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Is America Headed for a NATO-Style Faceoff Between Red and Blue?

The fierce rhetoric flying between state capitols is a reflection of “the big sort,” as we increasingly seek out those with whom we share values. The common ground essential to governing is getting harder and harder to find.

The circle of national flags outside NATO headquarters in Brussels.
NATO headquarters in Brussels: The NATO treaty holds that an attack on one alliance member will be viewed as an attack on all.
Jonathan Turley, a constitutional law scholar at George Washington University, says he’s sick and tired of blue-state campaigns against red-state policies. Democrats have organized boycotts of businesses located in states that have passed anti-LGBTQ laws. California Gov. Gavin Newsom asked movie production companies to avoid states like Georgia and Oklahoma with anti-abortion laws. Blue states have moved to try to attract businesses away from those with rigid abortion laws, prompting warnings that states adopting such bans “risk losing their economic edge.”

Turley is fed up with what he calls “this madness.” It’s time, he wrote, for red states to create a counter-alliance of mutual defense, modeled on Article 5 of the NATO treaty, which holds that an attack against one NATO member is viewed as an attack on all. If one state found itself the object of a boycott, he proposed, all of the other states in the alliance would launch their own counterattacks with boycotts of their own.

There’s been a lot of saber-rattling talk about federalism, including even the thought that different sides in these federalism battles might take up arms to make their point. Fortunately, more than 150 years ago the nation settled the question of whether alliances of states could go to war against each other. In fact, today 62 percent of Americans think that the nation can fix its problems by learning from its mistakes.

But that scarcely lowers the temperature of the fierce rhetoric flying between state capitols. California, for example, lists 21 states on its travel ban list. Feminists have proposed avoiding states that impose abortion bans and targeting large companies with headquarters in those states. That leads Turley to propose “automatic reciprocity” laws: boycott any state, and the boycotters would find themselves being “boycotted back.”

The stakes are rising. When Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced a plan for the state to investigate families seeking gender-affirming health care for their transgender children, California fired back with a proposal to create a refuge for those families. Meanwhile, Newsom placed full-page ads in Texas newspapers attacking Abbott’s stand against abortion. And then, in response to the Texas law that put enforcement of Texas’ abortion ban in the hands of citizen vigilantes, Newsom signed a law allowing Californians to sue anyone distributing illegal assault weapons and homemade “ghost guns.”

Not surprisingly, the always-charged issue of immigration came into play again. Saying he was infuriated by the stream of migrants across the Texas border, Abbott put migrants on buses heading for Washington, D.C., and New York City. New York Mayor Eric Adams accused Abbott of using the migrants as “political pawns” during the governor’s re-election campaign. Abbott countered by saying that the problem “is with President Biden’s refusal to stop this border crisis and secure our southern border.”

Fueling the Big Sort

If there aren’t flaming arrows flying across state borders, there certainly is white-hot rhetoric. Bigger battles are shaping up as state officials, especially governors, stake out turf that appeals to their base, especially when those attacks focus on other governors hundreds — or thousands — of miles away.

As long as the attacks remained rhetorical, they might have seemed cynically amusing. But the attacks are escalating to the point they involve real people, like migrants riding buses from Texas to the Northeast, and big business, like the Disney Co. and the fallout from its conflict with the administration of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis over the state’s so-called “don’t say gay” law.

But even these efforts are unlikely to create much real damage to most people. The real impact is very likely to be how this bombast continues to fuel a big movement already underway, as people increasingly gravitate to places where others share their cultural values and political outlook — what journalist Bill Bishop dubbed “the big sort.”

Californians are moving to Texas in large numbers for jobs, but some Texans are going to other states to get abortions. Some parents with transgender kids are moving out of Texas to insulate them from the state’s laws. Meanwhile, other parents are moving from red Indiana for economic opportunities and the quality of life of blue Austin, even though they are embedding themselves in deep-red Texas.

Redder and Bluer

The big sort is creating a large and growing number of politically safe areas of the country. Political analyst Larry Sabato has identified “super-landslide” counties, those where one party gets at least 80 percent of the two-party vote, and they are quickly multiplying: By 2020, there were more than 700 of them, nearly one-fourth of all counties. Meanwhile, red and blue states are becoming redder and bluer, thanks to redistricting. Truly competitive states are shrinking in number. We don’t need the purple crayon in the back-to-school box very much anymore.

The big sort is working through the media as well. The Fox News Channel has become the most-watched network, with Democrats gravitating to MSNBC and CNN, as well as to major newspapers like the New York Times. Republicans are more likely to be religious and to value freedom and independence. Democrats are more likely to value physical and mental health and to enjoy pets and the outdoors.

So what’s really happening in the NATO-style plans for American federalism isn’t really a plan for a massive armed campaign. Rather, elected officials are cultivating a base that thinks, values, looks and acts as they do, and that cultivation is luring others who share the same point of view.

It’s easy to chuckle at these gubernational antics, and Americans’ deep distrust of government flows at least in part from their view that politicians are cynically exploiting partisan divisions to stay in power. However, these rhetorical fusillades are part of something far deeper and much more worrisome: the boiling away of America’s melting pot, the erosion of tolerance for differing opinions, and large migrations of people in search of like-minded people.

As the big sort accelerates, we’re heading for even deeper rips in our social fabric. That, in turn, will cause even more difficulty in finding enough common ground on which we as a nation can govern. While that’s a problem that hardly compares to mortar shells flying over state borders, the prospect of a nation divided into NATO-style ideological blocs isn’t something anyone should savor.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
Donald F. Kettl is professor emeritus and former dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Policy. He is the co-author with William D. Eggers of Bridgebuilders: How Government Can Transcend Boundaries to Solve Big Problems.
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