December 29, 2008

Breakup Of United States Imminent

Six countries where before there was one? That's what a Russian political scientist says is a little bit more likely than not to happen in the next twenty-four months.

My initial reaction is, "This guy doesn't understand much about American political culture." After all, there is a lot more that unites us than divides us. Californians are distrusted somewhat outside of California, both Texans and New Yorkers are thought to be boorish and pushy (in somewhat different ways) by a lot of Americans; and so on. But there's no doubt that we're all still Americans and we consider one another to be Americans. We root for the same ball teams that play one another and visit in other parts of the country. We are all more amused than perturbed by the local differences in food and speech patterns we exhibit.

Still, to the outside world, we've done a poor job of demonstrating our unity recently. We've had two Presidential elections that all seemed to be very close, and indeed the most recent one was very close until near the end. Before that, we seemed to have more than a dozen of our leaders and prominent citizens vying for the top job with no clear way to decide who it would be. Our political dialogue is marked by specimens of both sides of the spectrum who exhibit remarkably intemperate and intolerant speech. And there is some degree of regional clustering of patterns of thought -- the south and the midwest contrast with the Atlantic seaboard and the west coast. And the outright whining of Southerners that Barack Obama has been slow to name people from the Southern states to his Cabinet was quite unseemly.

Further, I myself have envisioned a deteriorating union in the country. I contemplated writing a story set in a future United States of America, some time in the mid-2050's, in which the Federal government was significantly weakened in power and various states had banded together in regional governmental compacts. My idea was for the South to secede again, this time based not on the idea of preserving slavery and its incident economic system, but rather because of the desire of Southerners to re-found their new country as an explicitly "Christian" nation, and have violence break out with elements in the other regional governments wanting to join the new Christian States of America. I gave up the idea because it quickly became too didactic, bureaucratic, and preachy.

But it also became more and more implausible as I ventured into the thought experiment. Even if people wanted to break away -- and the central government, which is still quite strong enough to enforce the no-secession rule that has prevailed since 1865 -- it seemed to me that no one would profit from spinning the country off into regional subdivisions. We're stronger and richer together than we are apart, and what's more, there is broad recognition and acceptance of that fact.

Now, if this Russian dude were to say that we'd be better off fragmented into smaller countries, that would be one thing. But he laments the spectre of a disunited America. (Which doesn't stop him from really wanting Alaska back.*) He recognizes that a dissolved America would be bad for Russia and destabilizing for the geopolitical balance of power. And he's absolutely right. While the world is moving towards a multi-polar economic and military model, a globalized version of what used to be called the Concert of Europe, the U.S. still has a leadership role to play in that world. Perhaps that role will be something more like "first among equals" than as the nation-state on top of the hierarchy. But that's not an entirely bad thing anyway.

But no, I think this is so much wishful thinking. And more than a little bit of projection. Other nations, with a less resiliant kind of nationalism than we have, might have faced internal violence over the political, social, religious, and economic tensions that we deal with all the time and have dealt with in sharp relief over recent years. But we Americans are made of different stuff. Our mythology involves submitting to democracy (I really wanted Prop. 8 to fail, but you don't see me throwing any Molotov cocktails because it passed), a commitment to the rule of law, and a commitment to be part of a common culture based on Western Europe and more particularly Engliand, but upon which we have amalgamated all sorts of things that our many immigrants have brought with them to our shores. Maybe Russia couldn't handle that without at least violence; maybe the USSR couldn't handle very strong economic pressures without breaking up. But America is different than that.

E pluribus unum. We really mean it.

* "Губернатор, почему вы квалифицированных быть президентом Российской Федерации?" "Поскольку я вижу Америку из моего дома!"

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