Thursday, 15 June 2017 19:11

Mapping the Break Up of the United States

A question I've been asking myself recently: if the US continues on this apparently unstoppable spiral into total political dysfunction, to the point that we hit our own "Dissolution of the USSR" moment, how might the subsequent map of the (former) Lower 48 shape up?

Here is my conception of where things may be/could be headed, informed by a predilection for analytical geography and manipulation of geospatial databases...which are just fancy ways of saying that I like to see how the world works when you start from a spreadsheet, and go graphical from there. (#nerdalert)

US Breakup Map














It's worth taking a moment to consider why the question is actually important, and not (just) paranoid fantasy. Here's a short, off-top-of-head list of a few of the larger/more powerful countries in European history that once existed, and their fate:

Table of Dearly Departed States: RIP(ieces), Empires
Roman Empire

Split into East and West, with the West subsequently being absorbed into the Germanic cultures, producing a fusion of the Germanic and Roman political and faith systems in the Christian Frankish empire. East persists for another thousand years as the Byzantine Empire, ultimately defeated by and absorbed into what became the Turkish Ottoman Empire

Frankish Empire

Dynastic struggles split (mostly) the empire more or less along the Rhine river, which separatesmodern day Germany from France. France itself effectively exists from this point, with the eastern areas developing into the Holy Roman Empire (and 1500 years later, early Germany)

Holy Roman Empire

Often said to be neither 'Holy' nor 'Roman', it was as much of a confederation of German feudal states as anything else, and degenerated completely not long after the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire was put down for good, leaving rival monarchies in Prussia and Austria to feud (with France) over a string of city states from the Baltic to the Adriatic (many later re-united as 19th Century Germany and Italy)

'Royal' France

The core of modern-day France passed through the hands of a number of royal dynasties, and only recently (in historic terms) shook them off in the series of revolutions France has had since the 19th century. The French Empire that emerged, after failing (under Napoleon) to conquer Europe, turned to conquering colonies abroad

French Empire

Competed with the British Empire for power and colonies abroad, and was eventually defeated by the National Socialist regime that controlled Germany from 1933-1945, after which it lost its colonies and emerged as modern France - the butt of many a joke, probably because the rest of the world is just happy that the French elites subsequently decided against bringing their version of 'liberty and fraternity' to the rest of the world (again)

Imperial Germany

Prussia united (by force) the various German city-states and principalities of the mid-19th Century, then pursued breakneck industrialization and militarization that, in part, led to its own destruction at the end of World War I, leading to the emergence of the short-lived Weimar government

Weimar Germany

1918-1933, RIP. A short-lived attempt to create a post-revolutionary democratic German state, minus all the colonies and under strict international sanctions due Imperial Germany's role in sparking the disaster of the First World War. Torn apart by internal poltical struggles, a minority party - the National Socialists under Adolf Hitler - decided to 'Make Germany Great Again' and build a '1000-year Empire (Reich)'


Defeated in the First World War, and broken up into a bewildering variety of successor-states, that were supposed to match hard ethnic/linguistic boundaries but didn't, couldn't, because people in reality mix rather freely with one another and are difficult to arbitrarily split apart. Major successor states include Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, neither of which survived into the 21st Century

Nazi Germany

Long story short: History's biggest whoops. Killed Weimar. Re-wrote the rules of German society to exclude (eventually kill) 'deviants' (=Jews, Roma, the disabled, communists, pacifists...) and enforced these genocidal goals ruthlessly. Ate Austria, France, Yugoslavia...basically, tried to conquer Europe, failed, and was put down decisively in 1945. Territory was divided into occupied zones that only reunited in 1990s. Austria was re-separated, Prussia mostly depopulated of Germans and territory given to Poland. Modern Germany works very hard at representing a permanent break from the Nazi's madness

British Empire

A peripheral player in Europe until the age of colonization gave it access to cheap (stolen) resources, the British Empire became the most powerful in the world by the start of the 20th century. Lost the North American (US colonies) in the 18th century, which set a trend: by the end of the 20th Century the Empire itself was gone, and the Commonwealth remained, with a former colony (the USA) effectively replacing the British Empire with the 'Pax Americana'


After the Soviet Union broke apart, Yugoslavia did too, leading to a horrific period of civil war and the partition of the country into almost as many bits as the (former) USSR, despite a far smaller territory. Bosnia and Kosovo in the 90's served as a reminder that the evil that is war hadn't been entirely extinguished in Europe, and the past screw-ups of history were well capable of returning to haunt the present


In contrast to Yugoslavia, the Czechs and Slovakians were able to negotiate a peaceful split of the country in the 1990s, separating the country into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. A small, but important, example of a country peacefully separating once its political system was no longer able to keep the country together.

Soviet Union

Took over the Russian Empire (from Imperial Russia, RIP Tsars) after a devastating Civil War, and the USSR's ability to hold together after the German invasion in 1941 was the real reason Nazi Germany was defeated in 1945 (yes, the Western Allies helped by shipping huge quantities of material (trucks, bullets, tanks, planes), but the Soviets lost at least 20 million soldiers and civilians). The USSR's elites essentially decided Marxism-Leninism wasn't worth it in the late 80's, and after attempting Gorbachev's reforms the USSR dissolved with a speed thought impossible at the time.

*Note that this table entirely ignores the rest of the world, and also the recent functional disintegration of (what feels like) half the countries of the Middle East (Libya, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq...)

**All 5 of which the United States is currently (a continuation of the last administration) bombing under the auspices of one excuse or another (the particular excuse changes every few years).


Countries live, countries die. Empires rise, empires fall - and yes, the USA has been, and still in many ways acts like, an empire - and hopefully, our species has almost arrived at an era where we don't even have empires anymore (I'll save my screed on radical digital democracy for another time). But my main point is that history is hard on countries. They seem to have a natural life-cycle of sorts, to the point that I would argue that you can look at the global power structure as a sort of ecosystem. A dynamic, constantly shifting ecosystem that results in the rise and fall of one 'Great Power' after another.

There is no valid reason to think the United States of America is immune to whatever historic forces cause countries to come together and break apart (for a visual of this effect over human history, look chronologically at Thomas Lessman's excellent maps of Eurasia from BCE times to the present). And given how deep differences have come to run between the various components that together constitute American society, it is reasonable to question whether such a dissolution might not come sooner rather than later.

I am by no means the only person writing along these lines. Consider this piece in Der Spiegel, a major German publication that is usually both sane and prescient, a welcome break from most of the US press. When a media outlet that is basically a less-haughty German equivalent of the New Yorker is willing to call out America's political crisis for what it is, folks should pay attention. Retired military officer William Astore, writing on his website Bracing Views (also posted on Tomdispatch), offers a similar warning.

For a more graphic/geographic perspective, here's a summary of two of the most prominent perspectives on how a post-US breakup map might look.

Being of a geographic bent, I wanted to brainstorm my own map of what the political geography of the post breakup USA might look like in a 'peaceful, sensible divorce' sort of future, where the goal was to manage the breakup by using the existing (political) red/blue lines as a basic guide, but then further split the resulting (pseudo-homogenous) regions into as 'natural' a set of hypothetical countries as possible using the existing geographic dimensions (political, cultural, economic) of the Lower 48 to come up with a rational map.

Which really simplifies to: I tried to use some hard data to guide my own sense of what distinct 'regions' already exist within the United States. But something to note: most maps that try to break up the US in a logical way tend to focus entirely on existing state boundaries. However, I believe that the county is a more appropriate base unit of analysis for my purpose, because anyone familiar with state-level politics in the US knows that the states themselves often contain significant political and cultural divides, which in existing statistics show up at the county or precinct level.

As a side note, it is important to realize that the current map of the US we've (almost all of us) memorized since grade school was produced by two centuries of growth and change. Though we're all predisposed to think of the USA as this coherent entity produced through Manifest Destiny, it is worth remembering how the boundaries of what has become the USA have changed over the years:

North America cultural areas pre-European Colonization

Pre-European Cultural Regions of North America by Nikater, derived from work of Alfred Kroeber


Indigenous Tribes Map

Map from


United States Expansion

US Expansion from National Atlas of US


2000 Census Ancestry by County

US Census Map by County Showing Major Ancestry (US Govt)


So given all the diversity in so many different dimensions, that could quite reasonably serve as a basis for a 'post-USA' map, why focus on the political angle? After all, the US isn't truly split into hard red/blue regions - conservatives and liberals, democrats and republicans, moderates and radicals and independents of all stripes live side by side, mostly without serious conflict. Dividing up the country strictly on red/blue lines leaves a lot of people on the 'wrong' side of the line, and encourages us to focus on our (mostly superficial) differences.

Adding further complexity, consider that red and blue in the United States each have internal shades, such that a conservative republican in a state like California or Oregon actually has a tendency to sound closer in tone and concerns to a liberal democrat in that same state, than they do with their co-sectarians in Alabama or Georgia.

The deeper political problem in our country isn't that conservatives and liberals can't get along locally, but that they can't get along nationally. Local is linked to national by the Democratic/Republican party apparatus (apparatuses?), which can usually subordinate local concerns to whatever national objectives the party is focused on, preventing useful non or bi-partisan alliances from forming with respect to local issues. Which actually happens all the time - consider land use planning in Oregon. Back in the '70s, under the leadership of Republican governor Tom McCall, conservatives pushed for stricter land use rules to control urban sprawl, and in the process allied with environmentalists who had the same onjective (though for different reasons). Despite this, they worked together and created the regulatory architecture that, while by no means perfect, have helped prevent Oregon's urban areas from sprawling into the surrounding countryside nearly as much as has happened in places like Los Angeles and Seattle.

Washington D.C. has long since degenerated into a sham of politics where the real business takes place between well-connected insiders behind closed doors, and the vast majority of Americans know it. Even in elections that by recent standards are 'high turnout', 33-40% of eligible American voters don't go to the polls. Why? Because the majority of Americans are well aware that neither of our Janus-headed major parties are trustworthy (and the bigger minor parties are disasters too). Americans are united in their dissatisfaction with the legislative branch. All it serves to do in the 21st century is decide which sector of the economy gets tax breaks or tax hikes, and use the Pentagon as a pass-through for who even knows how many pork projects in the districts of the best-connected politicians (because no one ever audits the Pentagon, which is insane given that the organization hoovers up more than 50% of all our federal discretionary spending, all funded from federal income tax revenues).

But the gridlock in D.C. also serves as a giant checkmate, forcing a society that has divided along political-economic-cultural lines, to channel all attempts at reform through the massive blocking institution that is the federal government. The truth of the matter is that Americans functionally live in different countries, despite our shared flag, currency, and constitution. When you look at a map of the US, and see it broken into red and blue states (or shades of purple), what you are seeing is not a map of a fundamental divide between all Americans, but an imperfect echo, of very different social and cultural trajectories within the USA, that are increasingly difficult to reconcile within the same system of government.

2016 more than any recent election laid bare real differences that divide Americans, that have been simmering and growing particularly since the 2008 financial crisis and aftermath proved Barack Obama's election promises of Hope and Change to be little more than stale rhetoric. The truth is, the past eight years have revealed that America has functionally divided socially into distinct clusters, each with its own major concerns, and each increasingly at variance with the others - with the 'Neos' all-but having seized control of our government over the past quarter-century or so.

I characterize these clusters like so:

US Divide Punnet



















(Screenshot of Diagram made in Dia)


The emergence of the Trumpists has essentially colonized the entire national architecture of the republican/conservative/red/right, and has simultaneously paralyzed the traditional party apparatus in both the republican and democratic camps, which have so far been patently unable or unwilling to do anything meaningful to resist the Trumpists as they've systematically moved to hollow out the federal state since formally taking power in January 2017.

Trumpism's current control over and demonstrated willingness to dismantle the core institutions that have kept the USA together since the turbulent 1960s, while simultaneously governing exclusively in the interest of what the hardcore Trumpists truly believe is the 'correct' kind of American (White, Christian, (ideally male), and obedient - look at how members of the press or protestors at Trumpist rallies are treated, if you want to verify that characterization) is literally tearing America apart.

I believe it absolutely fair to say that our current political crisis risks the dissolution of the Union. And the example of the USSR demonstrates how quickly these things can actually happen. Particularly when the governors of certain large, prosperous states (California #calexit. Texas #texit.) are faced with increasingly strange and unpredictable actions taken by a rudderless federal bureaucracy. At a certain point, autonomy becomes a fact of life when you can't rely on the system to at least produce consistent results.

Being a radical pragmatist, I say that perhaps we all ought to be thinking about how to take advantage of the coming period of dissolution and decay to try to come up with some kind of better way to do things. If it is the fate of every generation to cope with the mess left by their predecessors as best they can, the post-Boomer generations are going to have to figure out either how to put a deeply divided country back together, or find a new Constitutional arrangement that lets us evolve in the directions we, on a regional level, culturally, politically, and economically, are now headed.

My current thinking is that we ought to basically give each inheritor state emerging from a post-USA breakup the Constitution as-is, then allow citizens within their boundaries to interpret it and reform it (and the successor governments) however they choose. The new countries would be combined by splitting up the existing states according to the trajectory of the local political geography over the decade, then merging like areas until all the state-fragments are united back into a new set of countries, each as politically de-conflicted as possible and following, where possible, existing cultural/regional boundaries.

In all respects save for a common currency and common defense pact in case of physical aggression (not 'defense of American interests', which is probably the most abused excuse for military agression of all time) against any member state, each new country would be free to internally interpret/develop the Constitution to suit.



So, how did I produce this US breakup map? Geographers have a tendency to adore geographic information systems, and I'm no exception, so I snagged a database of county level voting results for the past three presidential elections (2008, 2012, 2016) and a county-level shapefile of the Lower 48 US states. This allowed me to produce, in QGIS, this political division of America at the county level:

US Counties RedBlue














To create this map, I classified each county by the average number of raw votes the winning candidate received in each of the last three elections:

Class 1: 10,000+ average margin of victory

Class 2: 2,000-10,000 average margin

Class 3: within 2000 votes either way.

Classes 1 and 2 were further broken up by color (in different shades), naturally red and blue. This let me use the 'bluest' and 'reddest' regions, usually corresponding to major population centers, as 'core' areas with the red/blue shades representing more intermediate degrees of blue or red predominance (either narrowly divide precincts or small-populations). Using the relatively unpopulated (or politically balanced) Class 3 areas to connect the cores together, allowed me to assign a hard red/blue characterization above.

***Note that the coloring of individual counties, was done by hand in Gimp. If there is interest, I'll write follow-up pieces that use QGIS' tools to produce something a little more consistent, but because I've spent a lot of time shifting counties around, it was easier to produce this (rough) version in Gimp.

The next step was to think about how to break up these red and blue regions in a consistent, functional way. Because as discussions of gerrymandering show, trying to draw boundaries between political jurisdictions can go stupid very quickly. So I relied on a variety of maps as guides. Here's a few:

US Federal Admin Regions

US Federal Regions (by Belg4mit)


Geographic Boundaries of US Courts of Appeals

US Circuit Courts of Appeals (US Govt, modified by Tintazul)


EPA Level 2 Ecoregions

EPA Level II ecoregions (US Govt)


US from Space

And for good measure, here's how the US looks from space! (Ryan Kaldari crop of a NASA image)


The reality is that the USA is already functionally divided up, because the country is simply too large to govern as a unitary entity. Consider this: wherever you are in the US, if you must interact with the federal government you typically don't go to or work with anyone in Washington D.C., because while national policy gets set there, in reality bureaucrats have to apply federal rules as best they can in their local context. Already, the way the Constitution gets interpreted by the federal administrative apparatus, whether we're talking about the IRS, Park Service, or FBI, depends a great deal on where you live - what federal district you are in. D.C. these days mostly serves as a national 'pass-through' organization for tax revenues, with, by the way, many states so economically non-competitive that the wealther states basically subsidize their dysfunction.

In any event, what I'm trying to communicate is that when you want to divide up an entity as big and complicated as the USA, things get heuristic (own best judgement) quickly. But, in comparing my map with what other folks have argued would make for a natural post-US map, I actually quite like my take. If I can get a discussion going someplace on how this map ought to be modified, I'll see if I can't update it in the future once I have time and energy to think more on the topic.

And as an extra bonus, because I have a bunch of census data in the GIS I built to produce the base map, I could actually generate vital statistics for the 'New 24' as I'm (cornily) calling them (if I even counted correctly). Which would add some texture to these divisions, and possibly identify which of these proposed new countries would be more - or less - viable given a rapidly changing global economy that is further complicating the project of keeping the different parts of the US together under the same political-economic system.


Weaknesses of this Approach/Result

  • There does not appear to be a consensus position on what size a country needs to be in this day and age to survive economically. Some of the newest countries in the world (East Timor, for example) are rather small, but Scotland (which may be independent in the near future) has about 5.5 million citizens, which is fewer than the existing US state of Washington (at 7.2 million). I have tried to keep the USA successor states large enough to contain the megacities that are at their heart, but small enough that a citizen of any could physically travel to wherever the new capitol might be established within a day of driving.
  • Some gerrymandering, particularly around the Great Lakes, the 'Black Belt' in the South, and the Southwest, resulted from some extreme gradients between more red and blue counties, I believe reflecting the very strong urban/rural, ethnic, and economic differences between social groups in the parts of the country that have been inhabited the longest. 
  • My own lack of county-level knowledge outside of the I-5 corridor from San Diego to Seattle. I have lived in/traveled through most of the US west of the Mississippi and south of the Ohio rivers, from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The north/northeast is an area I am far less familiar with, and so I tend to do things like group all the smaller states of 'New England' together, because states out there are the size of entire counties out West.
  • I'm not certain that all states need to be divided like this, but particularly in the US West state and county lines were drawn when population densities were low and before 50-100 years of very rapid industrialization, which fundamentally altered ecosystems and geographies there is a lot of room for administrative re-jiggering.
  • My export of the basic shapefile from QGIS to Gimp caused some visual artifacts along the edges of many counties, that annoy me.


Would a political division of the country solve anything? I believe it would. My hope is that something like this, particularly because it would break up the existing states (a boundary refresh seems like an objectively good idea, given how different today's world is than that of the 19th century, when the boundaries were mostly drawn.) and therefore the connections between the national/state level party establishments and their local subsidiaries, opening up new opportunities for re-drawing political coalitions. But that will only be possible if the USA can reform its federal structure to try and deconflict the factions that are tearing our society apart, just like the Founders feared would happen.

Whether a clean/peaceful/rational disentanglement of the two Americas is possible is an open question. It used to be a paranoid fantasy, the idea of a new American Civil War, the sort of thing only worth exploring in dystopian fiction. But if you are willing to set aside the instinctive "America, $%&* Yeah" impulse we've all been indoctrinated with since grade school, and accept that the map of the USA is not set in stone, and may change (again), the question of "what comes next" seems, from a historic perspective, both sensible and important.

And to hazard a prediction: if we do not, as a society, come to terms with how our institutions are being colonized and turned against us, our current set of imbecilic leaders will sooner or later tear the country apart. Change and reform are coming, the question is whether we the people have any say in the matter, or whether the charlatans and hangers-on currently infesting our imperial capital re-write the rules for their own benefit.


Further Reading

Edit 11/2018: I don't actually use Amazon affiliate links anymore, but these links ought to still work just fine.

The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart, by Bill Bishop

  • Contemporary classic. Lays out the trends at work, and I think shows the danger of ignoring the heterogeneity of American culture.

The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, by Paul Kennedy

  • Another of those 'classic', and flawed, works, but one of those essential readings for anyone who wants to think about how empires change and develop over time, sometimes with self-terminating consequences.

American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, by Colin Woodard

  • Another of the few attempts to chart out how we Americans are in fact quite different, something we need to recognize if we want to deal with the crisis of the 21st century...

Across This Land: A Regional Geography of the United States and Canada, by John Hudson

  • My 'Geography' plug. Not enough Americans know about or understand Geography as a field of study in its own right, and not just an excuse to look at maps. Or make them, in my case.

Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, by Barrington Moore

  • A dense work, probably something only scholars and academics typically read, and something of a classic in its field. I like it because it applies theory to history, and tries to explain why certain countries in Europe developed like they did in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and the consequences (hint hint, Germany in the '40s).

A People's History of the United States, by Howard Zinn

  • That this was ever controversial as a work of history is straight down to the influence of America's self-appointed 'Guardians', who don't like us to acknowledge the very checkered past that they prefer we ignore, as it casts doubt on the legitimacy of their claim on moral/political leadership, and shows many of them up for the hypocrites they are.
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