This year, Presidents Day was punctuated by a disheartening declaration.
“We need a national divorce,” said Georgia Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene in a Twitter post that garnered nearly 35 million views. “We need to separate by red states and blue states and shrink the federal government. Everyone I talk to says this.”
The statement from the controversial congresswoman came on the day the nation celebrates the president who inaugurated the union and the one who refused to let it break apart, and earned Greene rebukes from two Utah politicians, Gov. Spencer Cox and GOP Sen. Mitt Romney.
“This rhetoric is destructive and wrong and — honestly — evil,” Cox said in response to Greene’s post. “We don’t need a divorce, we need marriage counseling.”
Romney referred to Greene’s statements as “insanity.”
This is not the first time Greene has taken to Twitter to promote what some see as the normalization of sedition and others see as a return to the Founders’ federalist vision, nor is hers a view relegated to just a few on the political extremes.
In recent years talk of secession has appeared more frequently on the left — with top Democratic operatives exploring the idea during Donald Trump’s presidency — and the right, with prominent conservative talk show hosts floating the idea on air.
While recent surveys suggest that a large percentage of Americans are open to some version of a national divorce, experts say the idea is no cure-all for the country’s problems, though it may encourage productive discussions about the relationship between states and the federal government.
What is a national divorce?
The idea of a national divorce can mean at least two things, according to Ryan Griffiths, a political science professor at Syracuse University who specializes in the study of secession and state sovereignty.
The first interpretation of a national divorce is “sovereign secession,” when a portion of a country breaks away and declares independence. “That’s a very difficult path that I think people throw out for rhetorical purposes,” Griffiths said in an interview with Deseret News. “It’s very rare to have a peaceful divorce.”
The second interpretation would involve Washington, D.C., shifting power to the states and possibly a “reshuffling” of state borders “to align the interests of groups in those regions with other like-minded groups,” Griffiths said.
And it’s this second view that is most likely held by Greene and the majority of those who suggest the need for a national divorce, says Chuck DeVore, the chief national initiatives officer at Texas Public Policy Foundation and author of “The Crisis of the House Never United — A Novel of Early America.”
“When people refer to a national divorce, in that context, what they’re referring to is that there’s no room anymore for meaningful local or state level adjustments,” DeVore said. “Instead we increasingly have a very powerful national government that will tell you what to do, and often the person doing the telling isn’t even elected.”
The day after her Presidents Day tweet, Greene clarified her position, saying that she was not calling for civil war but rather for “a legal agreement to separate our ideological and political disagreements by states while maintaining our legal union.”
In a long Twitter thread, Greene said that most federal programs should be abolished, that states should have complete control over education, economic regulations and election laws, and that the Department of Defense should be limited to protecting the border.
DeVore said these desires are well-founded and fit into a long history of American political thought. But, he said, there is a “very vocal minority” who literally advocate for a region of the country “divorcing” itself from the rest.
“I would argue that they haven’t fully thought through the implications of doing something like that,” DeVore said.
Not a simple solution
The list of implications of a full-fledged national divorce is a long one.
If the U.S. were to undergo some sort of division there would be no clear way of determining how the nation’s nuclear arsenal, military personnel, debt, and international treaties and obligations would be split up, Griffiths said.
There’s also no obvious means of identifying which regions of the country would want to join together, Griffiths said. Despite a plethora of proposed maps that divide the country into red and blue halves, even the bluest states, like California and New York, contain millions of Republican voters.
“You’d have to go through an incredible unmixing or sorting process before you could actually concentrate those groups,” Griffiths said.
Some have also pointed out that a national divorce could be harmful for many red states who receive more back from the federal government than their residents pay in through taxes.
In addition to these complicating factors, Griffiths said he just doesn’t see the kind and quantity of social cleavages that tend to produce serious attempts at secession in the U.S. Nearly all of the 70 secessionist movements in the world are based on some stark geographical, linguistic, ethnic or religious boundaries, Griffiths said.
But Americans should never completely rule out the possibility of secession, says Francis Buckley, Foundation Professor at the Antonin Scalia Law School of George Mason University and author of “American Secession: The Looming Threat of a National Breakup”.
“If secession is off the table, then we’re back in the British Empire. So, if you’re an American, I think you have to begin with the idea that secession is sometimes permitted,” Buckley said.
Following the Civil War, the Supreme Court declared secession unconstitutional in a case called Texas v. White. However, the decision is often disputed as being politically motivated because the Constitution doesn’t mention a state’s right to secede, much less prohibit it, Buckley said. Even so, according to Buckley, a peaceful secession would likely require a constitutional amendment through a convention of the states.
While talk of secession may seem extreme, it was an option considered by one of our closest neighbors not too long ago, Buckley said.
As a university faculty member in Montreal in the mid 1990s, Buckley witnessed a country seriously considering a national divorce, and the political divisiveness he sees in America is worse than anything he saw in Canada, he said, when a slim 50.5% of Quebec residents voted to remain part of the country.
“In an age where religion doesn’t matter so much, politics represents the deepest beliefs of any individual,” Buckley said. “And it means that the divisions between us are vastly more bitter than anything I saw in Quebec in the middle of the secession referendum.”
A 2021 survey conducted by the University of Virginia Center for Politics found that 84% of Trump voters and 80% of Biden voters viewed elected officials from the opposing party as a “clear and present danger to American democracy.” The same survey found that 52% of Trump voters and 41% of Biden voters said that they would favor “states seceding from the union to form their own separate country.”
These findings were supported by another 2021 survey, conducted by Bright Line Watch, where U.S. respondents were asked whether they would support their state seceding to join a new union. Over a third of respondents indicated a willingness to secede, including 66% of southern Republicans and 47% of West Coast Democrats.
While calls from the left for some sort of national divorce, mainly in the form of a “Calexit”, became more common after Trump’s election in 2016 and before the 2020 election, talk of secession in recent years has come mostly from the right.
“I think that the catalyst was COVID-19,” DeVore said, “with the additional factor of these social media tools that allow for essentially somebody that doesn’t like what you are doing to come right onto your laptop or onto your phone and call you a bad person.”
Whether her goal was to earn the media spotlight or voice sincerely held political opinions, Greene’s Twitter posts express a discontent with the federal government that is shared by many conservatives around the country.
“(We are) fed up with the left cramming and forcing their ways on us and our children with no respect for our religion/faith, traditional values, and economic and government policy beliefs,” Greene said.
A fight for federalism
Though talk of a national divorce is unlikely to result in a true threat to the union, Buckley said, it may get the ball rolling on serious discussions about the role of federalism in American life, which is what he saw happen in Quebec after the secession referendum failed by the narrowest of margins.
“The idea is to get the conversation started where it’ll probably lead to a more decentralized country which better respects the feelings of people within each state,” Buckley said.
But, according to Griffiths, despite the attention given to Greene’s statements, talk of a national divorce is far from normalized, and that’s a good thing. “I think there’s a lot to be made by just having some couples counseling,” Griffiths said, echoing Cox. “I think that’s far better for the U.S. and there’s so much more to be gained by that path.”