Would You Send Your Kid to College in a State Where Abortion Was a Crime?
I was talking to an old classmate and fellow resident of a blue-state metropolitan neighborhood, and the talk turned, naturally, to kids and colleges. “Would you send your kid to Emory?” my friend asked. But he wasn’t talking about education; he was talking about national politics. Texas had just passed a restrictive abortion law. Other states looked likely to follow, following a familiar map dividing one America from another. And chances were that the Supreme Court would OK them.
On the face of it, it seemed absurd. An elite college in Atlanta represents a milieu essentially indistinguishable from our own: Cosmopolitan, tolerant, unblemished by passers-by in MAGA caps, undoubtedly more Democratic than many of the small towns that are home to America’s crunchiest liberal-arts colleges. But in his description, it felt like a different country. “Who knows what kind of crazy laws they’ll pass. Could they stop someone from flying home for an abortion?”
And just like that, we’d passed another small milepost in the sundering of the United States: Another state — one full of neighborhoods populated by people just like us — effectively otherized, made to seem exotic and unpredictable and dangerous by someone who doesn’t usually trade in wild theories.
As POLITICO’s publication of the draft Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade ricocheted through American politics this week, I thought back to that conversation. The language in the news stories seemed altogether appropriate: Cataclysmic. Explosive. Earthquake. But if the news was shocking, the vocabulary, by this point, was altogether familiar, as was the depiction of a society on the precipice.
It’s become almost a cliche to say that the United States is more polarized than at any time since the 1850s: The increasingly regional political parties that seem to really hate each other; the sense that every institution, from churches to sports leagues to theme park operators, must take sides; the fraying institutions, apocalyptic rhetoric and looming sense of chaos. Even before Covid-19 and the insurrection, reasonable people were talking about the possibility of a new civil war — though, happily, they were mostly focused on how to stop it.
But as my colleague John Harris wrote a couple months ago, it’s not quite clear what the war would be about — it’s not FDR’s enraging plutocrats by building a welfare state, nor William Jennings Bryan’s championing policies that boost credit-crunched farmers at the expense of the hard-money industrial economy. Policy, oftentimes, has seemed peripheral to the animus now riling American life.
In fact, a visitor from the real 1850s — or, for that matter, the average economic-determinist historian — would be baffled by the idea of red states and blue states at one another’s throats.
In the decade before the Civil War, free states and slave states were wildly different societies: One dynamic, capitalist, evolving; the other static and feudal, a world where the stranger walking down the road was a sign of potential danger, not an inevitable part of the great churn of American life. The enslavers thought Northern abolition talk would get them killed; free-staters thought the slave power wanted to force its system on the whole country. To move from New Jersey to Alabama during the James Buchanan presidency would be to enter an almost unrecognizable world, one that seemed distinctly dangerous.
By contrast, to move from New Jersey to Alabama during the Joe Biden presidency would mean experiencing marginally different tax rates, stingier public benefits and vaguely colorful local folkways — while living in the same post-industrial service economy as back home, reading the same news online and streaming the same TV shows on the same Netflix account. This doesn’t look like two distinct societies who need a war to sort out their differences.
In fact, even before President Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant and the 13th amendment went to work undercutting the slave-economy foundation of those differences, railroads and telegraphs were already knitting the diverse country together. In the century and a half since, the process kept moving in the same direction: Radio and television, air conditioning and cars, land-grant colleges and Interstate highways.
And, of course, laws: From the middle of the 20th century onward, Congress and the courts effectively created a national standard on civil liberties, ending the South’s 100-year carve-out from post-Civil War Constitutional guarantees. Jim Crow and segregation were gone. In time, your location within the United States had less and less impact on your ability to get a drink or water, read radical newspapers or marry whomever you want.
That, in turn, led to other, less fraught, sanding-down of regional distinction. It’s hard to imagine professional sports in a legally segregated south. But nowadays, former Jim Crow states can cheer on the Atlanta Braves or Oklahoma City Thunder just like the old fans did back in Boston or Seattle.
The great nationalizing was never complete, of course, nor was it just limited to local exotica like what sort of sauce you prefer on your barbecue (LGBTQ rights have remained a patchwork that generally reflects region). And it is not, incidentally, just a tale of the triumph of liberal preferences: Thanks to the Heller decision, you can move to the urban north without giving up your ability to pack heat. It’s the same country, for better or worse.
On top of all its visceral civil rights effects, the Roe reversal calls this feeling into question in unfamiliar ways. Our countrymen in the 19th and 20th centuries were accustomed to stark legal chasms between states and regions. Today, not so much. But if the ruling takes place along the lines of Justice Samuel Alito’s draft, there immediately will be an enormous practical difference between living in most red states and most blue ones. On one side of the line, you have a right; on the other, you don’t.
It’s hard to imagine this not further straining other American institutions: Will big employers, with an eye toward the significant majority of Americans in favor of abortion rights, denounce anti-abortion laws? Will they offer a travel benefit for employees? Will this spur its own backlash? It’s not a pure hypothetical: Last year, in reacting to restrictive new voting laws in Texas, a bunch of national firms faced exactly that conundrum.
Step back a bit and it becomes clear that other factors that worked to shrink regional distinctions are also fading. Being limited to three national TV networks for entertainment serves to homogenize the country; having access to a billion social media accounts does the opposite. Getting clothes or groceries from a relatively small number of national chains knits together; having an infinite variety of consumer options does not.
For most of the past couple decades, Americans’ tendency to live and work among like-minded people has been a subject of interest and worry. Bill Bishop’s 2008 book “The Big Sort” — based on a series of articles that ran in 2004 — was an early chronicle of the trend. Americans, his reporting showed, are increasingly unlikely to live next to someone who votes, worships or thinks about major issues in a way that’s different from them. The rise of former President Donald Trump, with its exaggerated divide between rural and metropolitan voters, only accelerated matters.
But there’s a key difference between Big Sort America and post-Roe America. Many of the divisions Bishop noted take place within states or metropolitan areas or regions. Texas may be red, but there are plenty of neighborhoods in Dallas or Houston or Austin (or a bunch of smaller cities, too) just as LGBTQ-friendly and pro-immigrant and anti-Trump as anywhere in Oregon. And vice versa.
The looming abortion landscape, though, will be about the hard borders of jurisdiction, not the soft ones of cultural affinity. Rather than a clean break, there will be plenty of partisans trapped behind the lines — on both sides, which means more aggrieved fellow citizens, more contention over national political power, and more fear of states unlike our own.
It will be a particularly interesting cleavage for residents of the nation’s capital, where local voters aren’t fully empowered to make their own laws. A future Congress could simply ban abortion in the District of Columbia; even a present one could use its veto over the local government budget to squeeze access. Over its history, D.C. has been the subject of Congressional meddling over things that had been local decisions elsewhere: Slavery, segregation, the death penalty. Washingtonians who imagined themselves to be blue-America residents like their peers in New York or Boston or Chicago may be in for a shock — a divided America writ small.
“All right, you have won,” John Dos Passos wrote in his bitter U.S.A. trilogy passage about the death of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. “There is nothing left to do. We are beaten. … All right, we are two nations.”
Can America survive as a nation if something as dull as urban elites sending kids to college in a different part of the country starts to seem risky and exotic? Sure. The majority of our history has involved far more dramatic regional divides: Freedom against slavery, democracy against Jim Crow apartheid. We have plenty of other national crises at the moment too. But just because it won’t doom us doesn’t mean it won’t be a factor in American society in ways we haven’t fully thought through. Well beyond the question of reproductive rights, the Roe reversal — and the two-nationing of America — will leave it feeling like a different country.