US national divorce and civil war: The jury is out

Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene has called for a 'national divorce' between Republican states and Democratic states

By Chidanand Rajghatta

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Published: Tue 14 Mar 2023, 6:54 PM

The United States has one of the highest divorce rates in the world among major nations — a split rate of approximately 2.5 per 1,000. Behind the bland statistic lies a lot of subtexts. For instance, more people in the US were married in 2021 than in 1960 — likely a simple outcome of an increasing population. The average length of a marriage in the US is 19.9 years, which is not something to be sneered at in the modern era.

However, recent surveys show that there has also been a downward trend in divorce since 1990, probably a result of greater acceptance of cohabitation without marriage or separation without divorce. During the peak of the pandemic, the number of divorces actually fell by 12 per cent, when one expected an uptick because of stress levels that came to be associated with couples cooped up at home. Quite likely, it was because moving out during the pandemic would have been difficult.

One of the more striking statistics is that divorce rates in the US vary significantly from state to state. Among the top five states with a divorce rate of less than 2 per 1,000, three — Massachusetts, Illinois, and Maryland — are decidedly Democratic in political orientation. Among the top five states with a divorce rate of more than 3 per 1,000, four — Oklahoma, Wyoming, Alabama and Arkansas — are of Republican persuasion. Nevada, the leader in divorces, is a purple toss up state that has swung between the parties.

This is rather surprising because Republicans are thought to hold conservative values that include respecting the sanctity of marriage and liberals are viewed as more easy-going. But as has been often said, statistics don’t tell the whole story. Is it possible that the lower divorce rates in Democratic states has to do with millennial liberals waiting longer to get married — or not marrying at all? After all, surveys show that the odds of divorce decrease as a married couple increases in age.

Marriages and divorces in the US are governed by state law, not federal law. The reason why Nevada is a leader in divorces is because the state, in 1931, legislated the shortest waiting period for a divorce in the country: six weeks. Similarly there are a host of issues, from gun control to abortion to voting to school and education that are the domain of states. What holds the country together is the US Constitution’s Supremacy Clause (Article VI, Clause 2) that essentially says federal laws take priority over any conflicting rules of state law.

This is taken for granted to an extent that there is hardly any debate or dissent on the matter. But occasionally there surfaces an anti-federalist governor or lawmaker ready to challenge accepted wisdom and status quo by talking up the rights of states. The most recent rabble-rouser in this spirit is Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Trump-supporting extreme right lawmaker, who has called for a “national divorce” between Republican states and Democratic states. “We need to separate red states and blue states and shrink the federal government,” she said in a tweet on President’s Day.

For many Americans, including people in her party, MTG is an extremist crackpot. Republican Senator Mitt Romney blasted the idea, asking, “What kind of foolishness is that? We fought a war over that. Abraham Lincoln was the founder of our party. Why would a Republican ever say something as silly as that?” He was referring of course to the Civil War, which decisively buried the idea of a national split or secession and made the United States a cohesive unit — at least geographically.

Indeed, effecting such a “national divorce” would be a logistical challenge, given that Republican and Democratic states are not always contiguous. In fact, at least a dozen states are swing states that flip in general elections. Where would they fit in? Even in ruby red Republican states, there are cities and counties that are hardcore Democrat — for example, Dallas, Houston, and Austin in Texas are all Democrat-run, as are cities such as Memphis in Tennessee, and Wichita in Kansas, both red states.

Then, of course, there is the small matter of the economy. By one estimate, blue states contribute more than 46 per cent of the US gross national product compared to 40 per cent from the more numerous red states. Red states are also landlocked for the most part, with blue states dominating the Pacific and Atlantic seaboard. As one critic of the idea pointed out, “Currently, most red states pay less into the federal tax coffers than they take out. So would the new red republic expect the blue states to pay alimony and child support in this ‘national divorce’?”

Naturally, the idea is being laughed out of the national discourse, although MTG’s defenders argue that her proposal is more ideological than geographic or cartographic. But her final words are a chilling reminder of what could still lie in store for America. “The last thing I ever want to see in America is a civil war. No one wants that but it’s going that direction, and we have to do something about it.” That something is, for her, a “national divorce”. Failing which she wouldn’t mind seeing the “last thing” that took place between 1861 and 1865 and killed an estimated 620,000 people.

(The writer is a senior journalist based in Washington DC.)

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