The Case of Bluexit

There is some debate about an idea called New Federalism— should Blue America abandon Red America, and what would that even mean?  

You find yourself confined in a cabin. Outside the window, you see a mother and child menaced by a wild beast. As the beast tears the child from its mother’s arms, you are powerless to stop it. How do you feel?

Jean Jacques Rosseau proclaims: “What horrid agitation must not the eyewitness of such a scene experience, although he would not be personally concerned! What anxiety would he not suffer at not being able to give any assistance to the fainting mother and the dying infant!” [1]

You find yourself on the edge of a pond. A child is drowning. To save the child, you must dive into the pond, ruining your clothes. What do you do?

Obviously, you save the child: “if it is in [y]our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, [you] ought, morally, to do it.” [2] Or so Peter Singer would have you believe.

You find yourself in the United States. You live in a prosperous state, with sound policies and a stable government. You know others live in states with unsound policies and irrational governments. As a result, they suffer. You have the resources to stop that suffering. What do you do?

You abandon them.

Last year, Kevin Baker wrote for The New Republic to advance an idea called “New Federalism,” or “Bluexit.” “What I mean,” he says, “is that it’s time for blue states and cities to effectively abandon the American national enterprise, as it is currently constituted. Call it the New Federalism.” [3]

Why be a New Federalist? Blue America, that is, all the cities and states governed by the liberal policies of the Democratic Party, is much richer than Red America, which is governed by the conservative Republican Party. This economic disparity can be explained by the different policies of each Party; while the Democrats favor progressive policies, the Republicans favor self-destructive ones. Instead of futilely trying to build up a people who choose to tear themselves down, the New Federalists pledge: “We’ll turn Blue America into a world-class incubator for progressive programs and policies, a laboratory for a guaranteed income and a high-speed public rail system and free public universities. We’ll focus on getting our own house in order, while [Red America’s] falls into disrepair and ruin.” [4]

Are you a New Federalist? In practice, New Federalism calls for “cutting the federal income tax to the bone,” repealing the Affordable Care Act (ACA), and abandoning the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). [5] If you felt horrified by the thought of the dying infant, if you thought you would rush to save the drowning child, how could you justify leaving others without healthcare or disaster relief, while you yourself enjoy a high-speed public rail system? If you feel, as Rousseau feels, that “men would have never been better than monsters, had not nature bestowed on them a sense of compassion,” New Federalism must seem devoid of compassion, and even monstrous. [6] If you follow Singer’s belief that we ought to avert suffering and death from a lack of basic needs, New Federalism seems both monstrous and deeply unethical.

There remains something alluring about New Federalism. Imagine the Blue America Baker describes; it’s a land of opportunity, of freedom, of prosperity and prudent public policy. While Baker’s vision is utopian, he presents us with an ideal Blue America could advance towards— if it had the resources. Instead, those resources are spent on a quixotic quest elsewhere, on a people who will be infinitely demanding of those resources.

In Oklahoma, a Red State, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the coming decades will increase floods, droughts, and possibly tornadoes. [7] At the same time, the people of Oklahoma have elected Jim Inhofe for four full consecutive terms in the Senate. He has written a book on climate change called “The Greatest Hoax,” and he is most famous for attempting to disprove climate change by bringing a snowball to the Senate floor in 2015. [8]

Now, imagine that the people of Oklahoma continue to choose people like Senator Inhofe to represent themselves, even as they suffer from his positions and policies. It would surely feel like a great injustice if their willful ignorance and political intransigence held us back from our own progress. If a people are unwilling to act in their own self-interest, why should we compromise our interests on their behalf, forever?

Liberal-leftist commentators have an answer.

In Jacobin, Branko Marcetic responds to Baker by writing “Against Bluexit,” and in The Nation, Paul Blest bluntly writes that “Blue-State Secession Is Dumb and Cruel.” Marcetic describes the consequences of New Federalism in Red America:

“deepening poverty; more vulnerable children neglected and abused; the continued erosion of abortion rights; the likely rollback of hard-won civil rights for minorities; intensifying discrimination against the LGBT community; the continued decline of public infrastructure; and the decimation of local environments and the poisoning of resources essential to people’s lives.” [9]

Blest argues that such suffering is unfair and unjust, as working-class people “can’t just pack up and move, and that shouldn’t preclude them from having the same rights and privileges afforded to people who live in the Northeast and on the West Coast.” [10] Much of what Marcetic and Blest write relies on the appeal to compassion and on our duty to alleviate the suffering of others that we’ve already seen from Rosseau and Singer, but there’s something new here— paternalism. Marcetic explicitly calls for “intervention and oversight” over Red America to prevent Red America from suffering. [11] Red Americans, he implicitly maintains, are incapable of self-government. They need the watchful eye and helping hand of Blue America to make sure they don’t hurt themselves.

Are you a paternalist? Paternalism gives us a compelling reason to compromise our interests for the sake of others. This is why Rosseau and Singer triggered our compassion with stories of children in need— we feel deeply that it’s right for people to help those who can’t help themselves. At the same time, Red America isn’t made of children. Everyone who voted for Jim Inhofe is (far) over the age of 18. Can we really justify treating Red Americans as children? Philosopher Martha Nussbaum phrases her objection to paternalism eloquently: “people are the best judges of what is good for them, and if we prevent people from acting on their own choices, we treat them like children.” [12] If we believe in some equality between people, if we are committed to the principle of one person, one vote because we respect each person’s right to an equal say in their community, how can we also say that some people are unfit for self-government and need special oversight? We can’t accept Marcetic’s paternalism without undermining the principles that legitimize democracy.

You may notice something odd about our conversation. While we’ve talked about Red America’s choices, we’ve consistently maintained Baker’s framing, in which we are Blue Americans. Further, we’ve acted as if the Blue Americans are the only relevant moral group. In a lecture about incentives, G.A. Cohen addresses this phenomenon. He does so with an idea called comprehensive justification. Comprehensive justification, roughly, stipulates that a policy justified by someone else’s behavior is justified only when that behavior is, itself, justified. In Cohen’s terms: ‘“We should do A because they will do B” may justify our doing A, but it does not justify it comprehensively if they are not justified in doing B.” [13] Filling in A and B, we might arrive at the following statement: “We should help Red America because Red America will freely elect politicians that will harm it.” On this reading, a policy of federal aid seems unjustified. We can go further— Cohen also imagines an interpersonal test, in which we evaluate the justice of policies by imagining the different groups involved presenting those policies. [14] Imagine our policy of federal intervention, as proposed by Red America: “You should use your resources to help us, because if you don’t, we will elect politicians who cause us to suffer.” If we take this position, Red America seems to be holding itself hostage, and relying on Blue America’s sense of compassion to extract its resources. New Federalism is looking better all the time!

Are you a New Federalist? It can be frustrating to consider a situation where we feel held back by people freely choose self-destructive policies, and I’ll be the first to admit that. We may feel defrauded by those who knowingly choose disastrous policies, and we may feel the obligation to bail them out is an unjust one.  Further, arguments against New Federalism, from compassion, obligation, and paternalism, face serious objections. Many of us imagine leaving a better world for the next generation than the one we found, and we may feel cheated of that dream by, for example, the ecological negligence of folks like Senator Inhofe and President Trump. [15] [16] [17] But yet— I am not a New Federalist.

I am not a New Federalist. Martha Nussbaum, following Karl Marx, believes there are certain capabilities essential to living a truly human life. Each human deserves to live as “a dignified free being,” and without certain resources, we lose the capability to live our lives that being a dignified free being demands. [18] Nussbaum says this idea “broad cross-cultural resonance and intrusive power.” [19] She’s right; there are some things all people deserve, including those who make self-destructive choices. Thought it stings to put aside our own advancement, and, to some extent, human advancement, compassion and duty compel me. When Peter Singer describes morality, he rejects the idea that the distance between any two people should impact how we shape our moral judgments. [20] For me, anyway, it follows that we should eschew the Red America / Blue America divide and treat other Americans as our neighbors in our own moral considerations.

I find myself in a cabin. My neighbor is an ardent climate change denier, and has long voted for Jim Inhofe. Perhaps he is Jim Inhofe. His house, likely due to the very climate change he denies, floods. He suffers. He is deprived of the very basic capability of shelter, and I have the power to stop it. What do I do? I help.



[1]. Jean Jacques Rousseau. Discourse on Inequality, trans G. D. H. Cole (American University of Beirut), 19.

[2]. Peter Singer, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 1, no. 3 (1972): 231.

[3] Kevin Baker. “Bluexit: A Modest Proposal for Separating Blue States from Red.” Illustrated by Alex Nabuam. The New Republic, March 9, 2017.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Rousseau, 20.

[7] “What Climate Change Means for Oklahoma,” United States Environmental Protection Agency. August 2016.

[8] Philip Bump. “Jim Inhofe’s snowball has disproven climate change once and for all,” The Washington Post. February 26, 2015.

[9] Branko Marcetic. “Against Bluexit,” Jacobin. July 11, 2017.

[10] Paul Blest. “Blue-State Secession is Dumb and Cruel,” The Nation. March 13, 2017.

[11] Marcetic.

[12] Martha Nussbaum. “In Defense of Universal Values,” in Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach. Vol. 3. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 51.

[13] G.A. Cohen. “The Incentives Argument,” in Rescuing Justice and Equality, (Harvard University Press, 2008), 41.

[14] Cohen, 42.

[15] Donald Trump, “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese,” Twitter. November 6, 2012.

[16] Donald Trump, “This very expensive GLOBAL WARMING bullshit has got to stop,” Twitter. January 1, 2014.

[17] Donald Trump, “Brutal and Extended Cold Blast could shatter ALL RECORDS,” Twitter. November 21, 2018.

[18] Nussbaum, 72.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Singer, 232.



“What Climate Change Means for Oklahoma.” United States Environmental Protection Agency. August 2016.

Baker, Kevin. “Bluexit: A Modest Proposal for Separating Blue States from Red.” Illustrated by Alex Nabuam. The New Republic, March 9, 2017.

Blest, Paul. “Blue-State Secession is Dumb and Cruel.” The Nation. March 13, 2017.

Bump, Philip. “Jim Inhofe’s snowball has disproven climate change once and for all.” The Washington Post. February 26, 2015.

Cohen, G.A. “The Incentives Argument.” In Rescuing Justice and Equality. Harvard University Press, 2008.

Marcetic, Branko. “Against Bluexit.” Jacobin. July 11, 2017.

Nussbaum, Martha. “In Defense of Universal Values.” In Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach. Vol. 3. Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Rousseau, Jean Jaques. Discourse on Inequality, trans G. D. H. Cole. American University of Beirut.

Singer, Peter. “Famine, Affluence, and Morality.” Philosophy & Public Affairs 1, no. 3 (1972): 229-243.

Trump, Donald. “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese.” Twitter. November 6, 2012.

Trump, Donald. “This very expensive GLOBAL WARMING bullshit has got to stop.” Twitter. January 1, 2014.

Trump, Donald. “Brutal and Extended Cold Blast could shatter ALL RECORDS.” Twitter. November 21, 2018.

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At Yale-NUS College, we are thinking about ideals of equality and democracy, and how they relate to practice, in Singapore and in the wider world.

This website showcases our reflections.

Articles were originally submitted as course papers for Professor Sandra Field’s classes Contemporary Egalitarianism and Democratic Theory.

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