In fact, a visitor from the real 1850s — or, for that matter, the average economic-determinist historian — would be baffled by the idea of red states and blue states at one another’s throats.
In the decade before the Civil War, free states and slave states were wildly different societies: One dynamic, capitalist, evolving; the other static and feudal, a world where the stranger walking down the road was a sign of potential danger, not an inevitable part of the great churn of American life. The enslavers thought Northern abolition talk would get them killed; free-staters thought the slave power wanted to force its system on the whole country. To move from New Jersey to Alabama during the James Buchanan presidency would be to enter an almost unrecognizable world, one that seemed distinctly dangerous.
By contrast, to move from New Jersey to Alabama during the Joe Biden presidency would mean experiencing marginally different tax rates, stingier public benefits and vaguely colorful local folkways — while living in the same post-industrial service economy as back home, reading the same news online and streaming the same TV shows on the same Netflix account. This doesn’t look like two distinct societies who need a war to sort out their differences.
In fact, even before President Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant and the 13th amendment went to work undercutting the slave-economy foundation of those differences, railroads and telegraphs were already knitting the diverse country together. In the century and a half since, the process kept moving in the same direction: Radio and television, air conditioning and cars, land-grant colleges and Interstate highways.
And, of course, laws: From the middle of the 20th century onward, Congress and the courts effectively created a national standard on civil liberties, ending the South’s 100-year carve-out from post-Civil War constitutional guarantees. Jim Crow and segregation were gone. In time, your location within the United States had less and less impact on your ability to get a drink or water, read radical newspapers or marry whomever you want.
That, in turn, led to other, less fraught, sanding down of regional distinction. It’s hard to imagine professional sports in a legally segregated south. But nowadays, former Jim Crow states can cheer on the Atlanta Braves or Oklahoma City Thunder just like the old fans did back in Boston or Seattle.
The great nationalizing was never complete, of course, nor was it just limited to local exotica like what sort of sauce you prefer on your barbecue (LGBTQ rights have remained a patchwork that generally reflects region). And it is not, incidentally, just a tale of the triumph of liberal preferences: Thanks to the Brighter decision, you can move to the urban north without giving up your ability to pack heat. It’s the same country, for better or worse.
On top of all its visceral civil rights effects, the roe reversal calls this feeling into question in unfamiliar ways. Our countrymen in the 19th and 20th centuries were accustomed to strong legal chasms between states and regions. Today, not so much. But if the ruling takes place along the lines of Justice Samuel Alito’s draft, there immediately will be an enormous practical difference between living in most red states and most blue ones. On one side of the line, you have a right; on the other, you don’t.