Nov 2, 2020

David French on Political Polarization in America and Its Impact on the 2020 Elections

Political polarization in the United States is reaching a dangerous tipping point, and more federalism might be a way to help stymie the tide.
David Beckworth Senior Research Fellow , David French

Hosted by David Beckworth of the Mercatus Center, Macro Musings is a new podcast which pulls back the curtain on the important macroeconomic issues of the past, present, and future.

David French is a senior editor of The Dispatch and has written widely on American politics. David has a new book out on the polarization in the United States titled, *Divided We Fall: America’s Secession Threat and How to Restore our Nation.* He joins Macro Musings for another special presidential election episode to discuss this book as well as what political polarization means for the election, this country, and the economy. Specifically, both Davids talk about the political geography of polarization, the national red state versus blue state dynamics, and how instituting more federalism might be the solution.

Read the full episode transcript:

Note: While transcripts are lightly edited, they are not rigorously proofed for accuracy. If you notice an error, please reach out to macromusings@mercatus.gmu.edu.

David Beckworth:  David, welcome to the show.

David French:  Thanks so much for having me.

Beckworth:  Well, it's great to have you on. I've been following your work probably since the last election. And there's several things that I appreciate about it. So I'll list them here briefly before we get into your book. Number one, like me, you're a Nashville resident. So, you hail from the south side of Nashville if I understand correctly down in Franklin. I'm way up on the north side. Is that right?

French:  Yeah, I'm down in Franklin.

Beckworth:  Yeah. Okay. I'm on the very north side, a small town called Portland getting close to the Kentucky border here.

French:  Oh, I know Portland. Yeah, absolutely.

Beckworth:  Yeah. So I used to work at Western Kentucky University, that's why I'm here now. But we both hail from Nashville. I know we're both involved in local communities based on your bio, so we have that in common. And I appreciate that about you. The other thing that I like is that we both have one foot in the red state world and another foot in the blue state world. So we work from the red state area, and then my work at least is based out of DC. And before this pandemic started, I was up there two weeks out of a month. I would always come home on the weekends and stuff. And as listeners of the podcast know, I did a lot of commuting before this pandemic. I know from reading your work, it's true for you, it provides a balanced perspective on these two worlds that you don't see if you live just in one place or the other. So I appreciate that about you.

Beckworth:  And the last thing is, in all the engagements I've seen you in, I've listened to several of your podcasts, I've listened to you with Ezra Klein several times if I recall correctly. You've been very charitable and generous in your engagement with people who have a different view than you. And I think that's great, and we can learn a lot. This podcast has been going on for about 250 episodes, almost four years. And I've had people on the show have very different views than me on economic policy issues but I find I've learned a lot from them. The key is to be charitable. So I appreciate seeing that in you and the work you've done doing that. So I'm excited to get you on because of those reasons. And moreover, I'm excited to get you on to talk about polarization. And your book, again, the title of it is *Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore our Nation.*

Beckworth:  So your book speaks to these issues. We've got this big presidential election coming on. And on your book, interestingly, you mention every election is the biggest election at that time. And this certainly seems like it, and then maybe the next one will seem even more so. But this definitely seems consequential. In fact, this podcast will come out the Monday of that election week, November 2nd, so we're kind of making this our special election issue on Macro Musings.

Beckworth:  But let's get into your book and maybe we'll go kind of into three parts. We'll take stock of where we are and how we got here in terms of polarization. Then maybe ask how close are we to a tipping point that could put us down a dangerous path. And then finally, what can we do to turn back? What's the path forward? And along the way, we'll talk about the implications for the economy as we can. So let's take stock of where we are, David, and let's begin as you do in your book, with the political geography of polarization. So is there evidence that our country is polarized geographically?

The Political Geography of Polarization

French:  Yeah. So this is one of the things that's very important, and really instrumental to the analysis of the book is that America is polarizing and dividing, but in a very particular way. I go back to 2009 in a book called *The Big Sort* by guy named Bill Bishop. And he was describing how Americans are beginning to increasingly wall themselves off in likeminded geographic enclaves. And this trend has only continued since his book. So in 2016, we had more of what are called landslide counties. In other words, these are counties where one side or the other wins by 20 points or more than we've ever had since we've been measuring the statistics. So we're beginning to wall ourselves off into geographic enclaves. These geographic enclaves aren't really even necessarily county by county, but you've got state by state, with a remarkable number of states that are super majority blue, or super majority red.

We're beginning to wall ourselves off into geographic enclaves. These geographic enclaves aren't really even necessarily county by county, but you've got state by state, with a remarkable number of states that are super majority blue, or super majority red.

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French:  So, if you track state governments, for example, about 80% of Americans, almost 80% live in what are called trifecta states, where one party controls the governor's mansion and both the upper and lower houses of the state legislature. So about 80% of Americans are essentially living under one party rule. And these geographic enclaves are often also quite geographically contiguous. So it's not as if you look at the east or the western seaboard of the United States that Oregon is red, Washington is blue, California is blue. It's a one big, contiguous huge stretch of land, it's all deep blue. And if you go into sort of the heartland and you look at the states of the Southeastern Conference, for example, plus some of the Midwest states, you have this huge wall of red. And then you go up to the northeast, and you have another big chunk of blue.

French:  And so, what's happening is we're really living, and yeah, there are swing states, but we have the big geographically contiguous likeminded segments of the country that are increasingly hostile to each other. I think that creates tensions that I highlight quite a bit in my book.

Beckworth:  Yeah, so you highlight these facts really extensively in your book. It's fascinating. And you give an example of how these differences can manifest themselves in policy. So you give the example of abortion in 2019, and I hadn't realized the scale of the differences, but you mentioned the red state areas, a number of laws were passed to varying degrees that would restrict abortions for approximately 52 million people, a big chunk of American population. While at the same time in the blue states, a number of other laws were put on the books that moved it in the other direction.

Beckworth:  So you have these huge areas that are going in different directions. They're not perfectly in sync, but they're definitely moving in the same direction and they're moving in opposite directions geographically. I found that fascinating.

French:  Yeah. I picked the abortion example because if you went back in 2018 and, there is a wave of both heartbeat bills and or bills that were sort of equivalent to heartbeat bills, like an outright abortion ban in Alabama. And it just swept through the Midwest and the southeast to this huge, again, geographically contiguous area that was essentially saying, if Roe v. Wade is overturned, this part of the country intends to be essentially abortion free by law. And how fundamentally different that was from parts of the Northeast, and of course, the West Coast. And it was an example of how cultural differences manifest themselves vary dramatically in policy differences.

French:  And those policy differences are regional as they have been in other times in American history, most notably leading up to the Civil War, leading up to the Revolutionary War. That is something that is, I would say important to my analysis, but indispensable to the analysis is that when you're talking about polarization, polarization always exists to some degree, but it gets truly dangerous when there are a number of factors that come into play, and one of them is the factor of geography.

Indispensable to the analysis is that when you're talking about polarization, polarization always exists to some degree, but it gets truly dangerous when there are a number of factors that come into play, and one of them is the factor of geography.

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Beckworth:  Okay, so we have well documented political geography and we're sorting on many issues, but one of them is geographically. What about religious geography? Is that happening too?

Religious Geography

French:  Yeah. We're sorting on every line. So we're sorting ideologically, we're sorting religiously, we're sorting culturally, and actually the pop culture that we consume. A lot of the sorting, almost all of it is also falling along the red-blue lines. So, those states that are more religious, America is becoming more secular, but it's not becoming more secular at the same rate everywhere. There are parts of the country that are a bit more secular than other parts. So if you're in Franklin, Tennessee, where I live, it's almost like you can't walk down the street without at least one mega church in your peripheral vision. Whereas if you go to parts of say California, if you go to the Bay Area, not exactly overrun with mega churches. All these regions are not the same religiously.

French:  So the red regions tend to be more religious, sometimes quite a bit more religious. The map of church attendance really does sort of map over along with the area of core American, a map along this sort of core red and blue areas. Interestingly enough, the same principle applies with TV watching, your entertainment and your sports. So, in 2016, New York Times Upshot did this analysis of who watches what and where. And it was fascinating that most popular show at the time was Game of Thrones. But the Game of Thrones watching map was the Hillary Clinton map, whereas the map for another dystopian show, Walking Dead, tended to be a red map.

French:  So you had to dystopia, Walking Dead dystopian, and Game of Thrones sort of dystopian fantasy in a way, they had very different political communities watching them. The same with sports. The NBA is much more of a blue urban sport, college football's more of a red urban and suburban and rural sport. The only one that sort of reaches everyone is the NFL and we all know the NFL is not politically contentious at all. Kidding.

Beckworth:  Right, right. Well, let me bring up something on the religious geographical front. You have a quote I want to read from page 34, and it brings up a point or an issue that I think is important for both sides to recognize in this conversation. But you say, "Keep in mind that for 10s of millions of believers, church is a cultural marker that reflects the most profound and important beliefs in their lives. A Christian or secular identity is as important to Americans as a Sunni or Shia identity is to Iraqis or Muslims." And you have drawn upon your military experience too, you touch on that in the book, and how these two groups really disliked each other, and they all had good reasons, good excuses, based on their perspective, what they had experienced.

Beckworth:  But I like this fact that you highlight this identity, and you mentioned later in the book how politics becomes our identity too, we get really wrapped up. Like I said, we're here in red state country. I feel like some people are worshiping Trump more than they are God with all their flags and paraphernalia going around. But one thing that I think is important is, I'm a religious person too, and I think it's important to recognize that even if you're not a religious person, if you're on the other side, you still have a value system. It's not as if there's some amoral value free ethics you're bringing to the table if you're not a Christian. So like Bill Maher in *Politically Incorrect,* he really bashes Christianity all the time, but he's implicitly bringing his own religion, secular progressivism to the table. It's not like you can replace Christianity with nothing, you replace it with a new set of values. And I think you highlight this, there's a really strong fervent belief in whatever your cause may be or your system of beliefs in the blue states just as much as in the red states.

French:  Yeah. In fact, what you often see is, and I've written about this before is competing fundamentalisms. There's a difference between, for example, traditionally, historically viewed differences between evangelical Christianity and fundamentalist Christianity, although those lines tend to get blurred and obliterated when we're talking in political terms instead of theological terms. But I grew up in a fundamentalist church background. There's some hallmarks of fundamentalism. An intolerance for dissent, sometimes a kind of angry zeal almost. Sometimes a very shaky commitment to liberalism, small l liberalism, classical liberalism.

French:  And so what we have seen occur I think, sometimes on the left we've seen, whatever you want to call it, the illiberal left, wokeism, etc, we have seen a kind of a rise in almost a fundamentalist style religious zeal. Highly moralistic fundamentalists, religious fundamentalists are highly moralistic. Not a lot of existential doubt going into fundamentalism. And you've sort of seen these mirror image fundamentalisms arising on the right and the left. And on the right, some of it gets tied very explicitly into Trumpism, along with the explicit religious content of fundamentalism.

French:  On the left, you see this, as I said, this wokeism that, in the critical race theory context, for example, explicitly rejects liberalism. It explicitly rejects it as sort of a system constructed by the white oppressor class. An artifact of white supremacy in many ways. And so, what you'll have is these competing zealous moral frameworks. And then you also have sort of the liberal right and the liberal left. Again, all of this is small l liberal. And they may have very strong competing political ideas about say gun rights or tax rates or abortion laws, but they're committed to the project of American liberalism.

French:  And so, what I talk about in the book is, the more that we have American politics characterized by the competing fundamentalisms squaring off as opposed to competing liberal, small "l" liberal power structures squaring off, the more dangerous our politics become.

The more that we have American politics characterized by the competing fundamentalisms squaring off as opposed to competing liberal, small 'l' liberal power structures squaring off, the more dangerous our politics become.

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Beckworth:  Absolutely. You think of the standard kind of markers of a religion. There's dogma or core beliefs, there is a passion for it, and then there's kind of enforcement of it. I mean, you see that both on the left and the right. I think of, for example, Greta Thunberg when she said, "How dare you," that was a very almost religious appeal to a view and important issue. And I'm not here to pass judgment on one view or the other, but just to bring out the fact that both sides have very strong held convictions, very strong held value systems, that is helping shape this polarization. And you do a good job in your book bringing that out.

Beckworth:  Just going back to the sports, the cultural geography, I found that fascinating too because you mentioned college football, the SEC here, I think we could argue that's also a religion for many people to hear in the south.

French:  I don't even think that's an argument. It is religious.

Beckworth:  But you mentioned that some people in the north or on the coast wouldn't be able to identify some of these SEC coaches, where down here, they're household names, making millions of dollars. That's incredibly fascinating. And then TVs and movies, I mean, these are all interesting points that kind of underscore your bigger point, this polarization that's been going on. It's pronounced and it has a huge bearing going into this election.

Beckworth:  And again, maybe I'm too young, maybe this is kind of a recency bias, but it does seem like this election is so much more polarized than anything I've had experienced previously. So that's kind of like taking stock of the fact that we are polarized. Let's talk about how did we get here. You mentioned this great sorting, you also mention in your book, the law of group polarization mean. Historically, what are the causes behind the group polarization, the great sorting that occurred?

The Causes of the Great Sorting

French:  The big sort is just kind of a natural process. We're human beings, we like to live in environments where people are like us. It's something that just happens. It's not a kind of sorting that occurred described in the book, *The Warmth of Other Suns,* where, for example, the South was so intolerable for black Americans to live in for a while that there was a mass migration into other American cities. No, what we're talking about isn't something like that. What we're talking about is just the natural thing that happens when people who have free choice choose where they want to live, and they're going to often live where they feel more comfortable. And where do we feel more comfortable? We feel more comfortable living and working around people who are like us.

French:  So that is kind of a natural thing that occurs. The problem is, and by itself, it's sort of this just neutral phenomenon. But here's what happens though, the more momentum it builds, the more you're surrounded by people of like mind, that's where this law of group polarization kicks in. And the law of group polarization says, and this is a Cass Sunstein theory from 1999. And he says, look, the study is, collecting social science data, the more people of like mind gather, the more extreme they get. So when you're around people who completely agree with you and you're talking about a political issue, you tend to become more extreme on that issue.

The more people of like mind gather, the more extreme they get. So when you're around people who completely agree with you and you're talking about a political issue, you tend to become more extreme on that issue.

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French:  So let's say you get together with half a dozen people talking about gun control and you're for gun rights, you're going to end that meeting feeling more committed to gun rights, not less committed. And sometimes there's even a cascade effect where you will go from, the entire group will become more extreme than the most extreme person at the start of the deliberations. And so, this is happening sort of at scale in the US, and I talk about in the book that we have these sort of mega clusters. And these mega clusters are places like Manhattan or Washington DC, where more than 85% or 80 to 90% of all voters in that city will select one candidate over the other, the Democrat over the Republican. And then you have this sort of mega cluster of the white evangelical church, which is now up to 81% supporting Trump.

French:  And what this does is it breeds this group think, you have these cocoons, you have these bubbles. And so if you look at old charts of American politics, you would say there's a bell curve where there's this big middle and then there's these smaller edges of extremes. But that bell curve is steadily flattening and flattening and flattening to where the extremes are getting bigger and bigger and bigger, and the middle is getting smaller and smaller and smaller. And that's the product of group polarization. So it's simple. When likeminded people gather, those individuals tend to get more extreme, and we're seeing that happen all across the US and it's driving us apart.

Beckworth: David, I want to ask about this great sorting. I mean, historically, I remember reading Charles Murray's book, *Coming Apart.* And he had these great stories about how people, someone going to Harvard in say 1950 might marry his hometown sweetheart, and they might be from different classes. But by the time you get to the present, if you go to Harvard, you marry someone from Harvard. This cycle kind of reinforces itself, so there's this sorting and these trends are hard to change, and you're creating bubbles. And he does a good job documenting how we tend to live in bubbles even if we're in a red state or blue state, it cuts both ways.

Beckworth:  I wonder though, if this trend was accelerated or it was exacerbated by the advent of the Internet. And I ask that thinking of the Gutenberg Press, when printing of books was made available to the masses. We know what happened as a result, the Protestant Reformation occurred, but also a lot of bloody wars. Information got out and people had strong disagreements. I wonder if you can draw an analogy to today, the same thing with the internet, with the opening up of silos, we get stuck in them. But just in general, the availability of information to coalesce around certain views on a much greater scale, do you think that's a part of the story?

The Role of Information in Polarization

French:  I think it's absolutely a part of the story, but it's also easy to over-read the influence of social media. I'm not positive about this but I'm pretty sure that Twitter was in its infancy in 1861, and we had no problem going at each other on the battlefield pre social media.

French:  What was interesting is we did have a very partisan press then. The media environment was extremely toxic. In MacPherson’s seminal one volume history of the Civil War called *Battle Cry of Freedom,* he does a really nice job of showing how angry the South had become at the north, in part because it was stoked into what he called this unreasoning fury by Southern media that was exaggerating the threat that Northerners posed to the South. To such an extent that some of the secession, one of the secession declarations, Texas', contains a conspiracy theory about Northerners wanting to poison Southerners. There was this sense that the Northerners wanted to incite a genocidal slave rebellion.

French:  And so you'll see this time and again in these secession documents, where it will, in addition to defending slavery, it will then accuse the north or abolitionists of trying to incite a rebellion that would be very deadly. And so, yeah, it's no question that media can exacerbate all of these things. And it has. Arguably it was the media that led us into the Spanish American War, for example. And so yeah, we do have a media problem in this country and that it is exacerbating divisions.

French:  But here's where I would say that the technology of it, it has made things worse in a unique way to our time. And that is the instant ability to nationalize the most local of disputes, or the most local of incidents. So, I go through in the book that in 1968, for example, not only did we have massive civil unrest, we had a huge campaign of political violence in this country, where there were sometimes two and three domestic terror bombings a day, politically motivated bombings a day in the United States of America. But if you're living in Montgomery, Alabama, and a mail bomb went off in Topeka, Kansas, you would never know it. It's not going to make your local papers. It wasn't big enough to make the 30 minutes of national news, which might be dedicated to several minutes on Vietnam, several minutes on the political disputes of the day or urban unrest.

So yeah, we do have a media problem in this country and that it is exacerbating divisions... The technology of it, it has made things worse in a unique way to our time. And that is the instant ability to nationalize the most local of disputes, or the most local of incidents.

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French:  But now, if a kid gets his MAGA hat knocked off in a Burger King in Des Moines, it's instantly on Twitter, it's instantly on Twitter. And so, all of these individual incidents, which in the aggregate, don't add up to the same level of violence say that we had in 1968, create a feeling of more violence, in part because we see it, and we didn't see it before. So I do think what happens is that instant accessibility of national information results in a heightened sense of dread, or a heightened sense of fear, that is sort of unique to our technology. But the role of media in creating that is absolutely not new news. It is old news.

Beckworth:  Yeah, fair point about the Civil War. The point, though, about the present is also good one. And you think of all the studies on endorphin rushes, people live for the sensational and for the latest, as you said, incident, in some remote parts of our country. Let me bring up another angle on this. So there's been a great recession back in 2008/2009. It was global, it affected a lot of people, very painful, slow recovery.

Beckworth:  And at the time, that's kind of where I was cutting my teeth in terms of thinking a lot about policy issues, there was a lot of fear about the big government bailouts, there was a lot of concern about what the Federal Reserve was doing. It was very polarizing back then as I recall. Around the world too, it wasn't just there, it was around the world, big government scale interventions, which now look kind of mild compared to where we are today. And so, that's part of the maybe economic angst. And so we had that crisis and I think that crisis kind of built upon, a lot of angst has been building as a result of globalization. I'm all free trade, but there's winners, there's losers. There's a lot of studies showing cities that lost manufacturing were more likely to vote for Trump than they did for Romney in the previous election.

Instant accessibility of national information results in a heightened sense of dread, or a heightened sense of fear, that is sort of unique to our technology.

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Beckworth:  So you have this underlying economic angst. And today, if you look around the world, you see populism, you see Brexit, you see countries like Poland and Hungary, which you might call really populous countries, somewhat religious too. How do you think all of that is playing into the polarization here? Are we a part of that or are we experiencing something uniquely different?

International Populism and Its Effects Domestically

French:  There is a populist rebellion in parts of the world. I think it's easy to over-read it in the United States of America because there isn't yet any evidence it's ever reached a majoritarian status. So, if you look at the 2016 election, obviously, Hillary Clinton won by the popular vote by a couple of million votes, almost three million votes, as I recall. And so, it was a minoritarian populist movement, but Trump sort of drew the inside straight on the Electoral College. Then 2018 rolls around and the populist movement is just walloped in favor of a blue wave that was really centered around what you would call center left candidates in suburban America.

French:  And then in 2020, if the polls are correct, we're in the middle of an election and we just passed 50, as of the moment that we're recording this, we just passed 50% of the total votes counted in the 2016 general election have already been cast in 2020 so far. That's how big the early turnout is. And so, if the polls are accurate, huge if, populism is just going to get walloped again. And so, it might look like what we end up with is that there was a populist movement in the US that never attained real public majority or public purchase. But because of quirks in the American system was able to temporarily prevail in the presidential election.

It might look like what we end up with is that there was a populist movement in the US that never attained real public majority or public purchase. But because of quirks in the American system was able to temporarily prevail in the presidential election.

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French:  That's a different story from Brexit, for example. That's a different story from Boris Johnson's rout in his most recent election. It's a story actually kind of more like some of the Western European countries where populism has built as a force but it's never been able to translate into a majority force. And so, I think that there might be some echoes there. I'm really interested to see how 2020 turns out because depending on how 2020 turns out, 2016 either looks like a harbinger of things to come or a blip on the radar screen that blipped because of American constitutional quirks.

Beckworth:  Flesh that out first a little bit. What do you mean by that? So if Trump wins, then it's not a blip?

French:  If Trump wins, it's harder to argue that it's a blip because then you've had four years of American experience with sort of the Trump populism, although it's not been exactly populism in many ways, that it has been reelected, that has been reaffirmed. Then if it's one 2016 election then I'd argue it's much more of an artifact of the deficiencies of Hillary Clinton than the virtues of populism, because populism would not have had a repeat performance, that it would have been rejected in every election since the 2016 election.

Beckworth:  Okay, fair enough. Well, let's move on to your chapter on the Civil War. And you've touched on it already. But you use it as a way to draw some lessons, some conditions that are necessary for a tipping point to occur. We don't have that tipping point yet, thankfully. But you highlight that slavery was the key issue for the Civil War, but the timing of it was tied to these unreasonable fears of the North. You mentioned the abolitionist, the John Brown case.

Beckworth:  I want to list them one through four and maybe you can comment on them. But number one is there needs to be a large and geographically contiguous region. Relatively similar or homogenous cultures. Cultures and liberties perceived to be under threat, number three. Number four is, consumed with an unreasonable fear of violence. So, those are your four conditions that could lead a country like the US that's polarized to a tipping point. So, my question to you is, where are we on that list?

The Four Tipping Point Conditions of Polarization

French:  We're at one through three. We might be a 3.1, let's say. So we do have a large geographically contiguous, culturally distinct regions of America that believe that their culture is under attack. In fact, the belief that their culture is under attack is one of the main motivating features of arguments for voting even in the 2020 election. Religious liberty is at stake, the nation is at stake. You'll hear all of these arguments that, our democracy is at stake, that sound in sort of existential terms. And so you have the first three, but we don't have the fourth, which is that real alarm about violent intent.

French:  Now, it's possible for a country to consider splitting even with one through three. I mean, we had… Scotland had a referendum on whether or not it would split from the United Kingdom without this sort of existential fear of violence. There have been votes in Canada with Quebec separatists without that kind of same dynamic. But what I'm saying is it becomes a crisis when you add that fourth dynamic. When you add that dynamic of, we fear violent action.

French:  And if you look at sort of the two secessions in American history, the 1776, secession for liberty and the 1861 secession for slavery, you see that all four of those conditions are present. For example, in the colonies, the dispute really went to the next level when the British regulars arrived in Boston. You had a Boston Massacre, you had raids to the surrounding countryside to seize arms and weapons. And it was one of those raids in fact that triggered the battle at Lexington and Concord and kicked off the Revolutionary War.

French:  And similarly, and before the secessions in 1860 and 1861, you had the John Brown raid of Harpers Ferry. That was a very amateurish attempt to incite a slave rebellion. But the South did not perceive it as some sort of… the South perceived it, especially when some people in the north sort of embraced John Brown, even if they didn't embrace those methods, then they began to perceive there was a real threat of violence. And so that took the temperature up many, many notches. Fortunately, we don't have, even though we've had much increased political violence in the last few months, it hasn't reached the tipping point level, which is not to say that it couldn't, but it just hasn't yet.

Fortunately, we don't have, even though we've had much increased political violence in the last few months, it hasn't reached the tipping point level, which is not to say that it couldn't, but it just hasn't yet.

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Beckworth:  Yeah, this is very interesting. For our listeners, you might be wondering, why are you talking at all about secession? I think it's important because there have been a number of commentators who have highlighted that this election might be a hung election, there might be a constitutional crisis, and maybe worse. So, it's useful to think through these scenarios, and in terms of what this podcast is about, think through the economic implications of those various scenarios. So that's why we have David on the show today to talk about this, even if it seems a little ominous. I think it's a useful exercise.

Beckworth:  David, why don't we talk through the fears, number three I guess, on your list for the red states and blue states. I want to be clear to our listeners here, the fears go both ways. It's just not a bunch of religious people being worrywarts. There's people in blue states who are just as equally worried and concerns that come up. So why don't you work your way down, what is the red state worry, mix number three in that list, and then the blue state worries?

Red State vs. Blue State Concerns

French:  One of the things that I did, and I don't need to sort of go through the entire story, but essentially, What I do is I have two competing narratives that are dominating left and right. And so, let me just sort of summarize both. The left looks at the GOP, and I'm going to skip around in the book a little bit. “It offers a critique that flows from racial conflict and racial divisiveness from the worst days in American history. From the left's perspective, a shrinking white Christian population steeped in historical privilege is lashing out as America becomes more racially and religiously diverse.

French:  "The very man who most denied the legitimacy of the nation's first black president now leads a coalition of voters that is at best indifferent to racial justice, and at worst, outright racist. In this narrative, these same voters are granted outsized power by the quirks of America's white supremacy stained constitutional past. Thanks to the Electoral College in the Senate, and angry minority governs from the White House and an angry minority has a hammerlock on the Senate. In states across the nation, they use temporary majorities to engineer permanent control through gerrymandering and voter suppression. Thus, even if a majority of Americans demand change, they cannot obtain it."

French:  "Even worse," and this is again the left's narrative, "the angry white minority is inflicting cruelty as policy. How could a party that envisions itself as pro-life and pro-family endorse policies that lead to mandatory family separation. And then as intolerance breed cruelty, it also brings violence. Angry at unnecessary social change and the spilling over to hate crimes, and in some cases, angry men are taking their rage into the real world and massacring worshipers in South Carolina, Pittsburgh, gunning down Latinos in an El Paso, Walmart, committing a terror attack in Charlottesville and inflicting violent hate on racial religious and sexual minorities and communities from coast to coast." Sounds pretty grim.

French:  That is the narrative that you hear. And I ran this narrative and the one I'm going to share with you from the right. I ran this by a number of very thoughtful progressives. And they said, yeah, this is it. Yeah, exactly. Exactly. And what you'll notice is a lot of those references in that narrative are real things that actually happened. There have actually been these mass murders, there's actually been a family separation policy. There's actually been voter suppression efforts. There has actually been a president who is president after winning a minority of the popular vote. The republicans haven't won a majority of the popular vote. They've only done it one time since 1988.

French:  What's the right's narrative? The right has its own. And it begins like this. "They hate us, the left, they lie about us, and they use their instruments of their power to deprive us of our rights and deprive us of our jobs and economic opportunities. The left message's is clear, conform, or lose your livelihood. Even worse, in the name of social justice and so called reproductive freedom, they have legalized killing on a mass scale. In the years since the unelected Supreme Court read a right of abortion into the Constitution, 10s of millions of innocent children have died in the womb. They are fanatics about the right to choose resisting even the most modest attempts to restrict the deadly practice."

French:  "The left tramples individual liberty in the name of tolerance, it restricts free speech in the name of justice, it limits due process. In the name of peace, it seeks to limit the fundamental human and constitutional right of self-defense. It'll use any means necessary to accomplish its goal. If you have a social media account, they'll shame and humiliate you. If you own a company, they'll impose economic punishments on states, cities and towns, even as they're happy to do business with regimes like China and Saudi Arabia. They run the university, they'll discriminate against conservative and Christian students, they'll harass people in restaurants, they'll harass people in movie theaters, they'll harass people at home."

French:  "And that anger breeds violence. And violence breeds flames in Ferguson, Baltimore, Charlotte, police officers ambushed in Dallas, Antifa beats journalists. And who can forget the angry leftist who almost changed history with an attempted massacre of Republican Congressmen on a Virginia baseball field." So again, these are events that have occurred, they have occurred. And they create a narrative about who they are. And so you have two competing narratives, one from the left and one from the right about who they are.

Beckworth:  Yeah, very interesting. And one that's really poignant now, very front and central, is the one of the blue state that is concerned about minority party ruling over them. So as you know, David, there has been plenty of talk about packing the court, expanding the number of states. It's not just Amy Coney Barrett, she's part of the reason they're talking about this. But even before then, the fact that Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump and she won the popular vote, there is talk about, why should a senator from Wyoming have as much power as someone from New York who has many, many more people they represent. So there's been this push to add states, to pack the court, to change the structure because they fear this minority ruling over them.

French:  Yeah. If I had to sum up the concerns of left and right, I would say, the right is concerned about majoritarian tyranny, and the left is concerned about minoritarian control. And so, when you talk about things like the Electoral College, about the Senate, about the Supreme Court even as the supreme court now has a supermajority of Republican appointees, that the left is really worried that it can win a majority of the votes from now until the end of time and not run the country. And in fact, that people who have a minority of the votes from now and for the foreseeable future, will run the country. That's not only unjust, it's destabilizing.

If I had to sum up the concerns of left and right, I would say, the right is concerned about majoritarian tyranny, and the left is concerned about minoritarian control.

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French:  And the right has a real concern that you'd see majorities from these very dense coastal population areas sort of dominating and domineering a minority, that's still a very significant percentage of Americans. But when that majority would have no regard for their constitutional rights, their religious liberty, their core values. And so, you have these two competing concerns. One is majoritarian tyranny, and one is minoritarian control. And that's where you get things like court packing. Well, that would be the majority if it gains power exerting its authority or adding states, which would be a majority if it gains power saying, okay, wait a minute, how can we sort of tip the balance of power to such an extent that the majority will have its way?

Beckworth:  Yeah, very interesting. And all this leads to, again, this heightened state of polarization. I want to read one sentence from the beginning of your book, you say, "At this moment in history, there's not a single important cultural, religious, political or social force that is pulling Americans together more than is pushing us apart." So you paint a very dire tone too much of your book, to be honest. It's very much like hey, folks, we're in a serious situation, this is not some light matter. It's not just about who wins the next election, it's about the future of the country itself, and serious steps need to be taken.

Beckworth:  And you outline some pretty remarkable scenarios. And I think for the sake of time, we're going to have to skip over them. But you have some amazing scenarios where California leaves because a minority rule republican president overrides their views and Congress overrides their views about gun control. Then you have a Texas scenario where it leaves the country because of concerns over reproductive rights. It's really fascinating to see this and to read it. And again, I encourage our listeners to check it out for themselves. It seems very plausible. I mean, incredibly tough questions emerge, who controls the National Guard? Could the president summon the National Guard in California to go and arrest governors who defy federal orders? Well, that's a question of who you're loyal to. It's not clear how these things would all fall out, and it could be very, very messy.

Beckworth:  So we want to avoid that, we want to avoid secession. We are a country that has been overall, I believe, a force for good for the world. In fact, you have another chapter, if the US did break up, it would open up a Pandora's box of wars elsewhere, there'd be a Pacific War probably, Japan, Taiwan, China. Israel would be unleashed in the Middle East. There'd be all kinds of other developments that we would find troubling. And so it's important to maintain our country, to keep it preserved.

Beckworth:  And you have your solution, that's what we want to get to. Some people call for more centralization, winning the fight, let my side be victorious over the other side. But you argue, if you go down that path, if you try to be the winner in this race between blue state and red state, you're ultimately going to further polarize, you're not going to convince anyone to change their mind if you get the power. And so you say we have to take a different path, and that is pluralism through increased federalism. So explain that to us. Why would federalism address these challenges we're now facing?

Federalism as a Solution to Polarization

French:  Yeah. One of my core contentions is that in an increasingly diverse country, increasing centralization is incompatible with increased diversity. So what ends up happening is you have an increasingly divided nation, increasingly diverse on virtually every possible measure of diversity. But at the same time, we have increasing power concentrated not just in the hands of the federal government, but one person in the federal government, the President of the United States.

One of my core contentions is that in an increasingly diverse country, increasing centralization is incompatible with increased diversity.

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French:  And so, what ends up happening is that, yeah, it's overblown to say that every election is the most important election of our lifetime. But what is true is that every election, we're electing the most… each succeeding election elects the most powerful peacetime government in American history. So the stakes of these elections are rising as our diversity is increasing. And our ability to engage in basic self-governance is decreasing as well.

French:  For example, I live in a very red state, you live in the same state. I've never cast a meaningful vote for president in the state of Tennessee. When I lived in deep blue America, when I lived in New York, when I lived in Massachusetts, my vote didn't matter for President. And so here you have this increasingly powerful president that I don't really get to choose. I don't have a real meaningful voice in that choice. And that's something that I think is deeply alienating and frustrating.

French:  And so, we need to give people an opportunity to create the kind of community that reflects their political values. And we're going to do that by pushing power back down to the local level as much as possible, so that hopefully, the goal would be to deescalate national politics by allowing people in different states and different communities to realize their political hopes and dreams through their own communities. That would hopefully create a dynamic that deescalates these incredibly emotional existential stakes that we try to argue are at stake in every presidential election.

Beckworth:  So you give an example in your book of what this pluralism, this increased federalism would look like. You say, for example, California could pass its own, well, they did attempt to pass their Healthy California Act, a single provider of health care. And something like that would be an example where California could try a policy that it wanted. Do you have any other examples? What would a conservatives, a red state look like in terms of increased federalism?

French:  One of the things that I point out in my article about this sort of Healthy California Act is that the reason why it would be such a revolutionary step towards federalism is because California single payer couldn't happen without waivers from the federal government that would send enormous resources back to… in other words, the money that California pours into sort of our social welfare system would be clawed back to the state of California to implement its Healthy California. That wouldn't just be something that would apply only to California, you would have the financial balance of power could shift back to the states so that the states could have a much more control over social policy, they could have much more control over welfare policy, they could have much more control over environmental policy.

We need to give people an opportunity to create the kind of community that reflects their political values. And we're going to do that by pushing power back down to the local level as much as possible, so that hopefully, the goal would be to deescalate national politics by allowing people in different states and different communities to realize their political hopes and dreams through their own communities.

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French:  Right now, the federal government is just a hoover vacuum of funds just sucking taxpayer funds up to DC. And then of course, it has the ability to go into debt and to print money in a way that states don't have that same financial flexibility. And so, this enormous financial power is a reflection of Washington's political power and breaking that sort of monopoly on that financial power or near monopoly on that financial power would create room for a lot of different policy environments state to state or region to region.

French:  I think that that would go a long way towards creating a sense that, hey, I do get to govern myself in this country, I am part of a country that invites and welcomes self-governance, as opposed to, I'm at the mercy of a president I never had a meaningful opportunity to choose and a national government that is dysfunctional on a good day, and on a bad day, it's functional in ways that I don't approve of and have no voice to change.

Beckworth:  Yeah, so you make a compelling argument that in a world or in a country where we have growing polarization, growing diversity, increased centralization is harder and harder to implement. So federalism would be a way out. And I think that's a strong argument. For me, the concern is you get into the details of how do you actually do this, particularly the finances. You give a case to California, and let me work through the numbers you threw out in the book. You said, so California, their Healthy California Act is expected to cost $400 billion.

Beckworth:  That is a lot. And they could get back maybe 200 billion that they send to DC for Medicare, Medicaid, and they could apply that to that. You're still short $200 billion. So, it seems like if you say, okay, you can do that, if Congress okays sending back the Medicaid and Medicare dollars, why not tap into other areas? The federal government also provides social security and employment insurance. It seems like you'd be opening up a Pandora's Box there, it'd be a race to the bottom. Who could get the most funds back from the federal government? And as a macro economist, that does concern me somewhat, I'll maybe explain later. But what are your thoughts on that front?

The Fiscal Impact of Increased Federalism

French:  I think that a lot of this would be limited by the will of the people. So I think if you're talking about Social Security, for example, I've never seen a lot of appetite amongst American people to disrupt that system at all. I've not seen much appetite for that. However, we are seeing appetite for different healthcare systems. We have seen appetites for different environmental policies. We have seen appetites, and those that we have seen across the country for dramatically different tax policies. So, we do have a degree of federalism in the United States, where it is different from state to state.

French:  But what I'm saying is that when it comes to those things that really begin to impact, that sort of take us to the next level of meaningful legal and political change, is very much constrained by the fact that the federal government exercises, really since the New Deal and catapulting into the war on poverty and the Great Society, it has just an outsized amount of power relative to what is necessary for it to have to govern this nation. In large part because, and one of the reasons why power accrue to it is, frankly, we had more of a sense of consensus about what are our national values and how the federal government should operate into and act within our political lives.

French:  But that is evaporating. Obamacare was passed. So the difference between, if you move from sort of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, if you move from Medicare, Medicaid, even move into Bush's Medicare expansion, time and time again, you'll see at least some level of bipartisan buy in. Which is an echo of a past that was less polarized.

French:  Well, now you don't have that. So what then ends up happening is, what we have is a situation where someone's trying to get a narrow majority, temporary narrow majority to engage in sweeping economic or political reform at the national level. And that destabilizes us, as opposed to, well, if I have a solid majority in my state, I can get the reform through that I want that impacts my life in the way that I want to impact my life. But it's going to leave the rest of the country alone. And I think that that is a different frame from looking at it.

Beckworth:  No, I agree. If the choices we break up as a nation or we go to increase federalism, that's a pretty clear answer, with all the baggage that comes with it. I just think we need to be clear. There are some benefits to being a unified country, I mean, economically, financially. I mean, the US government can borrow a whole lot more debt at cheaper rates than the country of California. There'd be a lot of issues, less fiscal space to do stuff.

Beckworth:  Also, I mean, I think here in the south, for example, some states, I'm not sure about Tennessee, but I'll pick on like Mississippi, they are a net recipient of federal tax flows. I've interacted before with people from the Rockefeller Institute I believe in New York, and they love to show the balance of payments among states. New York perennially is this net giver of federal tax funds falling from New York to the rest of the country. They actually give more out than they get in federal dollars. The same is true for California on a lower scale. There might be some real economic losses, but again, if it's choices between that and maybe breaking up, maybe that's the price one has to pay.

French:  Well, and also there's just a value in self-governance and a value in the ability to shape your own political community. The problem we have, I mean, look, if you have consensus on national consensus on issues, well, then we're already past sort of my polarization problem.

French:  If you completely lack consensus, and what you have is, think about, Obamacare is I think a really good example because Obamacare, truth be told, was not the most sweeping American social reform. It was really not. It was a Medicaid expansion, it was an adjustment of the individual insurance market in some important ways. But Medicare remained intact, the bulk of Medicaid remained intact, the bulk of America's private health insurance system remained intact. And it has resulted in more than a decade of political conflict, often an extraordinary intensity.

French:  And that was a situation where the democrats could have argued, we won in ‘08 big time, we had a filibuster proof majority in the Senate. We had a strong majority in the House. What happened, what was different was that it was enacted over the unanimous opposition of the opposition. As we move more and more towards that scenario where what you have is the winners enact[ing] their reform over the unanimous opposition of the losers, not through bipartisan compromise but just sort of the cram down, you absolutely foster and deepen polarization.

As we move more and more towards that scenario where what you have is the winners enact[ing] their reform over the unanimous opposition of the losers, not through bipartisan compromise but just sort of the cram down, you absolutely foster and deepen polarization.

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French:  At some point, you have to ask, how much is it worth it? Is the price you're paying for increased bitterness and division and animosity in this country worth the particular policy gain? That question is getting harder and harder.

Beckworth:  So the perspective is that people would be willing to give up some of the economic security in exchange for these other things they value, their freedom to live as they choose, the religious ideals, enacting policies that they think are important like single payer health care.

Beckworth:  This gets me to an interesting argument you made is that it may be that the blue states themselves who push for increased federalism, ironically because they typically would look at increased federalism and think of Jim Crow laws, states misbehaving. But it may be the blue states actually go down that path. And again, going back to current events, Amy Coney Barrett's, her successful ascension to the Supreme Court, I'm just wondering if you think that will actually be a catalyst or something like that or a series of events like that that will push blue states to embrace increased federalism?

Catalysts for Increased Federalism

French:  I don't think so right away. I think it's going to be a catalyst for further escalation politically. We're in a position where the Republicans blocked Merrick Garland. Some of them did so on the basis where, they were very careful with their words. They said, wait a minute, it's a democratic president, it's a Republican Senate. We're not going to consent. We're not going to consent. And Republicans don't have to consent to Democrats. Others went much further, and they just said flat out in an election year, you don't do this. You wait on the president, you wait on the result of the presidential election. That is flat out what you do. That was Lindsey Graham, that was Marco Rubio, that was Rob Portman, that was Ted Cruz. So you had a bunch of Republicans who said you just don't do this in election year.

French:  So then Ruth Bader Ginsburg dies, and Amy Coney Barrett, who I think will be an excellent Supreme Court justice. This is independent of her virtues, which are very considerable. She's pushed through during the election. People were voting during this whole process. And so, many of these senators just completely turned their back on what they'd said four years before. That's an escalation of American partisan politics. And so, yeah, they had the power to do it, for sure. I mean, there's nothing illegitimate about Amy Coney Barrett as a Supreme Court justice.

French:  So what are the Democrats going to do? If history is any guide, they're going to escalate themselves. And we don't know how they'll escalate. They could escalate in a time, if there are Supreme Court rulings that really infuriate Democrats, they could escalate by court packing, they could escalate by adding states. All of these things are within their constitutional power or authority to do. So they're not illegitimate but they are an escalation, and we're trapped in the cycle of escalation. I think it's most likely what will happen is at least in the near term, the Democrats will essentially hang a court packing threat over the court.

French:  I don't think if Biden wins that he'll try to ram through court packing, a very contentious unpopular initiative right away when he's got other things he wants to do that are a lot more popular. But I think they'll just hang it like the Sword of Damocles over the court. And essentially, if they say they take a big abortion case, or take a big case in another area, kind of the attitude will be, that's a nice little nine person court you got there. Shame if anything happens to. And I think they'll just hang it over the court's head.

French:  I think where you would see much more commitment to federalism isn't from court action but from executive action. Let's say Trump wins again with a popular vote minority, which is probably the way in which he'd win. And then what you'd see is a strong, strong push for some of these blue state governors to more and more actively resist what are seen as the actions of an illegitimate chief executive. And especially if he comes to power after going through a very contentious court fight or a very contentious and contested election, you would begin to see the seeds of a constitutional crisis I think.

I think where you would see much more commitment to federalism isn't from court action but from executive action.

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Beckworth:  Okay. So wait and see what happens over the next week or two, maybe even longer, if we're put on the path of increasing federalism or not. And just again, I want to circle back here, David, to economics, this is kind of an economics podcast. Again, the core of your argument is we're on this path that's not sustainable. And if we stay on it, there's a reasonable chance that the country breaks up, and that by itself would have huge negative implications for not only our economy but the global economy, it'd be the mother of all global depressions if something like that happened.

French:  Oh, it'd be terrible, and it would destabilize world peace, yeah.

Beckworth:  Yeah, world peace, the world economy. If the choice is between that and increasing federalism which shaves on the margin some of the safety nets from the federal government, which maybe shaves a few percentage points off growth, I think the answer is pretty obvious where you would want to go. So it's a very I think instructful and useful exercise to think through this path we're going down. Thank you for coming on the show today to discuss your book with us.

French:  Yeah, my pleasure. I really enjoyed it. I appreciate the opportunity.

Beckworth:  Well, our guest today has been David French. David, thanks again.

French:  Thank you.

Photo by Logan Cyrus via Getty Images

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