Over Fourth of July weekend last summer, Florida residents turned on their televisions to see California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, slamming their state government and its conservative policies. Newsom spoke in plain, inflammatory terms: “Freedom is under attack in your state […] I urge all of you living in Florida to join the fight or join us in California.”
Newsom’s stunt seems to have fallen flat with Florida voters. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, wields more than a 10-point lead over his Democratic opponent, Charlie Christ. The message is clear — Floridians do not want Newsom’s fight.
Rising interstate tension has led many cynical pundits to warn of impending civil war, but this cataclysmic appraisal misses the mark. Jenna Bednar, a professor of public policy and political science at the University of Michigan, explains that in reality, “The states are not in conflict with one another, at least not as states. Florida has nothing particular against Massachusetts. Instead, federalism has been weaponized by politicians pursuing a partisan agenda.”
America today is not the America of 1861. The institutional differences between North and South that allowed us to descend into the Civil War have been eliminated. Florida and Massachusetts are no longer split by such a fundamental issue like slavery. The incendiary regionalism that motivated Californians and Texans to take up arms against one another has cooled.
In its place, crippling red and blue factionalism has emerged to dominate the scene. Opportunist politicians have noticed and capitalized. Bednar makes clear, however, that their “partisan games are not as threatening to the federal union as much as they exacerbate the threat to democracy by feeding polarization and the distrust of the democratic process that polarization spawns.”
Democratic and Republican governors are making headlines for radical acts of political theater, while the average American suffers. Newsom is busy with attack ads while California’s homeless population makes up one-fifth of the national number. Rather than sitting down with the Biden administration to discuss fixing illegal immigration, DeSantis threatened to send migrants to the President’s Delaware home, and the situation at the border remains a disaster.
Too much spectacle, never enough solutions. Bednar says, “At the state level … these politicians are seeking national attention, often because they have national ambitions like wanting to run for president.” Governing in the interest of the moderate majority does not make you a household name. Noisy, political messages do.
America cannot survive such intense dissonance forever. A union built upon good faith, trust and mutual respect has no place for animus and enmity.
We have seen the early consequences of our discord. The January 6 insurrection at the Capitol was only the beginning if hyper-partisan suicide is the path we choose. And there is evidence from February 2021 to suggest we already have, with 20% of Republicans and 13% of Democrats believing political violence to be justifiable.
These are large, dangerous numbers, with obvious implications. “Partisan games,” as Bednar calls them, do not remain games indefinitely. They escalate out of control quickly. While conflict in the U.S. still remains unlikely, the lesson of the Civil War and the years preceding is clear: we must reconcile now. We do not have much time, and each act of political violence makes the task harder.
Nevertheless, there is cause for hope. Fringe groups and paramilitaries may yearn for bloody societal breakdown, but most of us do not. Roughly three in 10 Americans see polarization as a top issue. The number might sound low, but only inflation and crime ranked higher on Americans’ lists.
We know who to blame for the problem, too. Dissatisfaction with Republicans and Democrats is at an all time high, with 62% of Americans now supporting the idea of a serious third party. DeSantis and Newsom can spend their time dueling for 2024 presidential bids, but the rest of us will get to work.
The American primary system leads to more fanatic candidates moving onto the general election, guaranteeing resentment among the losing party. Americans more aligned with third party candidates still often vote for one of the major party candidates because of how unlikely their first choice actually winning office is.
Nonpartisan primaries force all candidates to run in one election, giving more moderate, generally appealing candidates an advantage. In Alaska, one of few places in the U.S. to have adopted nonpartisan primaries, moderate Lisa Murkowski’s victory provides proof of the concept. Despite voting to impeach Trump, a near death sentence in many other Republican primaries, Murkowski won the primary for her seat by a significant margin. Ranked-choice voting, another system Alaska uses, allows voters to list candidates in the order they prefer them, which gives third party supporters the opportunity to voice their opinion without tossing away their ballot.
There are realistic options to bring us back from the brink. America is not beyond fixing, but we must care enough to meet the task. Cynicism by moderates allows the fate of our nation to be decided by the passions of radicals. Now is not the time for indifference and aversion, but confidence and resolve. If we view our current system as unchangeable, then our future becomes inevitable.
Jack Brady is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at email@example.com.