Against Bluexit

Liberals want to write off huge swathes of the United States. We shouldn't follow suit.

William Gropper's "America, Its Folklore," 1946. Library of Congress

In December 2016, journalist Kevin Baker wrote a piece for the New Republic complaining about the “lazily deployed” stereotype of the “condescending coastal liberal who lives in his own bubble,” and about the “right-wing project to label anyone in the opposition as somehow deracinated, unnatural, unconnected to ‘the homeland.’”

Then, in March, Baker wrote a column titled “It’s Time for a Bluexit,” arguing that progressive America, or “blue states,” ought to simply break off from the conservative-voting parts of the country and go it alone. It was, in his words, “virtual secession.” Can’t get more “unconnected to ‘the homeland’” than that.

Baker’s column is obviously not serious, but it appears to have struck a nerve with some liberals. Last week, he was back on the Bluexit train as MSNBC anchor Joy Reid invited him onto her show to elaborate on his column, while the hashtag “#Bluexit” trended, mostly in support of his basic point.

“We have funded massive infrastructure projects in your rural counties, subsidized your schools and your power plants and your nursing homes, sent you entire industries, and simultaneously absorbed the most destitute, unskilled, and oppressed portions of your populations, white and black alike,” wrote Baker. “All of which, it turns out, only left you more bitter, white, and alt-right than ever. . . .Truth is, you red states just haven’t been pulling your weight.”

Baker went on to register his complaints about “Food Stamp Red America,” threaten that their society will fall “into disrepair and ruin” as they “adopt the most radical of ideas,” and celebrate “the chance to get all of [our] crazy, deadbeat in-laws out of the house.”

“How can we save Detroit?” he wrote. “Hey, she’s your baby now.” (In Baker’s view, the fact that Michigan swung to Trump after Clinton didn’t even bother to campaign in the state makes it an unsalvageable “red state”).

Baker dialed back the venom when he discussed his “modest proposal” with Reid, though his point remained the same: blue states should “try as much as possible to build liberalism where we can” by “keeping as many of our resources” — in other words, by ceasing to send the federal government any more tax dollars. “Is that legal though?” asked Reid.

The appropriate question to such a proposal isn’t whether or not it’s legal, but rather what it says about the state of American liberalism when prominent proponents start co-opting the anti-poor rhetoric of the Right to beat on their political opponents and declare they’re essentially giving up trying to affect any political change in whole swaths of the country.

A Tired Genre

Baker’s column is actually the latest in a genre of “exasperated liberal gives up” articles that have come out at a steady clip over the last few years. “Red States Want to Secede? Go Ahead. Make Our Day,” blared the headline for one in 2013 by former MGM executive Miles Mogulescu. “We get two-thirds of the tax revenue. You get to pay your fair share for once . . . We get a bunch of happy families, straight and gay. You get a bunch of single moms and deadbeat dads.”

“It is red states that are overwhelmingly the Welfare Queen states,” wrote Business Insider in 2011, going on to complain that such states are “a net drain on the economy” and that they “talk a good game, but stick blue states with the bill.” “The sad truth is that ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ can only be achieved at this point if the nation is split in half,” wrote Lee Siegel in a 2013 piece titled, “Memo to the South: Go Ahead, Secede Already!”

These articles share certain head-scratching traits. Most glaring is the use of the Right’s own anti-poor rhetoric in order to beat up on Republican politicians. So “red states” — including, presumably, all who reside within their borders, not just their venal politicians — become “moochers” and “economic parasites.” They’re lazy “deadbeats” skipping out on the bill, avoiding responsibility, and not paying their fair share. They’re “welfare queens” binging on food stamps.

This language is terrible on its face. But it becomes even worse when one considers that the states these columnists write about — chiefly Southern ones — are home to 55 percent of the country’s black population and that poverty in these states tends to be highest among blacks throughout the country: 27.2 percent, or more than double the (still high) rate of 12.7 percent among whites. Broad-strokes attacks on red states are attacks on huge numbers of poor people and people of color.

What’s more, isn’t this the kind of rhetoric and thinking that liberals would normally excoriate the Right for using? The kind that oversimplifies the issue of poverty and dependence on government programs and ascribes it to personal failings? Part of the reason these states end up “mooching” off the federal government is because right-wing state governments in the South have essentially eliminated welfare for the unemployed while constricting income requirements — something they were empowered to do by Bill Clinton’s 1996 welfare reforms.

The temptation to turn this insulting language against the same conservatives who gleefully throw it around might seem satisfying. But such insults don’t land on the lawmakers who orchestrated these policies. Instead, they land on the victims of those policies — and legitimizing such rhetoric in the process.

Make Our Day

The second trait these columns share is the idea that a separation of liberal and conservative states is something the liberal-Left welcomes. There is almost a sense of glee in columns like Baker’s. One imagines him and others pulling out buckets of popcorn as they giddily watch conservative-governed states descend into “dysfunction” and “ruin.”

Assumedly, Baker isn’t actually serious about expelling these red states from the union. But it’s easy to imagine the bitter, stunted political vision he puts forward being used to inflict more pain on those states’ inhabitants.

The brunt of these negative effects, of course, will be borne by the poor and other vulnerable communities in these states: deepening poverty; more vulnerable children neglected and abused; the continued erosion of abortion rights; the likely rollback of hard-won civil rights for minorities; intensifying discrimination against the LGBT community; the continued decline of public infrastructure; and the decimation of local environments and the poisoning of resources essential to people’s lives are all certainties if liberals put Baker’s attitude into practice.

His argument is essentially to abandon the kind of robust federal government intervention and oversight that liberals in an earlier era championed in order to protect against the tyrannies of state and local governments, as well as to provide a safety net for neglected citizens in conservative states.

Civil rights activists fought for decades to have the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts passed precisely because racist state governments were enforcing the kind of “dysfunction” and “ruin” on their black citizens that columns like these appear to now blithely covet. Likewise, liberals and the Left more broadly value (and fought for) federal entitlement and anti-poverty programs like Medicare because they know individual states can’t be trusted to take care of their residents.

So in what world, then, does anyone who’s any degree left of center want Ted Cruz and Michelle Bachmann to “start their own plantation-economy style country” and “run their states like third-world countries,” as one 2013 Truth-Out editorial advocated? Why would they want already stingy Republican states to “return the tax dollars subsidizing them,” as this Alternet piece a year later called for? This is precisely what the Right wants, having embarked on a deliberate strategy in conservative dominated states to starve governments of much-needed tax dollars at the expense of their poor while freeing themselves from federal oversight.

A Perfect World

Third, many of these arguments are predicated on the idea that every problem that ails America is because of the “red states,” and that left alone, the “blue states” would provide their citizens with a progressive paradise.

“Billionaires would no longer be able to buy politicians in a ‘blue’ America,” and these states would “eliminate disastrous trade policies like NAFTA and the WTO.” America “without its mostly Southern states” would have “universal health care,” “a humane minimum wage,” and “a ban on carbon emissions.” “Blue America” would become a laboratory for progressive policies for “free public universities.”

This would presumably take place in an alternate universe. One in which NAFTA wasn’t signed by one Democratic president, and its successor, the TPP, wasn’t engineered by another Democratic president and the following Democratic presidential candidate. One in which Democrats haven’t consistently fought against single-payer health care, even in “blue states.” One in which the most recent Democratic standard-bearer couldn’t even bring herself to endorse a $15 minimum wage, a ban on fracking, and free tertiary education.

Scapegoating “red states” for the Democrats’ inability — and even outright refusal — to enact the changes their supporters want is convenient. But if there’s one thing the 2016 election showed, it’s that Democrats will have to fix the rot inside their own house first.

Collective Punishment

Finally, the barely veiled implication in all of these columns is that the residents of these states, whether black or white, liberal or conservative, deserve whatever happens to them when they’re left to the mercy of the Scott Walkers and Rick Scotts of the world, because when it comes down to it, they voted for it. For this to make sense, Baker and his fellow exasperated liberals have to treat “red states” as a monolith, where there is no daylight between the whims and desires of lawmakers and those of the residents they serve.

But of course, this doesn’t make sense. Consider Texas, for example, often held up as the incubation center for some of the country’s most conservative politicians. In the state’s last gubernatorial election, Republican Greg Abbott handily beat Democrat Wendy Davis 59.3 percent to 38.9 percent. Abbott may have won in a landslide, but that still meant nearly 40 percent of voters — or 1.8 million people — rejected Abbott’s conservative vision. It was a similar picture in the 2016 election: 43 percent of Texans, or 3.8 million people, voted for Clinton over Trump.

That’s not even taking into account non-voters: 64 percent and 48 percent of eligible voters didn’t turn up in the gubernatorial and general elections, respectively.

You could do this with every conservative-governed state. Mississippi, the state often brought up by writers like Baker as the one they most dream of jettisoning, saw around 40 percent vote for Clinton, or around 462,000 voters. Louisiana saw 34 percent, or 779,000 voters, vote for her. More than 700,000 Alabamians voted for Clinton, while 38 percent of them didn’t vote at all. Do all these people deserve to drown in the “disrepair and ruin” that would be brought about by conservative policies?

These numbers are already a flimsy basis on which to condemn millions of people to destitution. But then you factor in things like voter suppression laws and redistricting, both of which have played key roles in ensuring conservative political dominance in Texas, for example — and something liberals rightly and frequently criticize right-wing state governments for enacting — and the argument that residents of conservative-governed states deserve to be jettisoned becomes even more unjustifiable.

A Symbol of Surrender

Baker’s argument and those of liberals supporting red-state secession are, of course, not serious. But they do signify the disdain with which an alarming number of liberals view their fellow citizens. Perhaps more alarmingly, they also symbolize a strain of hopeless, ineffective resignation that has overtaken some liberal quarters in the wake of the election, the “resistance” notwithstanding.

“There is a part of the country that is seemingly permanently red,” Reid said on Sunday’s discussion with Baker. “Why should blue states keep subsidizing them?”

But there is no such thing as permanently “red” or “blue” states. States that are now solidly red, such as Texas and Louisiana, were once solidly blue. California used to be a Republican stronghold. Michigan and Wisconsin were locks for Democrats, until they weren’t. Donald Trump could never become president, until he did. A self-proclaimed socialist could never win over Republicans and independents, until he could. Liberals might feel better by throwing up their hands and simply telling themselves they can always retreat to the steadily dwindling parts of the country they wield political influence in. But according to Gallup, self-identifying conservatives outnumber self-identifying liberals in forty-four states. At some point, they’ll have to try and win these people over.

Liberals like Baker seem incapable of entertaining the possibility that perhaps it isn’t a DNA-level reactionary streak that can’t be changed or overcome among red-state dwellers or Trump voters through more appealing politics — like, say, a politics that offers them a strong, credible alternative to the kind of economic devastation decades of bipartisan policies have wrought in their states. It’s a political form of The Simpsons’ Principal Skinner’s refusal to consider the possibility that perhaps he (or in Baker’s case, his party) is the one who is out of touch.

And to be clear, such voters can be won over. During the 1930s and after, left-wing campaigners and their political allies helped convince millions of Americans in the kinds of states that Baker now writes off that an activist federal government was in their best interests — a belief that, while dented since, was never entirely defeated, as the enduring popularity of federal programs like Medicare attest to. Many rural Americans went even further to the left during that time.

Most recently, a man who openly referred to himself as a socialist won the support of significant numbers of Republicans and independents. Bernie Sanders took such voters’ concerns seriously; miraculously, many responded by embracing his unapologetic vision of social-democratic reforms.

Will some of these voters have reactionary social, cultural, and political views? Undoubtedly. But it’s impossible to create any kind of long-term change on a mass scale without engaging with such people and convincing them to vote and support left-wing causes. Despite what Democrats have been telling themselves for years, giving up on broad swathes of persuadable voters is not a winning strategy. Writing off entire states full of people as unworthy of their attention and consideration — and insulting their natural constituencies along the way — is a road to nowhere.

The arguments advanced by Baker and others might be good as far as snarky point-scoring and self-congratulation goes. But they represent an elitist mindset that will only make the kind of political transformation that we need even harder to win.