The Supreme Court’s upcoming decision to reverse Roe v. Wade (an early draft of which was leaked May 2) doesn’t ban abortions; it leaves the issue to the states. As a result, it will put another large brick in the growing wall separating Blue and Red America.
Some say we’re on the verge of a civil war, but that’s not right. It won’t be a formal secession (we tried that once), but a kind of benign separation analogous to unhappily married people who don’t want to go through the trauma of a formal divorce. We are already quietly splitting into two Americas — one largely urban, racially and ethnically diverse, and young; the other largely rural or exurban, white, and older — each running according to different laws and with different sources of revenue.
The split is accelerating. Red ZIP codes are getting redder and blue ZIP codes, bluer. Of the nation’s total 3,143 counties, the number of super landslide counties — where a presidential candidate won at least 80% of the vote — jumped from 6% in 2004 to 22% in 2020.
Surveys show Americans find it increasingly important to live around people who share their political values. Animosity toward those in the opposing party is higher than at any time in living memory, as 42% of registered voters believe Americans in the other party are “downright evil.”
While Red states make it nearly impossible to get abortions, they’re making it easier than ever to buy guns — even easier to carry concealed guns without a permit. They’re suppressing votes. (In Florida and Texas, teams of “election police” have been created to crack down on the rare crime of voter fraud, another fallout from Trump’s Big Lie.) They’re banning the teaching of America’s history of racism. They’re requiring transgender students to use bathrooms and join sports teams that reflect their gender at birth. They’re making it harder to protest; more difficult to qualify for unemployment benefits or other forms of public assistance; and almost impossible to form labor unions. And they’re passing “bounty” laws — enforced not by governments, which can be sued in federal court, but by rewards to private citizens for filing lawsuits — on issues ranging from classroom speech to abortions to vaccinations.
After the governor of Texas ordered state agencies to investigate parents for child abuse if they provide certain medical treatments to their transgender children, California lawmakers proposed making the state a refuge for transgender youths and their families. Another California proposal would thwart enforcement of out-of-state court judgments removing children from the custody of parents who get them gender-affirming health services. California is also about to enforce a ban on ghost guns and assault weapons with a California version of Texas’ recent six-week ban on abortion, featuring $10,000 bounties to encourage lawsuits from private citizens against anyone who sells, distributes or manufactures those types of firearms.
The new separation extends even to government revenue. A little-noticed trend is toward a growing share of total government taxing and spending occurring in the states — thereby making Blue states (which are overall wealthier than Red states) more financially autonomous.
For years, the inhabitants of Blue states have been sending more tax dollars to the federal government than they get back (in the form of federal assistance to the poor, education, social services, and infrastructure), while Red states have been sending Washington fewer dollars than they receive back.
We’re also seeing more coordination among Blue states. During the pandemic, Blue states joined together on policies that Red states rejected — such as purchasing agreements for personal protective equipment, strategies for reopening businesses as COVID subsided, even on travel from other states with high levels of COVID. (At one point, New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut required travelers from states with high positivity rates — Arkansas, Florida, North and South Carolina, Texas, and Utah — to quarantine for two weeks before entering.)
We are splitting more quickly than anyone imagined. But the split raises a host of questions. For one, what will happen to the poor in Red states, who are disproportionately people of color? “States rights” was always a cover for segregation and harsh discrimination. The poor — both white and people of color — are already especially burdened by anti-abortion legislation because they can’t afford travel to a Blue state to get an abortion. They’re also hurt by the failure of Red states to expand Medicaid eligibility under the Affordable Care Act; by Red state de facto segregation in public schools; and by Red state measures to suppress votes.
One answer is for Democratic administrations and congresses in Washington to prioritize the needs of the Red state poor and make extra efforts to protect the civil and political rights of people of color in Red states. The failure of the Senate to muster enough votes to pass the Freedom to Vote Act, let alone revive the Voting Rights Act, suggests how difficult this will be.
But Blue states have a potential role here. They should spend additional resources on the needs of Red state residents, such as Oregon is now doing for people from outside Oregon who seek abortions. They should prohibit state funds from being spent in any state that bans abortions or discriminates on the basis of race, ethnicity, or gender.
Where will all this end? Not with two separate nations. What America is going through is less like a civil war and more like Brexit — a lumbering, mutual decision to go separate ways on most things but remain connected on a few big things (such as national defense, monetary policy, and civil and political rights). We’ll still be America. But we’re becoming two versions of America. The open question is analogous to the one faced by every couple that separates — how will we find ways to be civil toward each other?
Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor, is professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley.