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America’s impending divorce

The New York Times recently published a very insightful article pointing out the political polarization among America’s state governments. We read that a full 29 state legislatures are dominated by Republicans. Democrats control 18. The Times pointed to a specific example of Illinois and Alabama to show the extreme contrast in social policy.

In Illinois, the Democrat-dominated legislature recently declared abortion a fundamental human right. In Alabama, the Republican-controlled government voted to ban nearly every abortion. Other polar opposite decisions on drugs, gambling, and tax policy were also cited. Extrapolate this across the country and what emerges are two distinct Americas struggling to make the national marriage work. But what the Times did not say in the article is that this is nothing new.

America has always been pretty diverse on a social level— much like Europe. Some states had religious tests for those wanting to serve in local government. The right to vote was restricted on the basis of race, or sex, or property ownership or all the above. As an extreme example, slave and free states existed simultaneously for decades.

In other words, states in the early days of the Union retained great latitude to organize their communities in such a way as uniquely represented their peculiar interests, or even prejudices — except in one critical area which would later challenge the young Republic in a way not perceived when the Constitution was ratified in 1789: the national economy.

Late 18th century America pretty much looked the same to most observers. Yes, there were some marked differences between each state. But every state was similar in that they had a relatively small population, were mostly rural, and benefited from open immigration and a free-trade economic policy.

So it made perfect sense for the Framers to create a common market between the States, and a largely free-trade policy with other nations.

But as chattel slavery disappeared in the North —replaced by an industrial economy— and slavery (with its reliance on exports) expanded in the South, a tug-of-war developed in the federal government over whether the country’s economic policy would favor protectionism or laissez fare free trade.

Since the Constitution empowered Congress — and Congress alone — to rule on this issue (which actually impacted people’s pocketbook depending on where they lived), America began to divide. In 1860, this internal friction led to the bloodiest war in American history. So it’s important to note that America’s first “state divorce” was precipitated, not by slavery per se, but by two diverging economic systems vying for control of a single common market.

Following the defeat of the Confederacy, a uniform economic policy of protectionism was enacted, and the South began to industrialize. When a monument honoring Southern Commander Robert E. Lee was erected in Richmond in 1890, several Northern newspapers protested Southern “disloyalty,” but the New York Herald scoffed at such a charge, noting that the only real rivalry then existing in the country between North and South was the same “as between the East and the West. It is based on commercial prosperity, products, and money-making. [Today] we are all hunting for dollars…” [emphasis added].

Space does not allow us to go into the details of the post-Civil War history of America’s economic rise. Suffice it to say that America’s rapid industrialization, population growth, and westward expansion created unprecedented economic growth and development — which went into overdrive following the devastation that World Wars I and II caused among traditional European competitors.

With the growth of America’s influence, and the emergence of the dollar as the world’s reserve currency, America’s economic policy shifted from domestic to international. America became a global super power — and America’s industry and finance likewise jumped the border. This was good for business if you owned shares in General Electric (or its debt). Less so if you built cars for GE.

In 1970, America’s median household income, in today’s dollars, was $63,877. In 2018, it was $62,175. But that’s not all. In 1970, roughly 60% of households had a single income earner. In 2012, those numbers had flipped, and 60% of households had two earners.

This cursory glance at basic census data shows that most American households today work twice as long to achieve less income than they did nearly 50 years ago.

Of course, this economic bleed-out of American households took place when average CEO compensation rose from $1.5 million to $16.3 million.

All of these factors and more should have warned America’s political ruling class about the storm approaching. But they weren’t paying attention, and in November 2016, a hurricane hit Washington, D.C.

Donald Trump won because he tapped into the very heart of the gutted-out American landscape. He spoke to people who actually remember what it was like living in a single-earner household, and the enormous “social capital” it produced in communities with more parents (mostly mothers) able to take care of the myriad of community responsibilities now either provided by cash-strapped government agencies, or just ignored altogether.

A generation ago, people didn’t just have more money, they had a higher quality of life. More families were intact. Kids were less medicated. There wasn’t as much divorce, single parenthood, obesity, depression, chronic diseases, etc. Don’t believe me? If you’re over 40, how many pharmaceutical commercials do you remember as a kid?

The UK has experienced a mirror-image of this story. Likewise, Britain is also in the midst of a major political transition. The economic promises of the EU common market have not created a net-gain for the British economy or British society. Brexit was the UK suing the EU for a divorce.

Like the European Union, the American Union has also not achieved its stated objectives of “securing the blessings of liberty” to its people and their posterity. Simply put, America has become too big to succeed. Spread over 50 States, 3.5 million square miles of diverse landscape, and containing a population of 330,000,000 souls, how can one central government not turn into a colossal battleground between polarized extremes fighting for supremacy over an ever-stretched pie chart of budget resources?

America is the Western Hemisphere’s EU. The sooner American States realize this, the less messy the divorce will be. If people in Illinois cannot abide a society in which someone in Alabama is denied an abortion, then perhaps Illinois should start seeing other people, because, love ‘em or hate ‘em, most Alabama voters (both men and women) heavily support their state’s abortion policy — and don’t care how people in Illinois feel about it.

The trouble comes with the reality that the Constitutional wall separating a national economic policy from a state’s social policy was torn down a long time ago. America’s economic consolidation, and later globalization, led to an attempted social amalgamation using the billy club of federal power — not the “consent of the governed.”

For the American Union to survive, it must politically downsize and allow states to once again govern their own social policy. This means Illinois gets to marry gays and Alabama gets to ban abortions. The trouble is getting the political Genie back into the bottle.

As the Times article illustrates, American states are already culturally divorced. States disagree on the most fundamental of social policies. Whether it is education, or the environment, or family, or tax policy, there is no compromise. Even words like “personhood,” “justice,” “equality,” “choice,” “tolerance” or “rights” have disputed definitions.

The importance of a dominant culture is that it provides a “moral dictionary” of terms. Without this common moral dictionary, people living in a community find it hard to even have a conversation, much less find consensus on social policy. Imagine how this challenge compounds when it’s scaled up to 50 States and 330 million people? America has become a new Tower of Babel simply because people in Alabama don’t speak the same cultural language as people in Illinois.

And the danger of today’s two Americas is that the growth and scope of federal power is much greater than it was in 1789 — and far greater than the EU. Brexit may be a messy affair, but no one in Brussels is seriously advocating rolling tanks down Piccadilly Circus to stop it. But just ask Democratic presidential hopefuls in America how far they’re willing to go to stop Alabama from outlawing abortion, and their answers may shock you.

American states are headed for divorce. The only question is when it will happen, and how messy it will be.

For a marriage to be tolerable, it requires give and take from both parties. It means he gets his bowling nights and she gets her Downton Abbey. What doesn’t work is when one party gets to win 100% of the time. But that is the reality of America’s political forum today. It’s winner-take-all. There is no compromise. No middle ground.

Remember what I wrote at the outset: America’s first state divorce was caused by two diverging economic systems vying for control of a single common market. The second divorce will most likely be caused by two diverging cultures seeking control of a single “common market” of social policy.

It’s good news that more Americans are waking up to the disaster of economic globalism, which eliminates borders, destroys the middle class, rapes the environment and profanes green meadows with the exact same big box mart stores in every other community (then measures human happiness based on a nation’s GDP!).

But the question remains: when will America’s states realize that Washington has done to their social capital the same level of damage as globalism has done to their economic capital?

We may get our answer in 2020.

Jamie Carmichael is a writer in Alabama

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