America is way too big to be a real democracy
America is way too big for its own good. And you may be sick of it.
After all, Reuters found in a recent poll that nearly one quarter of all Americans are open to the idea of secession. These numbers cut across partisan lines and different regions. It's not about the North versus the South, but about a different kind of breaking up. George Kennan, the architect of the U.S.'s containment policy during the Cold War, wondered whether it would be better if the United States were "decentralized into something like a dozen constituent republics, absorbing not only the powers of the existing states but a considerable part of those of the present federal establishment." A dozen seems hardly enough.
You can make a lot of hay out of a survey like this. But talking to a pollster is very different from actually pledging your fealty to an emerging nation-state, particularly if it costs anything. We're a long way off from amicable divorce papers. So where does this dissatisfaction point us?
The expositors of our national ideal have never come to terms with just how wrong James Madison was about the nature of an extended republic. He believed that by enlarging a republic, you could achieve the enlightened representational ideal of classical republicanism but without the debilitating influence of factions. Unfortunately, Madison was wrong.
The factions that Madison believed to be "actuated by some common impulse of passion or of interest adversed to the rights of other citizens" have found it relatively easy to organize themselves across our continent-wide nation. They are so deeply institutionalized a feature of our governance that K Street deserves the appellation of "fourth estate" more than the media. Madison might have even looked at our national, ideologically separated parties as factionalism writ large.
But Madison believed bigger was better. In Federalist No. 10, he wrote:
The other point of difference is, the greater number of citizens and extent of territory which may be brought within the compass of republican than of democratic government; and it is this circumstance principally which renders factious combinations less to be dreaded in the former than in the latter. The smaller the society, the fewer probably will be the distinct parties and interests composing it; the fewer the distinct parties and interests, the more frequently will a majority be found of the same party; and the smaller the number of individuals composing a majority, and the smaller the compass within which they are placed, the more easily will they concert and execute their plans of oppression.
This hasn't panned out. At some point, Madison concedes that legislative districts could become so large that the connection between representatives and the represented is effectively severed. No kidding.
The enlargement of voting districts is one blow to "representative" government, as is the gerrymandering into ever more artificial territories. But the decline of congressional power has withered this connection to almost nothing at all. When it comes to the legislature, the parties are everything: They pre-exist us in America's lived political order, and to participate in governance we conform our views to one or the other. Or at least compromise with them.
The executive branch really is the heavyweight in American government, employing about 2 million fellow citizens in the task of governing. There are 15 states with a smaller population than the executive branch's employ. And out of that, a ticket of merely two officials is actually elected.
Furthermore, your precious franchise as a citizen entitles you to a one-in-125 million say in the winning ticket. And that's overstating things, once you factor in the Electoral College, the inertia and institutionalization of party politics, big media, and large donor interests. Forget classical republicanism, this is barely even a mass democracy. It's a two-party state with vestigial voters.
If that were the end of it, smashing America into a dozen new countries would make sense. But our judiciary still preserves (and has expanded) most of the great aspects of constitutional law that Madison and others shaped. And life is still good in America compared with other nations. More than 300 million people mostly live in law and order. That is a radical achievement when you look at human civilization. It's not at all a precondition for rebellion and redrawing our borders.
The benefits of living in a continent-size empire are pretty great, and known to all. There is something amazing about building highways from the Atlantic to the Pacific without needing an international summit. Nor do we need a passport to travel them. We have a mostly free market of huge proportions into which we can sell our wares and services. From this angle, one could consider our taxes a kind of benevolent bribe. We pay them, and that whole collection of D.C. mandarins — elected and appointed, lobbyist and careerist — mostly leave us alone. (If we stopped paying them, I hesitate to think of what they might do to us to make their living.)
But the distance between us and our government still rubs us raw. So, too, the distance between our political ideals and lived reality. So a few romantics entertain the idea of peaceful separation.
Real secession is extremely unlikely. America has a more homogenous and homogenizing culture than any other country its size. People from the Bayou do not feel like foreigners in the Pacific Northwest. We do not have sections that are evolving into separate civilizations, as we did 150 years ago.
Our factional identities as conservatives and liberals, as Republicans and Democrats, are probably stronger than any ersatz "nationalism" that would spring up within America. Nations rally around history, symbols, religions, and languages. American regions and territories don't really cleave that way. When we make up imaginary new nationalities, we are usually just rehearsing our very American partisan differences: real America versus the coastal elites, or the Republic vs. Jesusland. The people calling for a Second Vermont Republic found a larger audience when Bush was in office. Just as Rick Perry hinted at the dream of a new Lone Star Republic under a Democratic regime.
And so we're stuck with an enormous country, and an enormous shared history, and an enormous federal government. Gigantism is the birth defect of the American republic, a sort of English hereditary disease related to imperial cupidity that found its expression fully on a continent that was sparsely populated. We just have to learn to live with it and each other.