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Saturday, June 8, 2019
History ... Politics ... Society ...

Not long ago, I was discussing the political situation in Europe with a small group of politically progressive people from my Zen group. We were lamenting the rise of nationalism in Britain and elsewhere, and we noted that the Euro Union project seemed doomed at this point. The dream of a “United States of Europe” had passed, and Europe is now separating into what it has been for most of the years since the end of the Roman Empire, an amalgamation of geographically small nations (with the exception of Russia, of course; but then again, the question of whether Russia should be considered part of Europe has always been confounding – in some ways it is, in a lot of ways it isn’t). One member of the group, one of the most progressive of the bunch, commented that perhaps this isn’t such a bad thing – perhaps smaller nations are better than a big empire-like state.

Smaller national boundaries arguably allow for preservation of localism and cultural uniqueness, and give citizens a greater sense of belonging and political empowerment. Supposedly more and more Europeans have been complaining about cumbersome mandates and inflexible policies issued by a distant bureaucratic elite in Brussels. And it might also be argued that smaller nations can’t do as much harm to the world economically and politically, since they would be roughly equal in terms of economic and military capacity.

Of course, throughout history this has not turned out to always be true; for many years, Germany has been a “powerhouse” in Europe despite not having any special geographic advantage, and has been able to reek havoc more than once in world history. And smaller but powerful states can form coalitions that take adversarial political and military positions against other coalitions; remember World War 1. Such coalitions can seek to impose their collective interests against smaller states that choose to remain independent.

So, the breakdown of large nations into a variety of smaller states does not necessarily guarantee peace and freedom from oppression. And smaller states might afford less protection to minority groups living within them; small states are more likely to be dominated by a predominant culture defined at least in part by common racial and ethnic heritage. In many cases in modern history, it was a national government that protected the rights of minorities against the predominant local culture. The experience of African Americans in the southern US in the late 19th and mid-20th centuries had the national government playing a significant (although many would say insufficient and inconsistent) role to assert the rights of blacks within a hostile white culture. But there have been other examples, such as the protections that the Ottoman Empire sometimes gave to Jews and Christian communities living in predominant Muslim populations in southern Europe and the Middle East.

But like it or not, there has been a trend in certain parts of the developed world towards the dissolution or weakening of large nations and the strengthening of smaller states. We are clearly seeing this in Europe; but the signs are growing that the United States itself is becoming less and less “united”, that the continuation of a strong national government supported by a strong sense of national identity is increasing seems more and more threatened by events. The increasing political polarization of American politics over the past two decades is well documented. And yet, many pundits argue that this is overblown, that deep down there is a strong common loyalty and continuing commitment to the notion of a “united nation” linking farmers in Iowa and Nebraska with tech workers and entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley with college professors in the northeast with truck drivers in Texas, etc.

However, a recent article on the FiveThirtyEight site makes me wonder about just how well that national bonding is doing these days. This article identifies and compares states where the GOP has control of the governor’s mansion and the legislature, versus Democratically controlled state governments. Quite a few of our 50 states qualify as GOP or Democrat dominated, there aren’t all that many states where the two parties more-or-less evenly split the halls of power. According to 538, 14 states are “Democrat trifecta”, while 22 states are GOP dominated. That leaves only 14 states in the balanced zone, i.e. less than a third.

Anyway, the author of the article (Perry Bacon) lists and compares the recent legislative priorities of these states, and you can’t help but be struck by how different these priorities are. The “red states” have tried to eliminate restrictions on gun rights, limit the power of unions, stop cities from becoming “sanctuaries” for undocumented immigrants, impose work requirements on Medicare recipients, and weaken the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement against Israeli for how it treats Palestinians. By contrast, the blue state focus on hiking the minimum wage significantly above the federal $7.25 per hour, banning therapy that is designed to “convert” gay and lesbian people from homosexuality, legalizing marijuana, providing free college, and mandating that the Electoral College votes in states go to whichever candidate wins the national popular vote.

Wow – a VERY different set of priorities here. I look at this and think — what do these two groups of states have in common? Their political and social priorities sound very, very different. A lot of these issues have national significance. How can they ever agree on what our nation should be like, who should lead it, what it should do and not do?

Mr. Bacon’s 538 article set out to examine “what policies in addition to abortion limits are being passed in a multitude of states”. So, he does not say much about the abortion situation — but that issue represents probably the widest gap between the red and blue trifecta states. In 2019, nine states have passed early abortion restriction laws. Eight of these states are in the “red trifecta” group. The ninth, Louisiana, is one of the mixed power states. Three other “red trifecta” states have passed “trigger laws” which will ban all abortion if Roe v. Wade is overturned. Obviously, these states are awaiting federal judicial review of their restrictive laws, hoping that once these cases reach the Supreme Court, the recent addition of Justice Cavenaugh will spell the end for Roe v. Wade and the federal constitutional right to abortion for women.

On the blue side of the political world, by contrast, Democratic Presidential hopeful Kamala Harris (Senator from California) is proposing a federal law requiring that any state seeking to impose a law placing new restrictions on abortion access must submit the law to the federal Attorney General for review and gain approval before such restriction is imposed. The AG would be charged with determining if the law violated Roe v. Wade.

This proposal is a long shot — even if whoever becomes the Democratic candidate for the 2020 Presidential election were to adopt it, the Democrats would need to beat Trump, hold the House, and regain control of the Senate for it to become law. And it also assumes that Roe v. Wade will still be valid after 2020. Even if the Democrats get their own federal “trifecta” in 2020, the composition of the Supreme Court will probably not change before then, and could continue well into the new Democratic administration. So even if the present Court with its conservative majority does not get a chance to rule on Roe before Inauguration Day in January 2021, it could still do so thereafter, rendering Senator Harris’ proposal moot. And furthermore, the conservative court might get to rule against the Constitutionality of the review law itself !!

However, the nature of Senator Harris’ proposal, however impractical, shows just how wide a gap exists in our nation in regard to abortion. Up through now, one of the general principles of abortion law is that each state has the right to regulate abortion, in keeping with the state’s power to oversee medical practice. However, Roe v. Wade imposed a federal right to at least some level of abortion access for women; the ability of a state to entirely outlaw abortion outright was taken away by the Supreme Court in 1973. Under Senator Harris’ proposal, the power to regulate abortion would in practice be taken away from the states. I’m pretty sure that this would not go over well in the “red trifecta” block of states.

So I have to wonder if the glue that bonded the original British colony states into a united nation back in the 18th century has become crumbly and weak. I wonder if the US has a long-term future as “one nation under God”. Our national government has become very powerful, but I wonder if it has reached its high point and will slowly decline in the coming decades.

It will not happen in my lifetime, but slowly, the US could be moving towards a separation into perhaps three or four smaller nations. There may still be extensive collaboration between these nations on trade and defense and criminal justice issues. But cultural forces seem to be pushing the US towards a “re-arrangement” favoring smaller, more geographically limited mechanisms for national determination. The forces at work are relatively similar to what is currently pushing the Euro Union towards irrelevance.

Here’s an interesting sidethought for another time — how could this happen in the information era? We were told by Microsoft and other big-tech firms that the Internet and smart phones would bring us closer together, would make the whole world one. It seemed as though human political amalgamation should become more extensive, not less. And yet, the technology, communication and information revolutions seem to be powering the overall dissolution process.

And finally — if the US and Europe go the route of ‘granularization”, what big empire-like nations will be left in the world? Unfortunately, those would probably be Russia and China. If the US and Europe dissolve into an array of small nations, could they still come together with adequate economic and military resources to counter the threats that Russia, China and their clients will pose against “the west”? It’s not impossible that effective cooperation and coalition can occur, that the structures of NATO and the World Trade Organization can remain strong in a splintering west. But it’s not a sure thing, in my estimation.

In 1989, a political scientist named Francis Fukuyama published a paper arguing that history had in effect come to an end, that democracy and western economics were clearly the way of the future. He published a book detailing his ideas, “The End of History and The Last Man”. According to Fukuyama, the era of great wars and international struggles were over. With the end of the Cold War and the Soviet Union, our world had reached “not just … the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”.

It’s now obvious that history “is so not over”. In a recent article, Fukuyama acknowledges that a variety of identity groups with growing power are increasingly threatening the survival of national unity in the US and other places in the west. The political future of Europe, the US, and the more developed parts of Asia are as undetermined now as at any time since the start of the 20th Century.

My best wishes to the future generations who are going to have to live through this! The ride could get very bumpy. I’m sorry that my generation wasn’t the one that finally found the golden secret to a world of permanent peace and progress.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:04 pm      

  1. The Constitution of the United States offers the individual states wide latitude in adopting solutions to societal problems, if only the federal government would restrict itself to those powers explicitly granted to it. Many of the ratifying states were afraid that the feds would overstep its bounds and thus promulgated the original Bill of Rights to be amended (or appended) to the Constitution. And,as it turns out, they were right to be skeptical in that regard. If we could rectify the current situation, there would be no need to worry about the United States devolving into an array of smaller nations, for the structure is already there. Ironically, the diaspora of competing factions across the country has made it difficult for the people to agree among themselves even at the local level, never mind the state or regional levels.

    Comment by Allan Lacki — August 18, 2019 @ 2:03 pm

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