Spurred by the Supreme Court, a Nation Divides Along a Red-Blue Axis
On abortion, climate change, guns and much more, two Americas — one liberal, one conservative — are moving in opposite directions.
July 2, 2022, Updated 9:36 a.m. ET
Pressed by Supreme Court decisions diminishing rights that liberals hold dear and expanding those cherished by conservatives, the United States appears to be drifting apart into separate nations, with diametrically opposed social, environmental and health policies.
Call these the Disunited States.
The most immediate breaking point is on abortion, as about half the country will soon limit or ban the procedure while the other half expands or reinforces access to reproductive rights. But the ideological fault lines extend far beyond that one topic, to climate change, gun control and L.G.B.T.Q. and voting rights.
On each of those issues, the country’s Northeast and West Coast are moving in the opposite direction from its midsection and Southeast — with a few exceptions, like the islands of liberalism in Illinois and Colorado, and New Hampshire’s streak of conservatism.
Even where public opinion is more mixed, like in Ohio, Wisconsin, Georgia, North Carolina and Texas, the Republican grip on state legislatures has ensured that policies in those states conform with those of the reddest states in the union, rather than strike a middle ground.
The tearing at the seams has been accelerated by the six-vote conservative majority in the Supreme Court, which has embraced a muscular states-rights federalism. In the past 10 days the court has erased the constitutional right to an abortion, narrowed the federal government’s ability to regulate climate-warming pollution and blocked liberal states and cities from barring most of their citizens from carrying concealed guns outside of their homes.
“They’ve produced this Balkanized house divided, and we’re only beginning to see how bad that will be,” said David Blight, a Yale historian who specializes in the era of American history that led to the Civil War.
Historians have struggled to find a parallel moment, raising the 19th-century fracturing over slavery; the clashes between the executive branch and the Supreme Court in the New Deal era of the 1930s; the fierce battles over civil rights during Reconstruction and in the 1950s and early 1960s; and the rise of armed, violent groups like the Weather Underground in the late ’60s.
For some people, the divides have grown so deep and so personal that they have felt compelled to pick up and move from one America to the other.
Many conservatives have taken to social media to express thanks over leaving high-tax, highly regulated blue states for red states with smaller government and, now, laws prohibiting abortion.
From Opinion: The End of Roe v. Wade
Commentary by Times Opinion writers and columnists on the Supreme Court’s decision to end the constitutional right to abortion.
- Michelle Goldberg: “The end of Roe v. Wade was foreseen, but in wide swaths of the country, it has still created wrenching and potentially tragic uncertainties.”
- Spencer Bokat-Lindell: “What exactly does it mean for the Supreme Court to experience a crisis of legitimacy, and is it really in one?”
- Bonnie Kristian, journalist: “For many backers of former President Donald Trump, Friday’s Supreme Court decision was a long-awaited vindication.” It might also mark the end of his political career.
- Erika Bachiochi, legal scholar: “It is precisely the unborn child’s state of existential dependence upon its mother, not its autonomy, that makes it especially entitled to care, nurture and legal protection.”
Others have transited the American rift in the opposite direction.
“I did everything I could to put my mouth where my money was, to bridge the divide with my own actions,” said Howard Garrett, a Black, gay 29-year-old from Franklin, Tenn., who ran for alderman in recent years, organized the town’s first Juneteenth celebration and worked on L.G.B.T.Q. outreach to local schools, only to be greeted with harassment and death threats.
Mr. Garrett moved to Washington, D.C., last year. “People were just sick in their heart,” he said, “and that was something you can’t change.”
On abortion, history seems to be riffing on itself.
Both supporters and opponents of abortion rights see a parallel to the abolition of slavery.
As states like Illinois and Colorado vow to become “safe harbors” for women in surrounding states seeking to end their pregnancies, abortion rights advocates see an echo of past efforts by antislavery states in the North. But abortion opponents see themselves as emancipating the unborn, and often compare the Roe decision’s treatment of the fetus to the Dred Scott ruling in 1857 that denied Black people the rights of American citizenship.
Conservatives are not resting on their victories: The anti-abortion movement, long predicated on returning the issue of reproductive rights to elected representatives in the states, talks now about putting a national abortion ban before Congress.
Roger Severino, a leading social conservative and senior official in the Trump administration, invoked the struggle of Black Americans for equality, saying the 10 years that passed between the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision ending “separate but equal” segregation and Congress’s passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 mirrored the struggle ahead on abortion.
“I cannot see us living in two Americas where we have two classes of human beings in this country: some protected fully in law, some who are not protected at all,” said Mr. Severino, now the vice president for domestic policy at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
On climate change, the court’s decision to limit federal regulatory powers has underscored the impasse in Congress over legislation expressly limiting emissions of climate-warming pollutants like carbon dioxide and methane.
But again, the states are stepping unto the breach. States from Virginia to Maine have banded together to limit carbon emissions under the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. In the West, California, Oregon and Washington are pursuing a Pacific Coast Collaborative to coordinate clean fuel standards and move toward zero-emission cars.
“I’m strongly supportive of the E.P.A. having the power to regulate greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants from fossil fuel,” said Katie Dykes, commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and the chairwoman of the East Coast initiative’s board of directors. “But R.G.G.I. has been in place since 2009 and has provided clear, predictable signals to the power sector and to the states in the alliance. It becomes only more relevant if we see federal authority curtailed.”
Fossil fuel states are moving in the opposite direction, pressing for more exploration and more production of coal, oil and natural gas and for fewer emissions regulations, putting local jobs and overall economic priorities ahead of the impact of climate change.
On guns, the District of Columbia and 11 states, including Delaware and Rhode Island just this week, have banned some weapons and accessories like high-capacity magazines in response to mass shootings across the country. Republican states, in contrast, have passed and continue to pass laws that allow for the carrying of concealed or unconcealed firearms with no permits necessary.
The Republican governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, signed legislation last year trying to nullify a decades-old federal ban on silencers. And a new law in New Hampshire is meant to stop state law enforcement agencies from cooperating with federal agencies to enforce federal firearms laws that do not match New Hampshire’s.
“It’s the biggest problem we’re facing now,” said Sean Holihan, the state legislative director at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “If most of the Northeast, parts of the Midwest and all of the West Coast want to pass good gun-safety legislation, that doesn’t mean someone in Chicago can’t go to basically any state that borders his and buy a gun.”
As conservative states move to bar gender transition therapies for people under 18, California’s Legislature is considering a bill that would void any subpoena seeking information about people traveling to the state for such care. But Alabama’s attorney general, invoking the Supreme Court’s reasoning in its abortion decision, said this week that federal courts must allow the state’s ban on gender-transition care to take effect.
And one state’s banned books are another’s teen summer reading list.
Jake Grumbach, a University of Washington political scientist who began studying the fragmentation of the nation more than a decade ago, said America was living through a “hyper-drive of state-based dissolution,” but he cautioned against looking regionally, instead locating the fault line between cities and their suburbs on one side and rural areas on the other. A voter in Milwaukee and one in rural Wisconsin, he said, are as different ideologically as one in Oklahoma and one in New York City.
However, gerrymandering and restrictions on voting access in Republican states have given conservatives a greater institutional advantage than the edge Democrats have in more liberal states, Mr. Grumbach said. He pointed to a gerrymandered legislative map in New York that was blocked and to similar maps that have gone forward in Louisiana, Ohio and Florida.
The tensions of the moment might be most acute in the porous borderlands of red and blue America. The St. Louis Board of Aldermen, responding to Missouri’s abortion ban, is considering using $1 million in Covid relief funds to instead aid women seeking abortions across the border in Illinois.
Anne Caprara, the chief of staff to the Democratic governor of Illinois, J.B. Pritzker, said abortion providers in the state used to serve a few hundred out-of-state women per week. Since the overturning of Roe a week ago, she said, it’s been “several thousand.”
“The governor is committed to Illinois being an oasis,” she said. “He isn’t shifting on that, but there’s no question that’s a burden.”
Gun rights laws like the protections for silencers in Texas “are edging back toward the idea of nullification, that states should be able to ignore federal law, an idea that grew directly out of slavery,” said Bethany Lacina, a University of Rochester political scientist who studies federalism in different countries. “But you can imagine a day where there’s a federal ban on abortion, and the governor of California says, ‘Eh, we’re just not going to do that.’ It’s all very double-edged weapons.”
Conservatives might see the coming years as the moment to pivot toward amassing more national power, if they can seize Congress in November and the White House in 2024. Anti-abortion activists have always had two arguments in favor of ending Roe v. Wade: a legal case that the Constitution does not include a right to end a pregnancy, and a moral case that abortion is murder.
Mr. Severino, again invoking segregation, said that until the legislative and executive branches of government stepped in with the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts in the 1960s, recalcitrant states failed to integrate their schools after the Supreme Court ordered them to in 1954.
“There are deep parallels here,” he said. “Then, it was what is the value of a human person, measured between Black and white Americans. Here it is the value of a person within the womb and outside it.”
As the political divide between the states becomes more pronounced, what political scientists call “sorting” may accelerate. The conservative Illinois billionaire Kenneth Griffin announced last week that he had moved to Miami from Chicago, and would take Citadel, his hedge fund, with him. He told his employees that Florida offered a better corporate environment.
At the same time, Ms. Caprara said the Pritzker administration routinely boasts of the state’s welcoming political environment, where abortion rights are codified and companies will never find themselves in the position the Walt Disney Company now occupies in Florida — squeezed between a conservative government constraining gay and transgender rights, and liberal consumers demanding a corporate pushback.
“Companies don’t want to have to deal with people boycotting their business, or struggling to get people to move to them, especially younger workers,” she said.
Joanna Turner Bisgrove, 46, a family physician at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, had worked her whole professional life in Oregon, Wis., a small town south of Madison, when her hospital was purchased by a Catholic health care chain, that began restricting abortions and transgender care. After the Wisconsin Legislature took up the issue of transgender girls in sports, she said, friends of her gender-fluid child became magnets for bullying so bad that it made the local news.
Nearly a year ago, the Bisgroves finally moved across the red-blue border, to Evanston, Ill., where, Dr. Bisgrove said, her children would be accepted and her medical practice could thrive.
“In the end,” she said, “my morals would not square with what I could do.”