Rights means that you must fight for others to have the rights that you would like to exercise yourself. The goal is simple yet elusive. Every American–regardless of race, ethnicity, sex, religion or sexual orientation–can and should have a home in this land.
Yes, many of our founders had profound flaws. But their aspirations can still be our aspirations. In the musical Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda referred to a biblical verse that George Washington used almost 50 times in his personal and political correspondence. It comes from the Book of Micah, it’s a promise of both autonomy and peace that Washington used, for example, to include Jewish Americans within the American promise, and its words echo today–“Every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”
This appears in the September 21, 2020 issue of TIME.
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