David French calls himself a man without a party. A self-described lifelong Republican and Christian conservative, he found himself driven from his party by its increasing ideological extremes. In the increasingly stark divide between the ends of the political spectrum, which he himself painfully experienced, French sees a threat to the continued existence of the United States as a singular country.
He introduces his book, Divided We Fall: America’s Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation, with these words. “It’s time for Americans to wake up to a fundamental reality: the continued unity of the United States of America cannot be guaranteed. At this moment in history, there is not a single important cultural, religious, political, or social force that is pulling Americans together more than it is pushing us apart. We cannot assume that a continent-sized, multi-ethnic, multi-faith democracy can remain united together, and it will not remain united if our political class cannot and will not adapt to an increasingly diverse and divided American public.”
He lays blame for increasing divisions precisely at the feet of that class. “The people who actually drive American politics and policy are committed to escalation, and as they escalate, they drive their committed followers to ever-greater frenzies.” “ . . . cultural and economic incentives align to time and time again grant the most fame and fortune to those who stoke the most rage.”
In a nation too diverse to function any other way than as a pluralist order, the drive for domination puts unity at risk. Writes French, “ . . . the quest for moral, cultural, and political domination by either side of our national divide risks splitting the nation into two (or three or four).”
French himself became a target, and a meme, for his advocacy of civility and traditional liberalism in the sense of respect for civil liberties, when New York Post op-ed editor Sohrab Ahmari published an essay, “Against David French-ism” that went viral. French says Ahmari typifies exactly what he warned against when the latter argued that politics was moving into a state of “war and enmity” so civility and decency toward political opponents were “second-order values.”
Writes French, “The path of ‘David French-ism” was allegedly retreat and defeat. Ahmari’s goal, by contrast, was to ‘fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good’ . . . Ahmari and many of his allies on the right seek to sweep past pluralism and create (and impose) a new political and moral order, one designed according to their specific moral values – and to the extent that individual liberty conflicts with the ‘common good’ or ‘Highest Good,’ it must be swept away.”
That kind of “quest for domination is dangerous . . . Our nation’s angriest culture warriors need to know the cost of their conflict. As they seek to crush their political and cultural enemies, they may destroy the nation they seek to rule.”
French and his family personally experienced the bite of increasing partisan bile when in 2015 he began to publicly criticize Donald Trump. That opened him and his family up to attacks by on-line alt-right white nationalists. Pictures of his adopted Ethiopian daughter were used to imply he was a “cuck,” that his daughter was the product of a liaison between his wife and a Black man. His wife’s blog was deluged with racially charged messages.
“By the midpoint of the Trump presidency, left and right were locked in a culture war so intense that even basic virtues like civility and decency were scorned.”
Information cascades and polarization
French tracks this intensification to information cascades that cause rapid movements in group opinion driven by peer pressure. If a threat is perceived, and it begins to spread, the belief takes on the character of a “rivulet (which) ends up as a flood,” quoting University of Chicago law professor Cass Sunstein’s work on dynamics of group polarization. French also points to Pew Research Center polling from 1994 to 2017 revealing the political center declining while people move to the extremes. He correlates this with the increasing number of landslide counties, where one party beats the other by at least 20%. The 60% of the U.S. population who lived in landslide counties in the 2016 election, a record to that date, compared to 38% in 1992.
“When like-minded people gather, they tend to grow more extreme . . . the left moves left, and the right moves right. We are moving away from each other at increasing speed.”
That causes people to believe their own culture is under threat, a condition which preceded the Civil War of the 1860s, French notes.
As a conservative, French sees pressure from the left for LGBTQ and reproductive rights – he is an ardent pro-lifer – as threats to religious freedom. A lawyer, he has filed suits against universities he sees impinging on the rights of Christian groups on campus. He notes that the left sees similar threats in legal attacks by the Trump Administration on California sanctuary cities protecting immigrants, and understands there are sharply different views on gun rights and sexual preference.
French acknowledges that “citizens living behind the blue wall . . . perceive the proliferation of guns in private hands as a threat to the health and welfare of their communities. They believe that the enforcement of religious liberty laws (especially when applied to schools and businesses) closes off opportunities to LGBT citizens and brings back the terrible memory of Jim Crow.”
One might deeply disagree with French on his positions, and at the same time acknowledge that he is trying to practice what he preaches in trying to put himself in the other side’s shoes. In other words, he is respecting there are sharply different views without demonizing his opponents.
A substantial chunk of the book is given to scenarios in which a culturally diverging U.S. actually does break apart. A California ban on private ownership of most guns after a terrible mass school shooting is overturned by the Supreme Court. California opts to nullify the decision, leading to Calexit, a secession joined by Oregon and Washington to create a Pacific Republic. On the other end, a Democratic Party landslide sets up the conditions for a law repealing the effects of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade (which had not happened when the book was written), while packing the court with progressive judges. This leads to a Texas secession joined by other southern states. In both cases, the break-up happens without violence. Though in the latter, B-52 crews carrying nuclear weapons defect to Texas.
The scenarios are entertaining. If in aspects they seem unlikely, they do illustrate how the imposition of a dominant order by one or the other side leads to a national split. Indicatively, both involve Supreme Court decisions. It is my gut feeling that if the U.S. does break apart, officially or simply in a de facto sense, it will be connected to some decision by the Supreme Court. The recent decision by a federal judge in Texas banning morning-after pills sets up a potential example. That arguably the justice with the deepest opposition to reproductive rights, Samuel Alito, has stayed enforcement of the order until the high court hears the case shows even he understands the potential dangers.
“Healthy federalism” and human rights
French’s prescription for averting national break-up is a “healthy federalism” that guarantees Americans basic rights, while customizing public policy to conditions in each state. “Under healthy federalism, Americans would enjoy guaranteed civil liberties that didn’t waver or vary from state to state and they would enjoy a much greater degree of local control.” “ . . . let California be California and Tennessee be Tennessee.”
Writes French, “ . . . a citizen of a pluralistic, liberal government . . . should defend the rights of communities and associations to govern themselves according to their values and beliefs – as long as they don’t violate the fundamental rights of their dissenting members.”
Here is where French’s path forward appears more like threading a needle through an impossibly small eye. What are basic human rights? Do they include reproductive rights? French would say no. Do they include bans on discrimination against transgender individuals? Contrary to laws Tennessee has recently passed? The right of children to attend school without fearing death at the hands of a crazy with an AR-15? From a progressive point of view, and that is where I place myself, I find it hard to not consider these fundamental rights. Yet I must acknowledge there are many whose cultural and religious views are contrary, and who hold gun ownership as a protection against government overreach. Divisions are so great, I might lose people just for this acknowledgement.
In reality, rights imposed from the center are inherently weak unless they have a grounded social and cultural base. In a way, the institution of reproductive rights on a national scale by the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision short circuited a growing grassroots effort to win them on a state-by-state basis. Even before the recent overturning, many states had squeezed abortion access to a minimum. Now, with no federal protection in place, the battle has returned to the states, winning victories in states as diverse as Kansas and Michigan. Basic human rights are better insured from the ground up than by a distant central power, though in some cases, the latter is necessary.
French himself sees his healthy federalism proposal as unlikely in the short run. “The drive for domination is still too strong, and the hopes for domination too high, but the probability for an impasse is too overwhelming for the hopes of domination to endure forever.”
He provides an intriguing idea for a novel state experiment in federalism. Though he supports the choices provided by private health insurance, he poses the idea of California adopting a single-payer health care system as an example of “letting California be California.”
“ . . . America desperately needs to decentralize government authority and deescalate national politics,” French writes. Americans must “reembrace local control” or the union will start to fracture.
In his conclusion, French turns it back on political class elements which thrive on hatred of the other. “Kindness is perceived as weakness. Decency is treated as if it’s cowardice. Acts of grace are an unthinkable concession to evil.”
“You can be despised for showing mercy and scorned for your humility . . . We hope and pray that the cry for a better way comes before our national bonds are irretrievably broken . . . one thing is certain – we cannot presume our national unity will last.”
To a call for kindness and humility in our political relations, one can only say amen. I agree with French, if we say together as a nation, that is what it will take.
This first appeared in The Raven.