A Modest Proposal for Separating Blue States from Red
Dear Red-State Trump Voter,
Let’s face it, guys: We’re done.
For more than 80 years now, we—the residents of what some people like to call Blue America, but which I prefer to think of as the United States of We Pay Our Own Damn Way—have shelled out far more in federal tax monies than we took in. We have funded massive infrastructure projects in your rural counties, subsidized your schools and your power plants and your nursing homes, sent you entire industries, and simultaneously absorbed the most destitute, unskilled, and oppressed portions of your populations, white and black alike.
All of which, it turns out, only left you more bitter, white, and alt-right than ever.
Some folks here in self-supporting America like to believe that there must be a way to bring you back to your senses and to restore rational government, if not liberal ideals, sometime in the foreseeable future. Everyone seems to have an answer for how to do this. Every day another earnest little homily finds its way to me over my internet transom: “Think locally, act globally,” or “Make art and fight the power,” or the old Joe Hill standby—“Don’t mourn. Organize.”
To which I say: Don’t organize. Pack.
Not literally, of course. Not even the good people of Canada should have to stomach a mass migration of moping American liberals mumbling, “Live locally … make art.” What I mean is that it’s time for blue states and cities to effectively abandon the American national enterprise, as it is currently constituted. Call it the New Federalism. Or Virtual Secession. Or Conscious Uncoupling—though that’s already been used. Or maybe Bluexit.
Truth is, you red states just haven’t been pulling your weight. Not for, well, forever. Red states are nearly twice as dependent on the federal government as blue states. Of the twelve states that received the least federal aid in return for each tax dollar they contribute to the U.S. Treasury, ten of them voted for Hillary Clinton—and the other two were Michigan and Wisconsin, your newest recruits. By the same count, 20 of the 26 states most dependent on federal aid went to Trump.
Take Mississippi (please!), famous for being 49th or 50th in just about everything that matters. When it comes to sucking at the federal teat, the Magnolia State is the undisputed champ. More than 40 percent of Mississippi’s state revenue comes from federal funding; one-third of its GDP comes from federal spending; for every dollar it pays out in federal taxes, it takes in $4.70 in federal aid; one in five residents are on food stamps—all national highs. You people—your phrase, not mine—liked to bash Obama for turning America into what you derisively referred to as “Food Stamp Nation.” In reality, it’s more like Food Stamp Red America—something your Trump-loving congressmen will discover if and when they fulfill their vow to gut the program.
Trump’s characterization of “American carnage” in our urban centers aside, cities now generate the vast majority of America’s wealth—the cities, that is, where blue folks live. It’s true that Hillary Clinton carried just 487 counties in 2016. It’s also true that those 487 counties generate almost two-thirds of the nation’s economic activity.
More than a century ago, William Jennings Bryan—a real populist—assured angry rural citizens that if we burned down our cities, they would spring up again as if by magic, fueled by the prosperity and providence of the nation’s farmers. Today, if we were to burn down our cities, the rest of the country would likely become a wholly owned province of the People’s Republic of China.
So here’s my modest proposal:
You go your way, we go ours.
We give up. You win. From now on, we’ll treat the animating ideal on which the United States was founded—out of many, one—as dead and buried.
We give up. You win. From now on, we’ll treat the animating ideal on which the United States was founded—out of many, one—as dead and buried. Federalism, true federalism, which you have vilified for the past century, is officially over, at least in spirit. You want to organize the nation around your cherished principle of states’ rights—the idea that pretty much everything except the U.S. military and paper currency and the national anthem should be decided at the local level? Fine. We won’t formally secede, in the Civil War sense of the word. We’ll still be a part of the United States, at least on paper.
But we’ll turn our back on the federal government in every way we can, just like you’ve been urging everyone to do for years, and devote our hard-earned resources to building up our own cities and states. We’ll turn Blue America into a world-class incubator for progressive programs and policies, a laboratory for a guaranteed income and a high-speed public rail system and free public universities. We’ll focus on getting our own house in order, while yours falls into disrepair and ruin.
In short, we’ll take our arrogant, cosmopolitan, liberal-elite football—wait, make that soccer ball—and go home.
Shocking as your electoral victory felt to us in Blue America, we should have seen it coming. To paraphrase Virgil “the Turk” Sollozzo from The Godfather, the Democrats, with all due respect, had been slipping. Twenty years ago, could any organization as stone-cold crazy as the Tea Party have gotten to them? The staggering defeats that Democrats sustained, at every level of government, in the midterm elections of 1994, 2010, and 2014 have now reduced them to the largely impotent, makeshift, regional party they were from the Civil War all the way to the Great Depression.
That string of unrelenting electoral catastrophes should have tipped us off that there was something deeply, alarmingly wrong at the core of the party. Losses of that magnitude, over that period of time, are like a bright red dashboard light you’ve never noticed before that suddenly starts flashing insistently. Accompanied by a shrill beeping sound. And a voice repeating, “Warning, warning!” And a plume of smoke pouring from under your hood.
Yet the party elites drove blithely on, chatting on their cell phones about their demographic advantages and the imminent demise of the Republican Party, until the air bags had deployed, the steering wheel had come off in their hands, and the rims of their tireless wheels were grinding sparks off the curbside.
At this point, there’s no retooling this burnt-out Chevy Cruze into a vehicle still capable of going coast-to-coast.
This letter is not intended as one more postmortem on what went wrong: on how the media should have done a better job, or how Hillary Clinton was a bad, bad, terribly bad candidate, the worstest candidate that ever was. Granted, it was Clintonism as a political philosophy, as practiced not only by both Clintons but also by President Obama and many others, that put the final stake in the heart of the Democratic Party as a national entity. The Clintonist project of taking the oldest and most diverse political coalition on earth—one organized around liberal economic principles that had held it together for generations—and re-centering it around conservative economic ideas and a hodgepodge of social ideas that nobody could agree on, was probably the worst political move since the Republicans tried to pretend in 1932 that the Great Depression was already over. (WASN’T THE DEPRESSION TERRIBLE? read their billboards lining the rail tracks between New York City and Washington, D.C.) It seems clear now that only the personal integrity, wit, eloquence, and thoroughly lovable family of Barack Obama kept the Democratic Party stumbling along, gut-shot, for this long.
Throughout much of the country, particularly anywhere outside a city in your Trump States, the Democratic Party barely exists anymore—and there’s not a damned thing we can do about it, at least for the moment. It will take decades of patient work and deep investment to rebuild the party and reassert its dominance in state legislatures. Richard Mellon Scaife and the Koch brothers and ALEC and other right-wing pioneers spent years in the conservative wilderness before they were able to cement their control of the nation’s political apparatus. And the demographic shifts that Democrats so patiently—and foolishly—counted on to change everything will now be stalled and undermined at every turn. A few years of Republican border and refugee policies, and we’ll be headed back to the ever-whiter America that preceded Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 immigration reforms. The federal and state judiciaries—which, thanks to this election, Republicans will now fill with far-right ideologues—will rubber-stamp every one of the voter suppression tactics the GOP currently employs, along with any new devilry that Trump and his insurgents dream up. And once the president delivers on his campaign promise to Jerry Falwell Jr. and other evangelical leaders by making it legal for churches and other nonprofit organizations to funnel tax-deductible donations directly to political candidates, we can expect a fresh Niagara of cash to pour into our elections, one that will make Citizens United look like a dry crick during climate change.
As it stands, your empire of Trump States now extends from Brownsville, Texas, to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan; from Coeur d’Alene to Key West. Future historians, if there are any, will be amazed to learn that just eight years after President Obama’s bailout of the auto industry—against the united and adamant opposition of the Republican Party—saved Michigan, Ohio, and maybe Pennsylvania from being reduced to large, smoking holes in the ground, all three of those once-blue holdouts voted to join Trump territory. Most of our country, at least as measured by physical terrain, has adopted your worldview. Your incessant self-pity and sense of injury on behalf of white people, and white people only. Your insistence that you remain the stronghold of “traditional values,” even as you adopt the most radical of ideas, and elect the most openly irreligious and irreverent president in our history. Your penchant for flushing any and every inconvenient truth down the memory hole of your favorite media complex, run by a gaggle of foreigners and cynics up in your hated New York.
But let’s be clear: The problem isn’t that your guy won. It’s that he has made it obvious he intends to rule without any regard for the Constitution, let alone the majority of Americans who voted against him. When a sitting U.S. senator like Cory Booker can show up at Dulles Airport armed with an order from a federal judge to defend the rights of detained U.S. residents and be met with the equivalent of an airline flight attendant “buh-bye” from Customs officials, who now seem to consider themselves part of The Donald’s Praetorian Guard—well, it’s time to rethink our role in the government the president is creating in our name.
So: What are we in Blue America going to do about it? What would it mean to remove ourselves as far as possible from the federal government?
For starters, we now endorse cutting the federal income tax to the bone—maybe even doing the full Wesley Snipes and abolishing it altogether. We will raise our state and local taxes accordingly to pay for anything we might need or want. We ask nothing more from you and your federal government. Nothing for infrastructure, or housing, or the care of the poor and sick—not that you gave us much, anyway. All we want is our money, and you can keep yours, dollar for dollar.
We now endorse cutting the federal income tax to the bone. All we want is our money, and you can keep yours, dollar for dollar.
No more Obamacare? Hey, that hot mess was tricked out the way it was mostly to appease you in the first place. Since we have nearly all of the country’s leading hospitals, medical schools, and medical research institutes—and a much healthier population, one that’s happily short on automatic weapons—I’m sure we’ll come up with something better.
Go ahead, keep on voting against your own economic interests to satisfy your need to control other people’s bodies, sex lives, and recreational habits. We’ll be creating cities and states that will defend gay marriage, a woman’s right to choose, and sensible gun control against your intrusive federal judiciary.
Still think FEMA is some kind of liberal welfare scam? Poof—it’s gone! We will never again beg the people you elected to office to help us in the wake of what should have been considered national tragedies, such as September 11 and Hurricane Sandy. Meanwhile, best of luck with all those tornadoes, floods, hurricanes, forest fires, and—all new!—Oklahoma fracking-earthquakes you always seem to be having.
What’s the matter with Kansas? Who cares! This is the good thing about a divorce—the chance to get all of your crazy, deadbeat in-laws out of the house. How can we save Detroit? Hey, she’s your baby now. Didn’t you say something about the private sector, or maybe casinos, or that mortgage loans guy who owns the Cleveland Cavaliers? I’m sure that’ll work out just fine for you.
With all the extra money we’ll have, we can set up our own Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid systems once Paul Ryan manages to “privatize” them for you Trump Staters. And what city is all that privatized money likely to come to, on its way to the markets? Oh, right, New York, which you hate so much! All those extra Wall Street bonuses and dividends will really help the local economy.
What’s more, as a quick glance at the electoral map will tell you, almost all of blue-state America is now concentrated in three contiguous clusters: the East Coast from Maine down through Virginia; the West Coast, along with Nevada and Hawaii; and the Rocky Mountain zone of Colorado and New Mexico. Disastrous as this allocation is when it comes to winning our country’s fatally antiquated Electoral College (is there another republic in the world, or indeed the history of the world, where a party has won a national election by nearly three million votes and still lost everything?), it’s perfect for developing highly efficient, cutting-edge regional networks in everything from transportation to clean energy to health care.
Under the New Federalism, you won’t have to engage in political convolutions to try and reconcile your conservative ideology with your extortionate demands for yet another federal handout. Take Amtrak’s “Acela corridor,” which your commentators like to deride as the route along which we elitist liberals all supposedly live. Fact is, the Northeast Corridor is the only part of our national train system that makes an operating profit. But every year, your Trump State congressmen threaten to pull the plug on Amtrak unless it continues to guarantee daily, money-losing service to all the little towns out on the prairie, in empty, SUV-loving red states like Montana, Idaho, Nebraska, and Kansas. Then you go right back to fulminating about how much Amtrak costs. This is the legislative equivalent of Cleavon Little in Blazing Saddles holding himself hostage at gunpoint to fend off a lynch mob.
Go ahead, end your federal Amtrak subsidies. In their place, we will build fantastic, new high-speed rail systems of our own. They’ll run past our state-of-the-art wind farms, fiber-optic networks, and highways that recharge our self-driving cars as we travel. We also don’t want you to bother us about money to repair your Trump State airports since, as you always claim, we will just be flying over them anyway.
There are still a few kinks to work out, of course. What to do, for instance, about the likes of Illinois and Minnesota, blue states adrift in a red sea? Or all those individual “blue cities” trapped in red states, like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, or Cleveland and Columbus?
We’ll need to reach cooperative agreements with them to exchange goods and services as needed. They will become stops on our new information superhighways, or on our superfast rail networks, or self-driving highways. Our cool new trains and cars will glide past you all the faster, now that we don’t have to stop in between. Be sure to wave!
A much weightier problem will be ridding ourselves of the Trump States within, our own rural counties full of angry right-wing voters, convinced that their money goes to support welfare queens in the cities even as their last, visible means of support crumble away.
Considering how susceptible they are to fake news, one strategy might be to recruit those Russian hackers to create shiny new web sites extolling how wonderful things are in, say, West Virginia, or rural Arkansas. Perhaps, in a historic reversal, it’s time for a mass migration from urban North to rural South, of Trump voters flocking to Red America in search of a better life for themselves and their families.
Whether you stay or go, we’ll be reaching out around the globe to recruit the most talented, intelligent, and ambitious individuals we can find to come to our America. Actually, we already do this, thanks to institutions from Silicon Valley to the University of Chicago, MIT to Wall Street, Hollywood to Broadway. Oh, and be forewarned: We will also be coming for your best and brightest in Red America, offering them free rides at many of the finest universities and research centers in the world. But don’t worry: You’ll still dominate college football!
Your own Trump State secession from reality is likely to hurt us most in foreign policy, where reality has a way of coming back to bite you in the ass very quickly. Your avowed policies will not only fail to contain global climate change but will accelerate it irrevocably, which will be catastrophic. Under the New Federalism, our blue regions will at least be able to make their own preparations for the deluge. But separating ourselves from the rest of your dealings with the world will be more difficult.
Since you want to quit policing the world and make everyone in Europe go back to defending themselves, we could easily cut the army to, say, the 125,000 soldiers we had just before the start of World War I, along with a much reduced air force and navy. And with a president who doesn’t feel he needs to take security briefings, and who genuinely does not seem to know why we don’t just go ahead and use our nuclear missiles, I think it’s safest to say, Ix-nay on the eapons-way.
But since your Trump administration now boasts more generals than Pinochet’s junta, it’s likely that, isolationist noises aside, the White House will soon be up to its usual shenanigans around the globe.
Who can say what these might be, in light of our new president’s one-man alliances with assorted global strongmen, autocrats, and wing nuts? Blue states and cities will do our best to publicly disassociate our America-within-America from whatever new international follies you people may be persuaded to embark upon. And we will continue to take to the streets to defend the rights of immigrants and refugees and anyone else threatened by your saber rattling and isolationism. To quote St. Augustine, “When there is no justice, what is the state but a robber band enlarged?” We respectfully decline to join the Trump-Putin robber band.
I realize that this all sounds like a terribly pessimistic view of the future. It will leave behind millions of our fellow Americans most in need of the kind of assistance that only the federal government can provide—Americans whose only crime was to have the misfortune of resid-ing in a Trump State. I actually love Mississippi, an incredible place that, along with so much else, gave us Medgar Evers, William Faulkner, and Robert Johnson. I would love nothing better than to see Detroit, one of our greatest cities, restored to its former glory. But such hopes and dreams mean little now. The moment requires us to put aside, for now, the liberal ideal, which at its core was always about nurturing new shoots of enlightenment—which are as likely to spring up in a lonely farmhouse, or on a ghetto block, as at some great center of power or finance. The promise of liberalism was that we would never stop reaching out toward one another, always building and connecting, until all of America and the world was covered with diverse, democratic, and yes, brilliant societies, “the broad, sunlit uplands” that Churchill envisioned, or Dr. King’s “nation that will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed.”
Many of my fellow blue staters, of course, would prefer to persuade you to come around to our way of thinking. That is, after all, what elections are supposed to be about—instead of, say, suborning the head of the FBI, or getting foreigners to commit felonies on your behalf. It’s true that even the most dominant powers can be dissolved by the right idea, carried forward by enough people who believe in it. The national majority that Democrats enjoyed before the Civil War collapsed in the face of the demand for “Free Soil, Free Speech, Free Land, and Free Men.” The Republican landslides of the 1920s were reversed nearly overnight when they ran up against the liberal program of the New Deal.
Unfortunately, nothing like that is going to happen now. A political sea change takes place only when you can get people on the other side to come over. But you can only get them to switch if you can get them to listen to what you have to say, and you can only get them to listen if you share something resembling the same idea of objective reality. This is the bleakest new reality of all: That common ground is gone. You Trump Staters don’t read or listen to the same news sources we do. You don’t even care what a legitimate news source is, as the rise of all those fake news sites has demonstrated.
Two-thirds of you believe that unemployment rose under Obama, even though he actually cut it by more than half; just 17 percent of you acknowledge that Obamacare has driven the percentage of Americans without health insurance to a record low. Exactly what is the messaging strategy to win over those of you willing to believe that Hillary Clinton and John Podesta are running a secret child-sex-slave ring out of a Washington pizza parlor? Or that President Obama is a secret Kenyan? Or that a routine military training exercise is a UN attempt to conquer Texas? Or any of the other bizarre and inane conspiracy theories that are now promulgated daily as the gospel truth not just by a few, fringe elements but by leading members of our new government’s security apparatus?
This, sadly, is not a time for connecting or reaching out. It is a time for retrenchment and rebuilding. If we in the blue states want to make America great again, we must first demonstrate that we can make our own states into models of civic participation and economic equality.
America’s original liberal, Louis Brandeis, famously advocated for the role of the individual states as “laboratories of democracy.” And so they have proven to be, with nearly all of our great reforms first attempted on the state or local level: the abolition of slavery (Massachusetts, 1783); the right of women to vote (Wyoming Territory, 1869); the regulation of workplace safety (Illinois in the 1890s and New York in the 1910s). A ban on monopolies was written into the constitution of Texas when it was still an independent republic in 1845, and converted into one of the first state antitrust acts in 1889—a statute that checked the power of that rapacious Eastern corporation Standard Oil, and helped set off a Texas oil boom. “The Wisconsin idea,” advocated by Robert La Follette in the first decades of the twentieth century, was that public universities should devote themselves to research improving the lives of the people in the states that sponsor them. New York State’s seminal Ives-Quinn Act of 1945 banned discrimination in employment on the basis of race, creed, color, or national origin.
And so it goes, all the way down to the health care reform law in Massachusetts in 2006, which was the model for Obamacare whether Mitt Romney wants to admit it or not.
Originally, all of these great steps forward were seen as outliers, as dangerous or risky, as harebrained social experiments. All wound up transforming our nation for the better—and all are models for the hard work we must do, in countless places, and in the face of massive opposition. Every time and place in our nation’s history has known people of noble mind, with advanced ideas and dreams. This is a good thing, but it availed us nothing if they could not bring those ideas and dreams to practical application.
Brandeis himself formulated what should become the catchphrase for our own time. Appropriately unimpressed during a previous mania for a certain corrupt eastern empire, he asked: “Why visit Russia when you can go to Denmark?” Brandeis knew something about the challenges of putting liberal ideals into practice. In his time, he faced combinations of the money power and the political machines that were just as puffed up with their own arrogance and ignorance as so many of you are in the Trump States today. They would not hear him then, just as you will not hear us now. What Brandeis devised, along with Florence Kelley, a leader of the National Consumers League, was “the Brandeis Brief,” a revolutionary legal instrument that opened up the courtroom to the real world. It stressed actual social conditions and proven scientific realities over detached and absolute legal theories. Employed first to limit how many hours a day women could be forced to work in a laundry, it would eventually be used as a legal foundation for Brown v. Board of Education, along with countless other groundbreaking cases through the years. But that was the past.
It is a tragedy that so much of the work to make this a better country, and a better world, has been thrown away, leaving us all in such needless peril.
It is a tragedy that so much of the work that so many men and women toiled at for so long to make this a better country, and a better world, has been thrown away, leaving us all in such needless peril. To fall to this place, with this hollow man assuming the leadership of the world’s greatest republic, may be in itself a refutation of the greater liberal hope that sustained human progress is possible and will prevail.
But all that remains for us is to regroup, to salvage what we might, and to begin again where we can.
This is why our separation in all but name is necessary. There is only one way that we can counter all of your fantasies about what this man you have elected is, and what he—or the assorted moneyed interests, ideological fanatics, and foreign dictators he so fecklessly shields—will do for you. Since those of you in the Trump States will not listen to us, or to anything that smacks of rationality, we will have to create new facts on the ground—“alternative facts,” as you folks have taken to saying. Since you will not hear our words, we will need to convince you by our actions. We will need to run our states and our cities so well, in such an effective and enlightened manner, that we can make you understand all over again what every page of our history should already tell you. Through our own example, we must win you over, American by American, town by town, state by state, until we are once more in a position to mitigate all of the foolish, cruel, and wasteful things you are about to inflict on the rest of us, and to move forward once again, as American states united.
A Blue State Patriot
Kevin Baker is the author of America the Ingenious, and is finishing a history of New York City baseball.