Disunited and Without States

Americans no longer take states seriously as political units. And that means federalism is probably doomed.

01.04.14 10:45 AM ET

Raise your hand if you’re sick of your state.

If you are, you’re not alone. In a move raising the ire of those who fear silicon valley secession, a group called SixCalifornias is pushing a ballot initiative designed—yep—to fragment the Golden State into a half-dozen statelets.

Sound familiar? California has been offered up for the chopping block over 200 times. All told, America’s breakaway movements would have yielded, by now, at least 124 states.

Yet, despite its perennial entertainment value, it’s hard for many Americans to care very much about the fate of the states. Actually, many of those who care the most are pretty much against states altogether. America’s constituent states have always been a problem in their own constitutional system. But only in recent times has the functional death of states become a real possibility.

And now, the only serious question is what comes next.

The fifty states, of course, are not about to be wiped off the map like they were in Chapter Sixteen of Sinclair Lewis’s American dystopia It Cant Happen Here. We like the states—like we enjoy professional football. You get some theme colors and some fun stereotypes. And you get government money.

Naturally, most of us don’t like states the way, say, Rick Perry does. People who like states that way are thought of as jerks. Whose side are you on, anyway? “States’ rights” is a toxic doctrine in most parts of the country, despite the fact—or perhaps because of it—that the states only exist in the first place because they started out sovereign.

Pretty much nobody really likes the idea of sovereign states. Since the days of Alexander Hamilton, Americans have recoiled at the idea that the states are more sovereign than the people, even though this was true when the Constitution was debated and true when it was ratified. It is the reason the Constitution expressly forbids denying “equal Suffrage in the Senate.” The states are—or were—equal in absolutely no respect but their sovereignty.

And we all know where that got us. So some states were indeed temporarily reorganized into military districts, and the Bill of Rights was “incorporated” into the Fourteenth Amendment so as to apply to the states, and that was the end of state sovereignty, despite a long and tortuous road toward desegregation.

Good riddance, a typical American could say. But we’re not just left with vanity states to match our vanity plates. We’re stuck with fifty state governments. And herein lies the difficulty.

Our state governments are hungry. They have needs. They have wants. The states as a whole are desperately reliant on federal dollars. One of Obamacare’s biggest unspoken selling points is its function as a stealth bailout of state (and local) governments. States, unlike the federal government, cannot print money. They cannot even declare bankruptcy—they have to “repudiate” debt, a disorderly process that would provoke (state) constitutional crises and throw markets into (yet another) panic. That’s never going to happen.

So as a rule, the states will grow increasingly reliant on federal grants, subsidies, and aid—if not in absolute terms, in psychological ones. State governments have vested interests in wanting it this way. Independent states are states at the mercy of the parties and the people—two groups, as California routinely shows, capable of crippling state politics. But dependent state governments are “good” for everyone, because they can borrow “extra” money, courtesy of the full faith and credit of the feds.

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As dependency on D.C. wells from the bottom up, it grows ever more fashionable from the top down. Not long ago, polite society had only begun to tolerate slamming the Electoral College as a perniciously quaint old institution. Now, it is okay to slam the Senate. It is a threat to democracy, we are told, to continue allowing each state two Senators apiece. We are half-jokingly invited to envision apportionment by race or by income.

Although the cry has even been raised for an end to the Senate, these seem to be unlikely changes. But from our current standpoint, it’s also plainly evident that the last vestiges of state sovereignty are repugnant and nonsensical to a broader and broader segment of public opinion. With each successive generation, that trend will strengthen. Certain Republican governors and their supporters may disagree enough to carve out enclaves of political relevance for their states. Will any be larger, in territory or population, than Texas? I think we know the answer.

No, there is only one thing that could refresh state sovereignty in the popular imagination: a total failure of the federal government to fulfill some of its basic promises. It’s got to be more than the “broken politics” of “business as usual in Washington.” It’s got to be more than robust job creation in the Lone Star State. Traumatic shock is required.

Maybe even this is inadequate. America’s deepest collective fear is that our country is too big and too crazy to be held together without systematic, institutional oppression. Definitive federal failure would reward and reinforce that fear. If the going truly gets tough, we would sooner sell out our states completely—nationalizing state governments in something of the way Detroit received its “emergency manager.” 

For now, states will wither as their governments grow. Federalism will appeal primarily to an idea detached from reality. Those who work to build stronger, more independent states will be accused of putting the American people some place other than first.

We greet the government’s enclosure of all knowledge as if it were our destiny, but the risk of many different laws for gay marriage and marijuana drives us toward existential despair. Today, the “laboratory of democracy” scares us more than our actual mad scientists, embarked in federal bunkers on the information equivalent of the Manhattan Project.

Perhaps that’s because the states were never really that great at protecting their citizens equally from the abuses of powerful rule. But now we’re about to find out what it’s like with less protection than ever.