Most talk of a “second Civil War” in America is little more than hot air. While there are a few on the right who fantasize about Pinochet-style military coups and camo-wearing good ole boys in red states using assault weapons against supposedly defenseless blue staters, the reality is far more banal. Most of the cultural conflict in America is less red state versus blue state than urban versus rural, evangelical versus non-evangelical, old versus young, white versus non-white, more educated versus less educated, male versus female. The conflict is less between Colorado and Texas than it is between the younger, more diverse populations of Denver and San Antonio and the aged white flight exurban areas that surround them.
And while conservatives do own a lot of guns in raw numbers, so do many city dwellers—and most guns are held in arsenals by a comparatively small number of people who can, after all, only fire one effectively at a time. Rural Fox News watching seniors aren’t going to self-organize to shoot at their grandchildren or come within 30 miles of the urban centers they so greatly fear. They may engage in increasing acts of right-wing terrorism in a futile attempt to instigate a civil war, shortly before demographic changes render modern conservatism a spent electoral force in most places. The modern conservative movement is far likelier to go out not with a bang but with a whimper, just as it has in California.
But there is a scenario that could divide blue states and red states from one another in ways unprecedented since the 1860s: the repeal of Roe v. Wade.
Drunk on power and buoyed by an increasingly extremist Supreme Court, Republicans in red states are taking their shot at forcing the abortion issue in the courts, hoping that Brett Kavanaugh will become the deciding vote in reversing the landmark decision. Alabama is seeking to outlaw abortion entirely from conception onward; Georgia passed a bill to criminalize abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, a ludicrous move given that most women don’t even know if they’re pregnant by that time; Ohio, Mississippi, and Kentucky already have similar bills on the books. Ohio’s bill goes so far as to insist on attempting to re-implant ectopic pregnancies, which is not even a viable procedure.
It has long been argued that Republicans would not actually dare to follow through with flat out banning abortion because of the intense backlash that would ensue. But it’s clear by now that, if nothing else, the Trump era has given the conservative movement a giddy confidence that they can pursue extremism without consequence; that backlash from liberal constituencies does not matter; and that they can prevail against the odds no matter what the polls might say. They’re emotionally driven less by their own political or ideological needs than by the desire to cause pain and anguish to women, young people, minorities, and the educated class. As Adam Serwer and others have correctly noted, the cruelty is the point.
Republican legislators fully intend to criminalize abortion. They fully intend to jail women as murderers for taking control of their own bodies, to prosecute them for leaving the state for medical aid, to punish any doctor who attempts to help with a lifetime in jail. They really mean to do it—damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead.
But unlike any issue since slavery and Jim Crow, morally decent Americans in blue states will not stand by and idly watch as their fellow American women are dragged before theocratic tribunals and sentenced to life in prison for exercising the basic rights and freedoms that have become standard practice across the western world. They will not keep calm as thugs attempt to drag women refugees back across state lines for the crime of seeking a better life, free from their abusive partners, and endure the forced births of unwanted pregnancies. Like no other issue in American politics, decent citizens will demand aggressive action to defend the downtrodden and abused victims of patriarchal theocracy.
Many companies are already boycotting Georgia over its new abortion laws, especially entertainment firms that have become vital to the Georgia economy. More will follow suit, and not just in Georgia, but in other red states as well. Those boycotts will explode in the wake of an actual repeal of Roe v. Wade. Nor are these empty threats: the GDP of blue states is double that of red states, a fact that undersells the economic power disparity given the degree to which many red state economies are dependent on resource extraction and agriculture. Red states could attempt to finagle ways to increase the price of energy and food, but doing so would only hurt their economies more than it would hurt blue states, which have strong agricultural sectors in their own right, and would only hasten the development of renewable energy resources. Blue states, on the other hand, have considerable power to revoke contracts and investments in red states made, in part, due to lower cost of living and cheaper labor costs.
And that’s just the beginning. Educated, cosmopolitan women and their partners would flee to more hospitable areas, further increasing the “brain drain” effect in many struggling areas of the country—which might help Republicans in the immediate electoral short term to retain a few House and Senate seats, but would be devastating over the medium and long term. Even many foreign countries and companies would not be able to resist the calls to withdraw investment in certain parts of the United States, in a similar fashion to the boycotts of apartheid in South Africa.
Underground railroads would instantly develop in blue states to save women from their fates in red states. Blue states would implement sanctuary laws to prevent neighboring states from enforcing warrants. Tensions would escalate. While improbable, it’s not unthinkable that shots could be fired between the lawful officers of two separate American states over the prosecution of each state’s duly enacted laws.
All of this is avoidable if John Roberts refuses to take the bait. Modern America has survived desegregation, the Vietnam War, 9/11, an invasion of a non-threatening country based on lies, a devastating financial crisis, and even the election of a wantonly racist reality TV buffoon. We’re a resilient bunch. And while Americans threaten one another with political divorce, the likely reality is that most of these issues will be sorted out organically as time and demography take their toll on the conservative coalition.
But the repeal of Roe v. Wade could divide the country not just culturally, but literally between the states in a more devastating way than anything else. The liberal states would ultimately prevail just as they did in 1865, but not before millions of women suffer horrific abuses and the country tears itself apart.
One can hope a majority of the Supreme Court, including at least one of its more conservative members, puts the health of the nation above the interests of its most extremist and misogynistic backers.