When I moved back to the United States after living in a series of other places, I was struck by the fact that when I crossed the Delaware River from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, into New Jersey, it was like going to a foreign country. A few miles beyond the river, people seem as unfamiliar with the only big city in the vicinity as if they had lived in Kansas.
Reading Gordon S. Wood’s Empire of Liberty, a detailed account of the years 1789 to 1815, which could be called this country’s axial years, one is struck by how very independent-minded the different states were. Woods’ mentions several threats of disintegration that occured long before the conflict that almost cut the country in two. He shows that the civil war we were taught to see as a previously unthinkable event, was really the one instance in which secessionist sentiment was so strong and pervasive that war could not be avoided.
With Arizona’s passage of a draconian emigration law, it’s clear not much has changed in two centuries. The Arizona immigration bill takes its place in a long line of crises that saw this state or that threatening to go its own way. And according to an article by Amy Goodman in Truthdig, Arizona, which in the twentieth century fought recognition of the Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday, was also the only territory west of Texas to secede from the Union and join the Confederacy during the Civil War. The fact that the governor of that state is backed by the nation-wide Tea Party movement is a sign of historical continuity. Disgust with “big govern-ment” is widespread, but in Arizona it has led to a law that permits the “smaller” state government to usurp federal authority.
But is state government really less threatening than Washington? Tea-partiers believe that only a national government can ensure our security, yet they believe that states can police the border, a nation’s first line of defense. Yet when an oil slick threatens livelihoods and ecosystems in southern maritime states, federal troops are welcome to help meet the challenge too big for states to handle alone.
It is ironic that just as the European Union, with its common currency, the Euro, is testing the solidarity of its individual national members over Greek’s debt crisis, the country that inspired that union could be heading for an eventual break-up.
If that sounds like utter fantasy, consider the fact that a growing number of elected officials are leaving their respective parties to run as indepen-dents or cross over to the other party. If you think this has nothing to do with the push for states’ rights and smaller government, think again: everything is related, and the failure of the two party system that has prevailed since 19th century Americans realized they needed political parties not originally planned for or desired, is another crack in the sys-tem.
President Obama appeared on the national stage at a time when Red and Blue no longer suffice to describe the often contradictory aspirations held by Americans. His deep-seated partiality to compromise, though noble, prevented him from using his electoral mandate to insist on single payer health care, which would require a smaller bureaucracy than the hotchpotch that offered a handle for Tea Partiers to seize and loudly exploit.
The pattern is set to continue with immigration and climate change. The reforms desperately needed by this country require uncensored education and information about the world, its governing systems, ideologies and needs. A return to the quasi independent states of revolutionary times, each with its own view of the world and of what constitutes a good life, will hamstring efforts to cope with the major challenges the world faces.
And in a world which is increasingly moving toward regional entities, American state nationalism is more threatening than the rise of China.