Can This Marriage Be Saved?

By Mike Koetting June 20, 2021

In today’s political environment, there is a lot of discussion about thwarting the will of the majority or attempting to establish minority rule. This way of taking about it presumes a majority-minority scale where it is possible to determine particular spots on the spectrum. But the actual structure of American government, for better and worse, includes no such yardstick at the national level. There are a series of independent electoral processes which, historically, come enough together to form a national will in service of a shared national story. In that respect, it is more like a marriage—where two people decide to marry their way through life. Counting votes doesn’t really matter; the issue is whether there is will to proceed and flexibility to accommodate each other’s particular issues.

When the differences over the issues become too large, when every discussion turns into rancor, the will to continue wains and suitcases are packed.

Of course it’s too limiting to see the various factions in the country as two distinct persons. There are obviously all kinds of sub-divisions and internal fissures. And they do not neatly map to geographies. (In a very insightful piece, George Packer in The Atlantic maps four Americas.) But the marriage analogy may be a more useful way of seeing the electorate than along any single spectrum where change is accomplished by moving the needle a little this way or a little that way.

There are currently two salient facts about the would-be national marriage:

  • In parts of the country, the Retrumplicans in fact enjoy a majority. In federated America this will be sufficient to guarantee continued discord. Even if they are a minority nationally, the structure of American government will give them power. (Retrumplicans are a sub-species of the Republican Party who are identified by their refusal to repudiate Donald Trump’s version of the election. Virtually all can also be identified by their belief that not all voters are equal, that no principle is more important than maintaining power for themselves as the guardians of the true Christian-American culture, and the importance of the common good is primarily shaped by what helps them maintain power.)
  • It is extremely unlikely that the moral/cultural sentiments that predominate in the “Blue” states are going to peter out. While the specifics may wax and wane, unlike the Retrumplican world, demography favors these values–younger generations everywhere are more urban, multi-cultural, less religious, and unwilling to roll back the clock to the 1950’s.

There has never been a single American center. But in the past—give or take a Civil War–the factions have found ways to live with their differences, even if never reconciling them. But in the present, the differences are so deep, working together seems impossible. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to see what counseling would help.

While there has been much wailing about these national divides, it seems to me there has been less willingness to confront the reality of what it means, instead, allowing a not closely examined sentiment that somehow this will all work out. Trying to be specific about possible dynamics for, say, the next ten years is sobering.

Country Trends Blue

I think this is the most likely outcome, but is by no means certain. This doesn’t mean the country will turn into New York, Vermont or California. There would still be fracious politics but the sense that the entire Blue culture is under attack would recede and there be opportunity for some bipartianshp. For this to happen, Democrats are going to have to hold on to Senate seats in Georgia and Arizona, hold on to the House in 2022 and beyond, flip at least one other large state, and start to make real inroads in state legislatures. It is a long road.

Still, as I said above, demography favors Blue culture. Young and minorities in Red states are much less likely to be attracted to the Retrumplicans than others in those states. The change will not automatically flow into politics; it is only possible if Democrats can sustain organizing efforts at full tilt. It is like paddling a canoe upstream. Any pause and the current pushes the canoe downstream.

Country Trends Red

Less likely, but possible. Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Ohio show that simply being a northern, industrial state is no guarantee that the Retrumplicans can be kept in check. Joe Manchin will be on the ballot in 2024 and that seat could easily go Retrumplican. For all the talk of Texas, Florida or North Carolina being close to flipping, it consistently doesn’t happen.

It is also the case that not all minorities will align with Democrats. There are clearly some opportunities for Republicans to make inroads among Hispanics, although that is hard to square with Retrumplican rhetoric on immigrants.

The Retrumplicans also have structural advantages:

  • Our federated electoral process is constructed to give higher weight to votes in smaller states than in larger states. This gives Republicans a two to five point head start in federal races, which makes a huge difference when the country is so divided.
  • Many state legislatures are slanted Republican and use that advantage in drawing favorable districts and narrowing the channels of voting.
  • Republicans have stacked courts to guard against legal challenges.

Trending Red would mean the constant attempts to undercut Blue culture as were seen in the Trump administration. I don’t think we would see whole-sale authoritarianism. But If Retrumplicans retake the presidency in 2024, it will be seriously ugly, particularly if they were to retake Congress. I am not sure the country as we know it would recover in subsequent cycles. The stakes don’t get any higher.

No Change

In truth, no change will not look that much different from the above two for the next ten years. The difference will not be much more than the cultural sense of whether we are perched on the edge of a precipice, as now predominates, or we have begun to slide one way or the other.

No change would be continuation of divided government, inability to resolve the most pressing issues, every election contested, a sense of the futility of it all from both the left and right, spilling over into the kind of acrimonious demonstrations that marked the summer of 2020.

Dissolution

Maybe the marriage can’t be saved. When I considered this several years ago, I scoffed at it. I still have no idea how this could work, but it is a prospect I have started to take more seriously.

I don’t know if others are as extreme in their thinking, but it is becoming harder and harder to see what national story the Retrumplican and the Blue parts of the country have in common. Several things are pushing me toward divorce:

  • The anti-science attitude of the Retrumplicans, most immediately their willingness to skip vaccinations, is a clear and present danger to me as the Retrumplican states are an incubator for variants. Nor is this the last issue where science will suggest measures that are inconvenient. I don’t want to be in a country where portions of the country are willing to be governed by people whose political impulses sideline science, even if they can sometimes avoid specific bullets.
  • The willingness to criminalize abortion and gender-identification is dystopian abhorrent. This is so far into Big Brother territory, if this is where that part of the country wants to go, I don’t want to tolerate it as part of my country. (Of course, Retrumplicans equate critical race theory with Big Brotherism. This false equivalency is of such proportions it strengthens the argument as to why I don’t want to share a country with these people.)
  • The willingness of parts of the country to tolerate wide-ranging measures to make voting harder is wrong. The American story that we have previously shared is one of majority rule and a long-term trajectory toward making that a more inclusionary majority. A clear intent to restrict voting is a thinly disguised attempt to return to an era where majority only means the majority of a particular group. If parts of the country want to return to this practice, there is no compelling reason for us to share the same country because we no longer share the country’s first principle, all men are created equal. Why would one stay married to someone who rejects the original principles of the marriage?

Again, I have no idea what split would practically work, particularly given that the overlap between geography and Retrumplicanism is messy. But here is a final thought. I have previously thought of national dissolution as certain southern states seceding, again. But maybe Blue states should think about themselves seceding—or pushing Retrumplican states out—as a proactive measure. Remember, these states are, more or less, responding to the majority in their population. What makes the rest of us think that somehow the majority will of Blue states is going to change those states?

Perhaps it’s time to consider Paul Simon’s advice:  “Drop off the key, Lee. Make a new plan, Stan….”

Author: mkbhhw

Mike Koetting’s career has been in health care policy and administration. But it has always been on the fringes of politics. His first job out of graduate school was conducting an evaluation of the Illinois Medicaid program for the Illinois Legislative Budget Office. In the following 40 years, he has been a health care provider, a researcher, a teacher, a regulator, a consultant and a payor. The biggest part of his career was 24 years as Vice President of Planning for the University of Chicago Medical Center. He retired from there in 2008, but in 2010 was asked to implement the ACA Medicaid expansion in Illinois, which kept him busy for another 5 years.

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