On the Red (Brown) and the Blue: Against “Left” Secessionism

Image of a socialism t-shirt.

Image by Patrick Perkins.

What the Hell is going on with Red State versus Blue State America – and how should we think about and what we should do about that division?

I hear a fair bit these days from left-identified people and progressives to the effect that they’d be happy with the country “breaking up” in two with the terrible right wing red states becoming their own country and the better blue states left to become, I don’t know, some kind of quasi-Northern European social democracy or something along those lines, I love to mess with progressives when they start up with this narrative. I ask them “so who gets the military and the nuclear weapons? How do you propose to manage this great divorce within the world’s leading imperial aggressor state?”

“What happens in the world system and in terms of foreign policy when the US breaks apart? Do you really see military command atop the giant US Empire sanctioning partition?”

“How does the geography work? You’ve got blue states on both the east and the west coast” and mostly red states in between and across the South though of course you’ve got a big blue state, Illinois, right in the middle and a fair bit of blue and purple in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. And then there’s the nation’s capital Washington DC, which is bright blue. And, oh, the territories including Puerto Rico. Your blue nation in particular does not geographically cohere. How do you propose to handle blue trade and travel protocols across red lines and air space?”

And then there’s a few big moral questions: just how much bloodshed do leftish partition fetishists imagine secession and separation involving in this armed madhouse, where there are 125 firearms for every 100 persons? How’d that last secession go – the one between 1861 and 1865, which took place before tanks, military assault rifles, drones, precision guided missiles, and nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. (By the way: don’t get me wrong: an imaginary Paul Street of 1861 enlists in the Union Army and tries to kill as many southern slavery defenders as humanly possible. In fact, this imaginary character might have been with John Brown at Harper’s Ferry.)

At the same time, while my left secessionist friends imagine a new blue nation becoming some kind of Denmark or Norway, the red nation they propose to help birth through separation would I imagine be some kind of Christian white nationalist neofascist state from Hell: Texas, Florida, Tennessee, and Alabama on steroids. How long before that new nation full of angry white folks stuck in an ever more overheated and drought- and storm-plagued territories would invade somebody, either the supposed New Denmark Blue America or Mexico or whoever.

And oh by the way, what would life be like for the many millions of decent people and racial and ethnic minorities and women and gay and LGBT people stuck behind the lines of the imagined new arch revanchist and authoritarian red Amerika? I mean, seriously?

“Oh,” the leftish blue partitionists tell me, “there will be a grace period for people to choose which nation they want to inhabit.” Gee, that’s nice, except millions of poor and otherwise disadvantaged red state folks won’t be able to afford moving and giving up homes and jobs and lives in their red state homes. Many folks, let’s be honest, will have no idea what the Hell is going on. And the new red nation would surely not permit itself to lose all its disadvantaged workforce to an adjacent social democracy. The new Hellish Red America would make up labor losses by recruiting and exploiting the Hell out of, perhaps even enslaving Latin American and other migrant workers from the ecologically and politically collapsing periphery of the world capitalist system.

And by the way, how true is it really that the new geographically non-contiguous imaginary Blue Nation would be some kind of noble champion of social democracy and justice? Are you sure about that my lefty friends? Have you been to New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Los Angeles, and my home city of Chicago lately? Please check out my book Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis. These and other big cities and metro areas that provide the political ballast for the blue state’s blue designation are giant monuments to savage race-class segregation and inequality, to urban and racist militarized policing, to racist mass incarceration, to brutal gentrification, to soulless neoliberal global capitalism.

At the same time, it bears consideration that the blue states are chock full of red, perhaps I should say brown for brownshirt, territory. They are loaded outside their metro areas with Trumpists and Christian white nationalists who are not especially interested in living in Alabama or Texas. When I ride a bus or train or drive from blue Chicago and Illinois to red Iowa most of my trip passes through rural and small-town Illinois territory that is every bit as revanchist and xenophobic and patriarchal and evangelical and basically fascist as any rural county in Iowa or Wisconsin. All across the middle and southern parts of Illinois there’s plenty of state prisons where reactionary and sadistic white prison guards and wardens torment and torture Black folks sent down there in chains from the West and South Sides of Chicago as well from the ghettoes of Rockford, Rock Island, the south and west Chicago suburbs, from Peoria and East St. Louis.

At the same time, when I arrive in Iowa City, home to the university of Iowa, a town currently loaded up with LGBT flags and yard signs saying “We love our transgendered youth,” I’m in a jurisdiction that is every bit as liberal if not more liberal and blue than any part of Chicago. Iowa City is certainly every bit as progressive as if not more progressive than my supposedly super-integrated boyhood Chicago neighborhood Hyde Park, home to the viciously neoliberal and elitist University of Chicago.

All of which relates to a key point: the real divide between Red and Blue America isn’t just or even mainly between states. It’s between predominantly white and rural America on one hand and racially diverse and multi-cultural metropolitan America on the other hand – and also to some related degree between college-educated and non-college-educated America. What most makes blue states blue is the relatively high proportion of their total populations living in and around big cities, that is, in capitalist metro areas whose racial and ethnic diversity combines with the presence of an educated professional class to militate against full fascisation. What makes red states red is two things: the relatively high percentage of their populations living in predominantly white rural and small-town areas and their related success in gerrymandering their state legislative and Congressional districts and in suppressing minority and Democratic votes in such a way as to keep the Republi-fascist party in power in their state-level jurisdictions. The gerrymandering and voter suppression are critical to understanding how red states stay red even with large and often growing urban and college town populations… like in Texas with Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and Austin or Tennessee with Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville, Jackson, and Chattanooga. (Perhaps I should mention a third thing: the more complete destruction and marginalization of organized labor in these states, where laws and employer practices are savagely anti-union.)

There’s a lot of red in the blue and plenty of blue in the red. Meanwhile, just as gerrymandering and voter suppression inflate the power of the most revanchist and rural regions within red state governments, so does the distinctive power of states’ rights and other related aspects of the US constitutional-institutional set up drastically inflate the power of the nation’s most reactionary interior regions within the national government, in a time when a significantly increased share of the country’s population has been penned up in absurdly under-represented regions on the two coasts. Here I am of course referring to the Monty Python-esque Electoral College, the absurd power and malapportionment (two Senators to each state regardless of wildly divergent state population sizes) of the US Senate, and the lifetime appointment of Supreme Court justices by the undemocratically elected and apportioned presidency and Senate.

The notion of it all sorting out into two different North American nations strikes me as both fantastic and dangerous for the reasons given above. I’d suggest something else over secession fantasies in a time when capitalist-imperialist America both red and blue is leading humanity over an ecological cliff and on a path to nuclear war. My alternative recommendation is people rising up across red-blue lines both within and between states to fight for something different and truly radical like the Revolutionary Communist Party’s proposed new socialist republic of North America – a charter that would dispense with the reactionary absurdities of the United States’ archaic 18th Century slaveowners’ Constitution, including the lethal over-representation it grants to the most fascist parts of a nation that seems ever more likely to dispense with the last accoutrements of previously normative bourgeois democracy in coming years. Leftish blue secession fantasies increasingly strike me as yet another convenient way for “the left” such as it is to avoid the duty of actual red revolution.

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).