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America Needs a Trial Separation: Parallel States Might Be the Solution

The division of Red and Blue America need not be permanent.

Could a parallel states solution work here?

(wildpixel/Getty)

If any doubt remained, the political insanity that has engulfed the United States since Ruth Bader Ginsberg's untimely death on September 18th—who can even keep track of it all at this point?—has made clear that this Presidential election will be the most divisive in well over a century. With a steroid-addled President Trump and local law enforcement alike all but supporting a terrorist plot to kidnap and murder Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer last week (who knows what's in store next week - arresting Obama and Biden?) it's gone from hyperbole to realism to declare the possibility of whatever might pass for a Trump "victory" the greatest threat to the survival of the United States since the Civil War.

Under normal circumstances a country as divided as the United States today might separate—civilly if the two sides maintain some common ground and respect, as happened with Czechoslovakia; bloodily like Yugoslavia if ethnic and religious tensions boil over. But the Civil War and the US Constitution make divorce impossible. Even if it were, the United States is not so neatly divided racially, ethnically or politically to allow for a viable separation into two territorially contiguous nation-states. It seems that as in many long marriages weighed down by tradition, Red and Blue America are doomed to remain together however bitter, abusive and even violent their relationship. And as the terrible violence in Kenosha, Wisconsin makes clear, the abuse and violence are likely to get worse in the coming weeks and months, regardless of who is ultimately awarded the White House.

Regardless of who occupies the White House next year, the two Americas need to find a new way to “live together separately”—uniting for whatever remains of their common good while being free to develop their radically diverging national projects and identities in ways that don't step on each other's values, rights and freedoms.

Where can such a scenario be found? A decade ago I helped direct a project to reimagine the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict away from the increasingly remote possibility of a territorial solution to one based on shared and overlapping—what we termed “parallel”—sovereignties. That is, by linking the sovereignty of each “state” primarily to the individual citizen, and only secondarily to territory, the parallel state's program would enable Israelis and Palestinians to live anywhere in their common territory while maintaining citizenship within their own state. Each state would be tasked with maintaining customs, policies and laws attuned to its citizens' national and religious identities while ensuring that issues of collective concern, such as security, borders, the environment and water resources, would be addressed jointly.

Delinking the territorial and citizenship dimensions of sovereignty and no longer defining would have allowed Israelis and Palestinians to retain their national symbols, maintain a high degree of independence, yet share and care for the land over which they have long competed in ways and to a degree that was impossible under the paradigm of territorial sovereignty. But the massive imbalance in power between Israelis and Palestinians offered little incentive for Israel to make any concessions whatsoever to Palestinians.

The balance of power is far more equal in the United States, which raises the question: Could a parallel states solution work here?

The idea of parallel states might seem strange to Americans, but in fact, the United States' unique form of government is based on multiple layers of sometimes competing sovereignties at the federal, state and local levels, which have remained confusing and continued to be litigated for more than two centuries. At the same time, many powers and responsibilities overlap—often conflictually —between the Federal, state and local levels, including taxes, education, spending, police and judicial systems, healthcare, chartering corporations and various regulatory powers.

What might a feasible parallel states scenario look like? At its most basic, it would allow the United States to split into conservative and liberal “nation-states” (as California Governor Gavin Newsom likes to describe the Golden State), each with its own sets of laws governing the crucial areas that profoundly divide us, including taxes, abortion, contraceptives and health care, climate change and the environment, immigration and borders, education, civil rights, unions, public spending, guns, policing and the judicial system. Where cooperation is necessary, such as managing certain resources, harmonizing various trade regimes, collective security (military bases, flyover rights, aviation and maritime regulations, etc.), a common legal regime would be achieved through joint committees responsible to the two states' respective legislatures.

Given the vastly divergent views of Red and Blue America on most issues, is there any doubt that two “nation-states”—which already exist in practice if not in law and identity—would allow for greater coordination and harmonization within the two blocs, thus enabling more efficient and successful legislation and policymaking on each side?

As important, Red and Blue Americans would finally get to see how their visions for America play out unhindered. Republicans would have the chance to create an overtly Christian and “free market” government with the smallest possible footprint, no immigration, few regulations or protections for workers and consumers, extremely low taxes, all while attempting to maintain a massive military. Blue America could focus on achieving racial and economic equality and justice, on addressing climate change and environmental degradation, rebuilding infrastructure, providing comprehensive education and healthcare for everyone (including full reproductive services for women), developing sensible immigration and guest worker programs, and investing in a future-oriented economy and social contract.

Red and Blue citizens living as minorities in the other nation-state would not have to feel culturally and politically marginalized since they could express their identity through citizenship in the nation-state that reflects their desires and identity. Borders would remain open (albeit with certain controls for non-nationals of either state); as in the European Union, all citizens of both countries could live and work anywhere within the present 50 states. And, as has always been the case, if someone finds it too hard to live as a Red American in Blue California, or a Blue American in Red Arkansas, she or he can move to the “homeland” to which they culturally and politically belong.

Most important, the division of Red and Blue America need not be permanent. Every 10 years each state could vote on which country they want to be a part of; if a certain percentage of states switch countries it would trigger a new constitutional convention to revisit the existing system and see whether changes, or even reunification makes sense.

No matter who wins on November 3rd the United States will remain riven by fundamental divisions stemming from a two-century-old system of governance that has finally shown its age. Parallel states is merely one potential way to separate while still peacefully sharing the same territory, but it points to the possibilities and the need to think outside the box before the tinder box that is American politics today catches fire. The alternative might well be civil war.

Mark LeVine

Mark LeVine

Mark LeVine a 2020-21 Guggenheim Fellow, is Professor of History and Director of the Program in Global Middle East Studies at UC Irvine. With Amb. (ret.) Mathias Mossberg he is editor One Land, Two States: Israel and Palestine as Parallel States (UC Press, 2014).

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