Welcome to Political Confessional, a column about the views that Americans are scared to share with their friends and neighbors. In an increasingly polarized political climate, adherence to party or ideological orthodoxy on the issues of the day seems de rigueur. Social media serves only to amplify that perception at times. But Americans’ political views are often idiosyncratic and sometimes offensive, and they rarely adhere neatly to any particular party line. In this column, we want to dig into Americans’ messy opinions on politics, morality and social mores. We hope that this exercise gives readers a glimpse into the minds of those with whom they might disagree — or agree! If you have a political belief that you’re willing to share with us, fill out this form — we might get in touch.
This week we talked to Chris, a 35-year-old white man from rural Pennsylvania. Chris wrote in that he thought, “the U.S. should have a velvet divorce,” a reference to the peaceful dissolution of Czechoslovakia — now the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic — in 1993. Chris went on: “I live in heavy Trump country but know he’s an idiot, but even Trump haters wouldn’t agree to break up the U.S. And certain areas (the South, the Midwest) would be horrible for minorities and destroy the environment. But it’s obvious the U.S. has run its course.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Clare Malone: Maybe you can start out by telling me how you came to think this?
Chris: I’ve always been a history buff, and it always seems that these large powers rise and fall. They usually get too big and they drink their own Kool-Aid a little bit too much. I feel like we’ve reached that point. I feel like the U.S. peaked in the ’90s, and I would definitely say that 9/11 is what spurred it on, because I feel like you don’t get to Trump without 9/11.
The U.S. has always been, I would say, on the right side of the bell curve when it comes to jingoism — a little bit more patriotic than most countries. But it hasn’t been overly oppressive or debilitating, it was just one of those qualities that could describe the U.S. And I feel like 9/11 exacerbated those qualities.
I feel like it’s gotten to the point where the U.S. is too big to fail. And when something’s too big to fail, people stop working hard to make it work because they think it can’t fail.
CM: But you’ve also gone one step further, saying, “we need entirely separate countries.” I’m curious what took you over the hump there.
Chris: I’ve sort of felt this way since George W. Bush. We’re so polarized that the federal government doesn’t really work. If it’s not working, then you might as well break it up before the point where the break is so bad that you end up with, say, a second Civil War, which I don’t think would happen. But if you can alleviate the pressure earlier by saying, “This isn’t working, let’s break it up,” states could join together and form their own countries, and I think it would actually help in the sense that they would have to work together to keep economic prosperity going.
CM: So what kind of new countries do you see forming from the states?
Chris: Obviously, there would be blue and red states [forming countries] and the swing states would have to decide how they wanted to merge together. New England’s states would be obvious to form a new country together. Then maybe there would be a country of New York, Pennsylvania, all the way down to Virginia. Then the Carolinas through Georgia and Florida would form another one. Texas and California could probably form their own countries, maybe even Florida. Louisiana might latch on to Texas simply because if something bad happened with New Orleans they would need the help.
CM: You’re basically making the argument that we should have geographically smaller countries because we’ve gotten too big to make things work?
Chris: Yeah. America’s always contained multitudes, like Walt Whitman said, that contradict each other, but it’s almost gotten to the point where there’s no way to build bridges. People like to light them on fire. There’s really no empathy toward each other, and you need that to build bridges.
CM: I’m sensing that maybe something about the place where you live or your experience has led you in this direction.
Chris: Yeah. I grew up here, but I went to college away from here. I recently went to a fair. When I was a kid you saw maybe a Second Amendment T-shirt, but they were largely selling pop culture T-shirts — the Simpsons, that type of thing. We recently took the kids back to the fair, and all the vendors’ shirts are predominantly the Second Amendment and Trump.
This area has always leaned right. You always saw a lot of Bush/Cheney bumper stickers., McCain/Palin/Romney — they didn’t play as big, but people definitely voted for them because it was their party. It’s definitely become a cult of personality with Trump.
CM: Do you feel like it affects you interpersonally day-to-day?
Chris: It’s kind of weird because everyone just assumes that people think like you do because of where you live. So I keep my cards pretty close to the vest. I keep it quiet because people tell you what they really think.
CM: Do you have an example of that?
Chris: There’s a lot of moderate racism that, if they were talking to someone they didn’t consider part of their tribe, they would word differently. Like, there’s a certain word they have for Martin Luther King Day. Not everybody says it, but more than you’d think.
CM: What is it?
Chris: It’s the N-word. N-Day is kinda what they say. Even the people who don’t say it chuckle at it. Even if saying it is a bridge too far, they enjoy someone saying it. A lot of it comes down to the fact that there are next to no minorities around here. The excuse when I was in high school was, “Well, they say it to each other, so we should be able to say it.”
CM: How do you handle that when it happens in front of you. Do you try to avoid those situations?
Chris: It’s largely older people, so you sort of just shrug it off because they’re from a different generation and set in their ways. There’s no point in arguing; there’s no point. And it’s difficult when you’re the minority in a situation to argue back. You’re not going to change any minds.
CM: Have you talked to anyone about your idea of breaking the U.S. up into different countries?
Chris: I haven’t been as straightforward. I’ve said things like, you know this is only going to lead to one solution — after all, Texas discussed secession when Obama was elected. I think if Republicans keep winning elections with a minority vote, we’ll see states like California discuss this.
CM: I know what you mean, but that still sounds like a pretty radical thing.
Chris: The idea of the U.S. having its own government was a radical solution. It’s always radical until it happens. I’m sure the Roman Empire at its height never thought they would break apart the way they did. I’m sure the British Empire in the 1700s and 1800s always thought they would have a toehold in different parts of the world. When you think like that, that’s when things start to crumble away. And I feel like the crumbling started with 9/11. If Osama bin Laden were alive, he’d be happy to see what was happening in the U.S. right now.
CM: You said that this could adversely affect minorities in certain regions. I’m curious if you think that this would be an abdication of moral duty if some people were left worse off.
Chris: I think you’re always taught when you’re younger that the U.S. is the good guy. But if you look through history and how we’ve developed, it’s been the good guy to some people and the bad guy to others. It’s a moral country when it benefits us.
CM: But, for instance, black people in the Deep South — they might be worse off, right?
Chris: They would be, yes. The best way to do it would be to self-sort a little bit, allow people to move to where they feel less threatened. I feel bad about it, but I feel like it’s going to happen one way or the other. Maybe if we can control the process a little it won’t be quite as bad.
CM: In how many years do you think your crazy idea for breaking the U.S. into different countries will be taken seriously as a mainstream idea?
Chris: I think it would depend on how elections go. If Trump wins reelection, it might be within 10 years. If Democrats win and Trumpism dies off and Republicans maybe try to build a bigger tent and try to win with more votes rather than with voter suppression, I think it could be staved off.
I’ve thought this since college and it’s not necessarily something that I want to see happen, but it’s kind of like the Old River Control system on the Mississippi River. It’s a control system — it keeps the Mississippi’s waters going down the Mississippi instead of going down the Atchafalaya River. But the river wants to go down the Atchafalaya, and the more they keep it from trying to do what it wants to do, the more pressure it puts on the Old River Control system. Eventually, it is going to go down the Atchafalaya. They can either slowly do it over the course of 20 to 30 years, and they can allow people to move their houses that are going to be underwater. Or they can just let it burst and watch the end of the Atchafalaya at Morgan City, Louisiana, be completely flooded and watch the Mississippi from about Baton Rouge on down completely dry up. So, the longer they put it off, the worse it’s going to be, and that’s how I feel about this. The longer we take the U.S. for granted and it’s too big to fail, the worse the failure.