California and the Future of American Unity


Photo: Courtesy of Cullen328

Who could have imagined 30 years – heck, even a decade  – ago that one of the avatars of American liberalism, none other than Governor Moonbeam, Jerry Brown, would end up sounding a lot like George Wallace?

Brown is leading what Freedom Center writer Daniel Goldberg describes as a Confederacy of Climate Secessionists, one in which Brown and the governors of New York and Washington will  “unilaterally and illegally enter into a foreign treaty [the Paris Treaty] rejected by the President of the United States.”

Jerry Brown is even adopting old-style American constitutional language, referring to California both as a nation-state and as a sovereign state entitled to act in its vital interests. I mean, really: How many times have red state governors been accused of the most heinous motivations for expressing similar observations? And can you imagine the cries of outrage from the MSM and Big Entertainment if the governor of Texas and an alliance of governors of Southern and Western states conducted their own foreign policy?

But, of course, we must not forget that any statement should be regarded as morally enlightened so long as it comes from the left.

All joking aside, though, this represents a remarkable development and one that was predicted a decade ago by a progressive and very prescient decentrist scholar named Gar Alperovitz.

A decade ago, Alperovitz wrote a column for the New York Times citing the remarkable comment of then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger that characterized California as more than an ordinary American state.  And in all candor, California really is more than an American state.  It does  possess global, economic, cultural and demographic and technological influence far out of proportion to many other American state. And, yes, in a very real sense, it has transcended what we normally associate with an American state.

And that led Prof. Alperovitz to wonder if Schwarzenneger had put his finger, whether consciously or not, on a “fatal flaw in America’s constitutional formula,” namely that a country the size of the United States no longer can be effectively governed from the center.

“The United States is almost certainly too big to be a meaningful democracy,” Alperovitz contended, essentially anticipating one of the issues that influenced the Leave vote in Britain.

And he’s right.  Ponder this for a moment: Among the economically advanced nations of immene size – Russia, Australia, Brazil, Canada and even China – the United States is the only one in the world where the population is roughly evenly distributed from one end of the country to the next.

Some other fun facts: Germany could fit comfortably within the borders of Montana, while Texas, which, incidentally, possesses the 12th largest economy in the world, is larger than France.

We are an immense nation-state – indeed, immense in a way that other nations of the world aren’t.  We are big and sprawling and, frankly, increasingly ungovernable, in a way other nation-states, with the exception of Russia, aren’t.

“What does ‘participatory democracy’ mean in a continent?” Alperovitz asked.  “Sooner or later, a profound, probably regional decentralization of the federal system may be all but inevitable.”

Alperovitz cited research by Harvard economist Alberto Alesina of Harvard and Enrico Spolaore of Tufts, whose findings underscore how hard it is for nations the size of the United States to address the needs of their dispersed populations.

And we are increasingly approaching an impasse.  Our bigness and unwieldiness is underscore by our increasing cultural divisions – a fact driven home in the 2016 presidential election, when 84 percent of American counties, mostly located within the vast heartland, rejected the candidate overwhelmingly favored by elites within the nation’s wealthy bi-coastal urban enclaves.

Yes, the hypocrisy of leftist elitists such as Jerry Brown frequently irk red-state conservatives like me. But by asserting his state’s sovereignty and quasi-nationhood, Brown states a real and, for some, unpalatable truth about American federalism.   And in doing so, he may have rendered all of us a huge favor.

Jerry Brown has reordered the debate about state sovereignty.  In a real sense, he has rendered such arguments respectful again.  And he has also underscored that our present centralized model is no longer up to snuff. We are simply too economically and culturally diverse to be governed from Washington any longer.

That’s why I’ve argued for more than a generation that sooner or later we Americans will have to embrace something resembling Mikhail Gorbachev’s vision of a Union of Sovereign States.   We will have to find  some way to stay ahead of the fissures that are increasingly becoming evident within our federal system, much as Gorbachev tried to do with this plan for a looser, post-Soviet confederation.

What I mean by that is a continental arrangement that affords states – or, as the case my be, regions with strong historical and cultural affinities – more control over their internal affairs, while still enjoying the benefits of a common economic market and defense.

Roughly a generation ago, the late George F. Kennan offered a compelling visions for such a new constitutional system.  It’s time his warnings were heeded.

California has often been characterized as the bellwether state.  It’s assertion of state sovereignty has been a long time coming, but it should come as a surprise to no one.

Until now, talk of the sovereignty and quasi-nationhood of American states has tended to derail political dialogue rather than to enhance it.

But as growing numbers of Americans will discover over time, the re-embrace of the sovereignty and quasi-nationhood of states may be the only way to fend off a major constitutional crisis within the next few years as the red American heartland and the blue coastal enclaves grow further apart and as this vast nation proves increasingly unwieldy and ungovernable.



About Jim Langcuster

A Southern late-Baby Boomer whose post-retirement focus is on building a post-racial, post-Confederate Southern regional identity. If the election of 2016 underscored one thing, it is that this country is intractably divided and that radical devolution of power to localities and states is the only way to save the American Union.
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