As the euphoria fades, reality sets in. America remains divided geographically, with no relief from our partisan stalemate on the horizon. If we want to hold the republic together, we need to get creative.
In only five states was the outcome within a 2% range. The overwhelming majority of Americans live in places where the election wasn’t close, well over a 10% blowout in most states. At no point since the Antebellum years has our partisan divide been so entrenched and so geographically defined. This is dangerous, but the framers gave us tools to manage it.
There’s a little-noted firewall protecting Republican politicians from the consequences of their rhetoric. Embedded protections at the federal level mean red-state voters never feel the full consequences of electing idiots. No one pays for the stupidity of Republican economic policy because Congressional stalemate and the Federal bureaucracy block Republicans from creating the dystopia of their dreams.
Want to rescue America? Embrace a soft secession. Frederick the Great once explained, “defending everything defends nothing.” Stop trying to civilize the red states. Instead, embrace the progress that can be achieved at state levels. Remove the blue state welfare system that insulates rural white Republicans from the consequences of their politics. The stark geographic split in our politics is as much an opportunity as a threat. Earn progressive policy wins for blue states by offering Republicans the chance to live in the country they’re trying to create. If Democrats truly believe in the power of their policies, they should be ready to weaponize federalism.
A fault line runs beneath Republican’s regional dominance – all of their policies are wildly unpopular, even with their own voters. Whites in Nebraska and West Virginia are voting for Republicans because they promise to preserve whites’ prestige and power, even while those elected officials vote against every other priority those voters care about.
Voters in deep red states represented by hard-line GOP leaders who opposed the ACA: Utah, Idaho, Nebraska, Missouri and Oklahoma, have passed referendums to embrace the ACA’s Medicaid expansion. Florida voted for Donald Trump, and for a proposal to increase the minimum wage to $15/hour. Voters in deep red states like North Dakota and Mississippi have rejected anti-abortion “personhood” referendums. South Dakota and Montana legalized recreational marijuana. Mississippi downgraded marijuana possession penalties. Arizona passed a sizable income tax increase to pay for education.
Use federalism to exploit the disconnect between the priorities of Republican politicians and the priorities of their voters. Pass progressive policies in the House with state-level opt-out provisions. In some cases, sweeten those bills with offers Republican elected officials (and their donors) can’t refuse, but their voters will hate. Bait Republican Senators into passing them.
Pass a national $15/hour minimum wage bill. To lure Republicans into backing it, offer opt-outs that would let Republicans realize one of their most fantastic dreams, elimination of the minimum wage in their states. Republican Senators would jump at the opportunity. Bait Republican Governors or Legislatures into stripping wage protections from workers and watch what happens at election time.
Reform Medicare by allowing Americans of any age to buy into the system on an income-adjusted premium, averaging around $400/month for a family earning $80,000 a year, down to $50 for those under $30,000. It could be as simple as that. Leave private insurance alone. This would also eliminate the need for Medicaid, as the income-adjustment would simply pick up the Medicaid scale and incorporate those patients into Medicare. Pay for that (easily) with an additional 2% federal income tax on incomes over $200,000. Republicans would block this, right? Maybe not.
Offer Republicans a state-level opt out provision which grants those opt-out states the right to pass up the additional upper-income tax increase and receive all of their Medicare & Medicaid taxes as a block grant. In other words, dangle in front of them the chance to eliminate Medicare and Medicaid in their states. Would they turn that down? Hell no.
Don’t miss one of the hidden benefits in this calculus. Cutting red states off from the Medicare system would save billions of dollars in subsidies that currently flow from the much-wealthier Democratic states to poorer Republican states. Not only could Democrats finally deliver affordable, quality, universal health care to their voters, they would make the whole system cheaper.
Most importantly, Republican elected officials would finally face the consequences of their politics. What would happen to Republican politicians in Ohio when voters next door in Pennsylvania suddenly had access to cheap universal health care? What would happen to those voters when no worker in neighboring Pennsylvania was earning less than a living wage?
This policy jujitsu could work all over the issue spectrum in areas where the executive branch can’t operate without legislative approval. Legalize marijuana and include specific opt-out provisions for states (even though that’s a bit of a fiction). Pass a version of the green new deal with aggressive standards and a massive jobs package and let states opt out of it, and its jobs. Even if every red state opted out, in a short time the progress in development of green energy project elsewhere would wreck carbon extraction industries while employment shifted to renewables. Let them have the world they want.
Pass a sweeping COVID-19 response including a mask mandate, a temporary targeted lockdown, higher unemployment subsidies, contact tracing and job supports. Let red states opt out. Watch what happens when Mississippi voters don’t get their check. Pass plans to make college education and community college free and slash student debt while letting red states opt out of this dirty socialism. Place bait on that hook by offering opt-out states compromises on charter schools or some other stupid Republican priority. Adopt Biden’s impressive unemployment insurance reforms by offering Republicans an opt-out allowing them to gut their states’ unemployment insurance systems.
Would it be cruel to let red states fall behind? No, it’s democracy and it’s entirely fair. At some point it becomes a message of simple respect for democracy and the continuation of the American project. One of the reasons racist whites sit beyond the feedback loop, immunized from the consequences of their choices, is that Democrats haven’t let them experience the consequences of their choices. Let red states live in the country their leaders want to create, to the extent possible without dragging down other states.
Will consequences fail to change the minds of red state voters? Who cares, as long as the rest of the country is set free to build a future. Besides, there’s an arrogance in assuming that California’s way is the only way. It makes sense that states, and their voters, should have more freedom to set their own course where that course doesn’t undermine others.
We can hold the country together and potentially soften the impact of our political divide by granting states more rights and more consequences. Odds are, this will inspire a revolt in Baptistan as soft R voters wake up to the consequences of their choices, but perhaps it won’t. It doesn’t matter. Win where you can win. Achieve progress where it’s available, and let Republicans live in their own mess. It’s a small price to pay to avoid a second Civil War.