A House Divided

The 2016 election results by county.

A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become lawful in all the States, old as well as new — North as well as South. --Abraham Lincoln, 1858

It's a terrible feeling.

I first experienced it in 1994. That was the year of coming apart, as my first marriage unraveled completely. My gut knew it long before my head was ready to accept it, and the more certain my intuition was of the great cataclysm ahead, the harder my mind labored to turn back. Those desperate efforts, and the ever-deeper denial, were exhausting. When things finally broke, the dividing house of the marriage was mirrored in the war that broke out within me. I'd never experienced such a complete emotional collapse, and haven't since. It was months before I could think clearly about any future beyond the next few hours of survival.

It happened again in 1999, as a far-too-hasty second marriage ended. Again, I poured myself into holding things together, but when those efforts proved as futile as in the first go-round, I was much better prepared. It still hurt, and triggered another catastrophe, hastening my exit from the ministry.

Since then, I've been through a number of other traumas involving relationships, re-litigated custody issues, family crises, and career ups-and-downs. Some of those relationship traumas have resonated with those earlier divorce odysseys. But nothing has compared with the nauseating revelation of December 12, 1994, the night that everything I held dear was torn in two.

Nothing, that is, until November 8, 2016, the night red America demanded a divorce.

The buildup to election night resonated eerily: crazy things were being said and done, things that should have completely disqualified Trump in the minds of any rational voter, and yet millions of people were responding "Hell, yeah!" The Clinton campaign tried taking the high road, but toward the end, began airing powerful ads reminding voters of what this monstrous man had said and done, but to no effect. Irrationality had taken over. Red America was on the edge of the abyss, and rather than fearing what a dive into that darkness could do to the body as a whole, was recklessly curious.

So they jumped. And as is so often the case in divorce, they got everything they wanted, while we of blue America, exhausted from trying to keep things civil and united for so long, horrified at what red America was willing to embrace, stunned by the magnitude of the loss, could not muster a strong enough response to avoid any of it. The bastard took it all, the house, the kids, the good car, the pension, all of it, leaving us shivering and forlorn with the carload of belongings we were able to get away with in a tiny apartment in the Divorce Arms.

As if that wasn't enough, now they're parading around town, boasting of their victory, giddily proclaiming how much better off they'll be with that sleazy ass of a new boyfriend. They're blind to his manifold flaws. All they know is he's not Hillary, not Barack, not the boring old socially responsible conscience who's always nagging us about taking care of the poor and protecting the environment. This new guy may not care about anyone but himself, may just be in it to have a good time, but at the very least it's going to be an exciting ride.

Divorce confronts us with some harsh realities: how could this person we spent so much time with be such an alien? That's not the partner I knew! Reckless, irrational, vindictive, explosive, back-biting, treacherous, dishonest--how could I have been so blind?

That's how I'm feeling about red America. I knew some of them were racist, sexist, xenophobic, reactionary, radically fundamentalist, anti-intellectual, irrational; but I had no idea those feelings could come out on such a sweeping national scale as to elect this buffoon President. I've spent a large portion of my life living among these people, serving them as a pastor, teaching their children; and yet now it seems I never really knew them at all.

A big part of divorce sickness is realizing you've been married to a stranger, that you've been sharing a bed with someone who apparently is an utter psychopath. Waking up to this reality--and the even more frightening sense that you've gone along for the ride, have even enabled and empowered this person to do such crazy things, have become a willing accomplice in the insanity--is the worst part of divorce. All that time together--the courting, the romance, the adventures, the celebrations, the embraces, the passion, the laughter, the memories--now reveals itself to have been a lie.

Coming to understand these things about our former partner, it's tempting to just wash our hands of them, say "Good riddance," take our share of the estate, and be done with them. If we were to divide the country by red and blue counties, blue America would actually come away with far better economic assets: the nation's largest urban centers, the silicon valley and forest, most of the Western and Eastern coastlines, and most of the Mexican border. We might even feel a giddy elation at what those heels will be left with.

Until it sinks in that they're getting some of the countryside we've fought the hardest to protect: national parks and monuments, old growth forests, wilderness, mountains, deserts, tundra, all of it in the hands of that boorish bastard who wants to cut it down, drill it, pollute it, trash it, exploit it until every last penny of profit has been extracted and is lining the pockets of his cronies.

So for all the giddy liberation we may be anticipating at finally being rid of those red staters, there's a cost associated with it. Even shared custody means losing some say in how children are being raised. Secession means giving full custody of this nation's most spectacular wonders to money-crazed tycoons.

Divorce is a cold, nasty, brutish thing, an abusive gift that keeps giving. I know it's tempting to just bring an end to it, to hop on the secession bandwagon and join Canada, or create Pacific or Cascadia or Ecotopia. But as Abraham Lincoln prophesied in 1858, if this house that is America divides itself in real, concrete ways, it will not stand. We cannot go on having red states and blue states, especially since, as the map above demonstrates, even the reddest of states have blue counties; and there are Republican counties even in the Democratic stronghold of the West Coast. If we partition ourselves along partisan lines, the whole nation will collapse.

That doesn't mean we have to give in, roll over, let the bastards turn this marriage into a farce. Three years after Lincoln spoke those words, the United States tore itself apart over slavery. It still has not completely put itself back together, but it's not for lack of trying.

I've rarely initiated breakups. Both my divorces were initiated by my partners, and there were many times when I felt like they had it much easier than I did. Holding a failing relationship together is a desperate, frantic, thankless, often futile struggle; but it's vital work. If there is to be a United States four years from now that is, as Lincoln hoped at Gettysburg, "conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all ... are created equal," we will have to fight for it. We are going to have to force red America to stay married to us, be constantly in their faces with what it really means to be a great nation: diversity, hospitality, advocacy for the weak, intervention for the oppressed, fairness and equity and justice for all. In the hearts of hearts, they know that this is the nation they really want to live in: not the white power dystopia of the alt-right, not the money-is-power fever dream of the robber barons, not the privatized welfare state of the Republican elite; but an America that really is of the people, by the people, for the people.

That's why we must not just lie down and take it, why we must not angrily divorce ourselves from the struggle. It's up to us to hang onto the vision, to defend it, promote it, in order that it does not perish from the earth.


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