Members Only | December 5, 2022 | Reading Time: 5 minutes
There is no America. There are Americas, though
We should drop the idea of the United States being one country.
Among the Editorial Board’s myriad mandates, as I see them, is bursting dogma, flaying stigma, and otherwise defenestrating ideas that make cohering politics harder than necessary, like: The United States is one country.
That we are not one country is evident to anyone who has traveled widely around the country, who has lived and worked in various parts of the country or who has bothered to learn the country’s history.
Indeed, we are held together loosely by a constitution, but our founding document has been used to sow division as much as, or more than, to cement unity. Even then, there’s a criminal former president who thinks it’s an annoying obstacle to his permanent rule.
There isn’t really an America. There are Americas, though. They pretend to be more in line. Pretending prevents true unity.
Real sovereign units, made-up bigger one
That we are not one country is evidenced also by the early party primary states. Iowa (first) is different from New Hampshire (second), which are different from South Carolina (third) and Nevada (fourth).
Sure, voters there call themselves Democrats, but they are so distinct by geography, culture and politics as to be semi-autonomous enclaves. Their states, moreover, are more like countries in the European Union, nation-states inside a larger, overarching and made-up unit.
The differences quickly present themselves. Iowa Democrats want the parties national leaders to address climate change and secure human rights. South Carolina Democrats rarely share such lofty goals. (This may be why Joe Biden prefers South Carolina as the first primary state.) Theirs are defensive – eg, preventing Republican-controlled state governments from making their lives harder than they already are.
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The national Democrats are rethinking the order of primary states. According to the Post, the president wants South Carolina first, New Hampshire and Nevada second, Georgia and after that Michigan.
But beyond the symbolic, which isn’t nothing, this order or that order probably doesn’t matter. Democrats in South Carolina are going to vote like Democrats in South Carolina, not like Democrats in Iowa.
We pretend the order influences the outcome, but it really doesn’t, because that would require the United States to be one country.
A fictional community
If you do not understand that the United States not one country, you may find yourself confused and asking why, when national polls show overwhelming support for reproductive rights, the GOP is dead-set on the opposite. They seem bent of the ruination of young women’s bodies for the sake of protecting cell-clusters that aren’t human yet.
A poll showing national support for, say, bronco busting, while popular in regions like Texas and the American southwest, won’t mean a thing to the densely packed residents in the tristate area that links Connecticut, New York and New Jersey. If they outlaw bronco busting, nothing can stop them, though it contravenes the will of a majority.
States that have outlawed or restricted abortion don’t care – don’t need to care – about what a majority of Americans believes is right and good in a national survey, because a national survey measures the opinion of a political fiction, not a real consequential political community.
Liberals by their nature envision a true e pluribus unum, but liberals should remember that that is, and may always be, a work in progress. Unity is a noble aspiration, not a concrete fact. As long as the United States is a de facto federation of (maybe) a dozen political zones – though not legal ones – unity might always be elusive.
An artifice of law
Even the concept of states distorts reality.
There’s 50, but what’s the practical difference between Mississippi and Alabama, or Connecticut and Rhode Island or the Dakotas?
I’m sure residents there have strong opinions. But I’m also sure that, to national political figures, those distinctions are invisible. From a national viewpoint, there aren’t 50 states so much as (maybe) dozen political regions that, when cobbled together, form the United States.
The United States as one country comprising 50 states is an artifice of law and political convenience more than it is a description of how we function politically in our respective politically communities.
Don’t believe it? Why is the Mason-Dixon line where it is (the southern border of Pennsylvania and the northern borders of West Virginia and Maryland)? It’s not a feature of land like a river or mountain range.
It’s merely line drawn on the map – a legal and political demarcation – that once separated non-slaving states from slaving states. It is a product of democratic politics, not the result of natural causes.
That goes for borders, too
What’s the difference between a border dividing American states and a border dividing nation-states, like the United States and Mexico?
None that are serious. They are fakes drawn for the convenience of leaders and communities to make sense of and identify themselves coherently, to administer and enforce respective laws and so on.
If you’re going to have a nation-state, which is what western countries have been doing since the Enlightenment, that nation-state requires national borders. Otherwise, there’s little point to it. Nation-states aren’t always artificial. (I’m thinking of England.) But their land borders always are. They are products of politics, first and last.
Donald Trump was fond of saying that you don’t have a country if you don’t have borders. But borders are the least important aspect of the character of any country, because they are legal and political fictions.
We often pretend that the US-Mexican border is natural, as if God gave it to us, as if an abomination to tamper with it, as if a weak defense were a sin. But the only thing natural about it is the Rio Grande, and given the river dries up every year, it’s not even that.
We act like billions sent to the border, for the purpose of “securing it,” will somehow protect American values, identity, even destiny. That’s a lot to ask for, because the border was arbitrarily created.
Like the United States.
SCOTUS will prevent one nation
That the United States is not only one country doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think of it that way. But whatever utility there is to that idea is undermined by today’s United States Supreme Court.
It’s like the court won’t allow us to be one nation, indivisible.
The court’s rightwing supermajority has been on a tear lately, as in tearing up federal laws and federal court precedents like Roe that had in effect served as the glue that held the 50 states together as one.
The trend started in 2013 with the Shelby ruling. That’s the one that said states with a history of racial animus in government policy no longer have racial animus. Where once those states had to get clearance from the US Department of Justice before changing their elections laws, they can go ahead and do whatever they want.
Since then, states (mostly southern) have enacted laws that erode the power of racial minorities, deepen the white-power status quo and lay the foundation for what are becoming quasi-apartheid states that are being organized to deprive majorities of their political power.
The court has also aided these quasi-apartheid states by allowing them to gerrymander themselves so they can be run by a ruling minority party that does not fear the consequences of democratic politics.
This fact alone – that states such as Wisconsin, Ohio, Texas and Florida barely reach a definition of republican government – is another reason for us to drop the idea of the United States being one country. There is no America. There are Americas. Some are good. Some are bad.
Pretending otherwise warps our ability to make sense of ourselves.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.
“Why is the Mason-Dixon line where it is (the southern border of Pennsylvania and the northern borders of West Virginia and Maryland)? It’s not a feature of land like a river or mountain range. It’s merely line drawn on the map – a legal and political demarcation – that once separated non-slaving states from slaving states.”
Except when it was surveyed (1763) by Mason & Dixon, in both states (Pennsylvania and Maryland) slavery was legal. Pennsylvania only outlawed slavery in 1780. And Maryland, a Union state during the war, continued as a slave state into 1864.