Oct. 5 (Bloomberg) - In “American Nations,” I’ve sought to show how our Balkanized past has informed our divided present, in the hopes of fostering a better understanding of the American identity and predicament. But inevitably people ask what this means for the future.
The short answer is, of course, that nobody knows. But given the challenges facing the U.S., Mexico and, to a lesser extent, Canada, it seems unwise to simply assume that North America’s political boundaries will remain as they are today.
The U.S. is wracked by internal discord between two blocs formed by seven of its 11 regional nations -- the conservative bloc that includes the Deep South, Tidewater and much of greater Appalachia, pitted against the more liberal alliance of Yankeedom, New Netherland, the Midlands and the Left Coast. Increasingly, through American history, the conflict between these two blocs has been driving the nation apart.
The country has been exhibiting the classic symptoms of an empire in decline. Kevin Phillips -- the political strategist who, back in 1969, used regional ethnography to accurately predict the ensuing 40 years of American political development - - has pointed out parallels with late imperial Holland and Britain. Like its superpower predecessors, the U.S. has built up a staggering trade deficit and sovereign debt while overreaching militarily. As financial services have come to account for a larger and larger share of national output, religious extremists have come to play a bigger and bigger role in political life.
Indebted and Divided
Once a great exporter of innovations, products and financial capital, the U.S. is now deeply indebted to China, on which America relies for much of what it consumes and, increasingly, for the scientists and engineers who are needed by research and development firms and institutions. The U.S. citizenry is divided along regional lines. The country’s military has been mired in expensive and frustrating counterinsurgency wars in Mesopotamia and Central Asia, while barbarians have stormed the gates of Washington and Wall Street, killing thousands in the surprise attacks of September 2001.
Add in the damage to public confidence in the electoral system caused by the 2000 election, the near-total meltdown of the financial sector in 2008, and extreme political dysfunction in the capital, and it’s clear the U.S. hasn’t started the 21st century auspiciously.
To the south, the Mexican federation is in even worse shape. For years, leading foreign-policy experts have been describing it as a failed state. It’s not hard to imagine Mexico shattering in a time of crisis -- a climate-change-related disaster, a global financial collapse, a major act of terrorism -- freeing the Mexican half of El Norte to look northward.
In Canada, national fractures have been obvious for some time, with New France pushing for outright independence through 1995. In that year, 60 percent of Quebec’s Francophones voted in support of independence. The measure was narrowly defeated (because English-speakers, immigrants and the First Nation section of Quebec rejected it). The lower house of the federal parliament recognizes Quebec as a “distinct society,” and New France-style multiculturalism has become the civic religion of Canadians everywhere.
Today, Canada is perhaps the most stable of the three North American federations. Unlike the U.S., it has, in effect, rejected any illusion of having a single dominant culture, and adjusted accordingly. Whether that will be enough to preserve the federation in the long term remains to be seen.
In the U.S., one approach to maintaining the status quo might be for its 11 nations to follow Canada’s example and compromise their respective cultural agendas for the sake of unity. Unfortunately, neither the Dixie bloc nor the Northern alliance is likely to make major concessions. Most Yankees, New Netherlanders and Left Coasters simply won’t accept an evangelical Christian theocracy with weak or nonexistent social, labor or environmental protections, public school systems, and checks on corporate power in politics.
For their part, most Deep Southerners will resist paying higher taxes to underwrite a public health-insurance system; a universal network of generously funded, unionized and avowedly secular public schools; tuition-free public universities; government-subsidized transportation, high-speed rail and renewable energy projects; or strict regulations on financial services, food safety, environmental pollution and campaign finance.
Instead, the “red” and “blue” nations will continue to wrestle with one another for control over federal policy, each doing what it can to woo “purple” nations to their cause, just as they have since they gathered at the First Continental Congress.
Another outside possibility is that, faced with a major crisis, the federation’s leaders will betray their oath to uphold the U.S. Constitution, the primary adhesive holding the Union together. In the midst of, say, a deadly pandemic or the simultaneous destruction of several cities by terrorists, a fearful public might condone the suspension of civil rights, or the dissolution of Congress. Some regional nations would be happy with the new order and others, deeply opposed. With the Constitution abandoned, the federation could well disintegrate, forming one or more confederations of like-minded regions.
Chances are, any such new sovereign entities would be based on state boundaries, because, in such a scenario, governors and legislators would be the most politically legitimate actors. New York, New Jersey and states in New England, the Great Lakes region and the Pacific Northwest might form one or more confederations. States controlled by the Deep South -- South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana -- might form another. The mountain and plains states of the Far West would constitute an obvious third.
The situation might be more complicated within the often-divided Greater Appalachia or the nationally mixed states of Texas, California, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Arizona. It isn’t impossible to imagine some of the resulting coalitions extending into Canada or, in the case of El Norte, into Mexico.
Or perhaps the federation would simply reach accommodation over time as its component nations came to realize that the only issue on which they could find common ground was the need to free themselves from one another’s veto power. Perhaps they’d join together enough to pass laws and constitutional amendments granting more powers to the states and liquidating many of the functions of the central government. The U.S. might continue to exist, but its powers would be limited to national defense, foreign policy and the negotiation of interstate trade agreements. It would, in other words, resemble the European Union or the original confederation of 1781.
If that were to happen, the states could be counted on to behave in accordance with their respective national heritages. The 11-nation format would be useful as a predictor of behavior. Yankee New Englanders might cooperate closely with one another, much as the Scandinavian countries do within Europe. Texans might finally assert their constitutional right (under the terms of their annexation to the U.S.) to split into as many as five individual states. Illinoisans might agree to divide downstate from Chicagoland. California might split into southern, northern and interior states.
The external borders of this retooled U.S. might remain in place, or perhaps some Canadian or Mexican provinces might apply for membership in the looser federation. Far stranger things have happened in history.
Preserving the U.S.
One thing is certain: If Americans want the U.S. to continue to exist in something like its current form, they will need to respect the fundamental tenets of our unlikely union. It can’t survive if we end the separation of church and state or ban the expression (or criticism) of offensive ideas. We won’t hold together if presidents appoint political ideologues to the Supreme Court, or if party loyalists try to win elections by trying to stop people from voting. The union can’t function if national coalitions continue to use House and Senate rules to prevent decision-making on important issues.
Other sovereign democratic states have central governments more dysfunctional than our own, but most can fall back on unifying elements we lack: common ethnicity, a shared religion or near-universal consensus on many fundamental political issues. Our constitutional order -- an arrangement negotiated among the regional cultures -- assumes and requires compromise in order to function at all.
And the U.S. needs its central government to function cleanly, openly and efficiently because it’s one of the few important things that bind us together.
(Colin Woodard, a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor and the Chronicle of Higher Education, is the author of “The Lobster Coast,” “The Republic of Pirates” and “Ocean’s End.” This is the last in a five-part series excerpted from his new book, “American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America,” published Sept. 29 by Viking. The opinions expressed are his own. Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.)
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