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Practical Problems With Breaking Up the United States

I'm a professor of history, but my articles (like my classes) cover a range of topics, including education, politics, history, and culture.


Could the United States Break Into Separate Countries?

When Barack Obama was reelected in 2012, I heard stories about petitions being put together in certain states in support of seceding from the Union. After Donald Trump's victory, there was an effort in California to put a measure on the ballot so that Californians would have a chance to vote for independence. Needless to say, these efforts were pretty much doomed from the start.

The Argument for Secession

In the past, when I heard people calling for secession or claiming that they were going to leave the country because of an election result, I thought that this was crazy talk. Now, splitting up the country doesn't sound like an entirely bad idea. This is not just because of the surreal presidency of Donald Trump. It is also because of an ideological divide in this country that seems to grow more intense by the day. Instead of living through a perpetual state of political gridlock and engaging in the same old arguments until the end of time, why not just call this Union a failed experiment? Before this marriage of diverse peoples, states, counties, and cities gets really ugly, we may still have the chance to have a relatively peaceful divorce.

While this sounds—and, more importantly, feels—like a pretty good idea, the daunting task of carrying out this peaceful divorce makes it highly unlikely to happen.

What Would Happen If the US Split Up?

But like an unhappy spouse who once was unable to even consider the possibility of leaving the love of his or her life, I find myself thinking about the practical problems of secession rather than feeling a deep emotional connection to my country as it is. Through most of my life, I could not imagine a map of the United States looking any different than it has looked since my birth. In recent years, however, I have noticed that some of that deep emotional attachment is fading, and the main reasons I support keeping the Union together are the following (among many other) practical concerns.

The Problems of Secession

  1. National Debt. What happens to the national debt if the nation is broken apart? The United States dishes out hundreds of billions of dollars of interest payments a year to creditors, big and small, throughout our country and world. A default on that debt—in a world where US securities are considered to be the safest investment out there—would cause a global financial crisis. But if the nation were broken into two or more parts, how would the responsibility for financing this debt be distributed? What mathematical criteria would you use to divide it up? Would the Federal Reserve, the largest owner of federal securities, continue to exist and more or less function as it currently does? I would not want to be one of the people who had to deal with this kind of math.
  2. Legal Tender. The second problem is somewhat related to the first: what would happen to the dollar? If there is still any single global monetary standard, it is the dollar. So would this currency continue to exist in its current form, or would the two or more nations that used to be the United States all have their own currencies? In theory, the dollar could become like the Euro, with sovereign nations utilizing a currency that continues to be regulated by an independent entity like the Federal Reserve. But as many European nations have figured out since the financial crisis, a nation's sovereignty is severely limited if it does not control its own currency. Are Greece and other financially weak European nations truly sovereign? And if Britain can unilaterally pull out of the European Union, can other European nations pull out of the Eurozone at any time? The European experiment of limited national sovereignty could be a case study if the United States should ever choose to break up. The difference is that Europe tried going from a condition of individual sovereignty to economic (and limited political) union, whereas the United States would be going the other direction.
  3. Entitlement Programs. What would happen with entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security? Would the responsibility for meeting these obligations fall to the new nations? Would the more conservative nation (or nations) seek to eliminate these programs? Would old people throughout the current United States move to the more liberal nation (or nations) regardless of their political beliefs in order to continue having access to these benefits? (And as a side note, will these new nations put up immigration barriers?) And if there is an influx of old people (and poor people) into the more liberal places, how will these places finance this burden? Conservatives might say, of course, that the more liberal places should just eradicate these programs too, but then we will all get to see in the real world the ramifications of carrying out this libertarian fantasy. As Donald Trump and congressional Republicans have recently discovered, it is far easier to talk about eradicating government social programs than it is to face the consequences of actually doing it.
  4. The Military. What would happen with the US military? The United States has military forces, bases, and various types of treaties and obligations all over the planet. Will this all be broken up in some way? Will the new nations that used to be the United States continue to be in some sort of a military alliance in which they share the same military? Of course, as with the issue of currency, a nation would not truly be sovereign if it did not have exclusive control over its military forces. Or should the US military simply be dismantled, with bits and pieces sold off to who knows where? Much of the world may be happy to see the US military go away, although few can predict what would happen if the so-called global policeman should disappear.
  5. Where to Draw the Line. There is also a basic geography problem. If the nation were split up, it could theoretically happen along existing state, county, and/or city lines. But however you do it, you run into the simple problem that liberal and conservative Americans are not neatly distributed throughout the United States along any clear geographic lines. Yes, different areas can lean heavily one way or the other, but there are still plenty of Republicans in California and Democrats in Georgia. If anything, our country is divided more along urban / rural lines than by geographical region. It may be possible to carve up the country into six or seven rough ideological zones, but however you do it, a hell of a lot of people will feel the need to move, which leads to a serious disruption in many people's lives and...
  6. Instability and Uncertainty. There is finally the ultimate problem, particularly when it comes to economics: uncertainty. Just the prospect of the United States splitting up would most likely cause global economic chaos. There is nothing business owners like less than uncertainty, and the breakup of a global superpower like the United States would raise issues - both those I mentioned earlier and countless others - that would hurl our increasingly interconnected planet into a state of uncertainty like the modern world has never seen. It is like Brexit on crack, one thousand times over.

So maybe we Americans are stuck with one another. I can imagine the country remaining intact but giving individual states more power to resolve some of the issues that deeply divide us. If you don't like your state's stance on certain issues, then move to another state. But it will still be necessary to have one military, currency, and means of fulfilling all sorts of financial obligations.

It is important to remember that the Constitution was originally written to replace a system of government, the Articles of Confederation, which was essentially a loose coalition of states that mostly functioned like independent countries. That arrangement did not work for a host of reasons, so they drafted a government that would form a "more perfect Union." Still today, our best bet apparently is to try and somehow make this system work. And in a system built on the principles of division of power and checks and balances, compromise, as much as we might not like it, is the only option. The current arrangement is far from perfect, but it seems to beat the alternatives.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.