Divided We Fall, David French. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2020
Summary: An argument warning that the political divides in American life could lead to a dissolution of the nation through secession and may be averted by a tolerant federalism.
One of my enjoyments is reading the history of the American Civil War and the events leading up to it. In recent years, that history has increasingly disturbed me as I recognize the troubling parallel of the deep political divides and inflammatory rhetoric that led to armed conflict, and our present time. I’ve wondered where this could lead: authoritarian government, civil unrest and breakdown, or a war of red versus blue.
If there is any comfort in Divided We Fall, it is to learn that a thoughtful political commentator has similar concerns. David French believes we could well be headed toward another secession of states, one he does not believe will lead to military action, but to a greatly diminished America, both domestically, and in global affairs, a prospect perhaps as troubling as armed conflict within our border.
What leads him to moot this possibility is the character of our divides. For one thing, they may be charted along regional lines. His thesis is that geography plus culture plus fear may equal secession. One particular culture subject to the kindling of fear is the religious subculture. While some fear the intrusion of the state on religious freedom and decry court decisions contrary to religious morality, others fear the intrusion of one religion into a very plural public life, limiting the freedom of others.
Chapter 5 on “How an Academic Article Explains America” may be the most important in the book. It introduces us to an article titled “The Law of Group Polarization.” that proposes that when groups are formed with a “predeliberation tendency,” rather than making better judgments than on their own, they will move toward the extreme of their bias. In our present setting, even moderates put off by one side (left or right) will tend to move to the extreme version of what they favor, intensifying our divisions. Sadly, French observes in the following chapters, churches have followed this, largely following the cultural and geographical alignments within which they are embedded, and that political alignments have trumped other alignments, where political identities primary and ultimate.
French traces the breakdown in our capacity for discourse. No longer can friends agree to disagree–they become enemies. Free speech has become subject to “safetyism” and cancel culture. French, who has worked extensively as a lawyer on free speech issues, makes a passionate appeal for the critical role of the First Amendment as critical to giving marginal groups a voice. Instead, the effort of our contemporary discourse is to use power to silence the opposition, which only inflames opposition.
He sets out two fictional secession scenarios, one led by California, the other by Texas. California’s is over immigration and gun control. Texas secedes to protect from a blue backlash. He explores the resultant unraveling of the Pax Americana, the various security guarantees that prevented armed conflict in many parts of the world, including China, the Middle East, and eastern Europe.
French’s proposed remedy is Madisonian federalism that accepts faction but vigorously protects free speech. He believes that it is possible for competing communities to exist in different parts of the country. He argues that the First Amendment protects these. He contends that genuine tolerance protects difference–we only tolerate that with which we disagree. He longs for moments of grace leading to movements of grace, citing the example of the reconciliation between SNL’s Pete Davidson, and Dan Crenshaw, a Republican congressional candidate. When mocked by Davidson for a war wound, Crenshaw accepted a later apology and then appeared on the show, talking about what “never forget” meant to both of them–speaking of Davidson’s father, a fireman who died on 9/11.
French argues this healthy federalism protects individual liberties while allowing public policy to be shaped more by state and local governments than a “one size fits all” approach that may work in a utopia, but not in America. He contrasts Arizona and California’s approach to use of state resources with regard to immigration enforcement and argues that each were responses to what they thought best and should have been equally upheld under healthy federalism. He similarly cites state-based universal health care proposals as opposed to a nationalized system.
In the end, what French calls for is courage to engage what he considers the more critical culture war of the age–not between left and right, but between decency and indecency. He believes there is a need for a better political class, one committed to Micah 6:8 virtues of justice, mercy, and humility before God.
I find myself both affirming much of this analysis and questioning parts. I agree with his analysis of our divides. I had not thought deeply about secession, but having seen more and more commentary from others, it seems possible. Yet I wonder. Many states are more purple than red or blue. My state of Ohio is like that. What happens to the element not in power, though demographically significant, in this scenario? Or what happens when a state like ours “flips.” All in all, I am more fearful of civil disorder within many of our states and growth of militia and vigilante actions. I think there is much in his proposals of a tolerant federalism in our pluralistic society, but how this works to protect individual liberties seems to be the challenge. While some states provide for universal health care, what about those who don’t, when access varies along economic, racial, or even partisan lines? Finally, I wonder from where we get a better political class committed to justice, mercy, and humility?
I agree with French that we need such a political class and recovery of the kind of federalist toleration and First Amendment-affirming political discourse for which he advocates. French has been courageous in using his own voice to advocate for a better America, resulting in vicious criticisms, and threats against his family. The critical question is whether enough others will join him and those of his like to make a difference.
Disclosure of Material (and Personal) Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the author, who served as a wise advisor during a campus religious freedom issue with which I was involved in 2005. The opinions I have expressed are my own.