Before the dust had even settled on Hillary Clinton’s defeat we were already hearing rumblings from liberals about the urgent need to do away with the electoral college. That’s a given, since she won the popular vote while still taking a beating in the EC. But not everyone thinks that a “simple” shift to the popular vote model is enough of a change. Some are mulling over doing away with that whole “States” part of “The United States of America.”
When I first began reading Lawrence Samuel’s essay on this subject at the Washington Post I was almost certain that it was a bit of satire in the fine tradition of A Modest Proposal. After all, the entire history of the nation is founded on the idea of a coalition of individual states, each exercising local control under the more general umbrella of the federal government. But as it turns out, Samuel appears to be completely serious. He offers a brief tip of the hat to the founders, saying that the uniting of the original 13 colonies was, “a historic achievement.” But that was then and this is now, as the saying goes.
But times have changed, and we need to rethink the notion of the “United States of America.” Our states are no longer culturally diverse regions with their own respective identities; rather, they are artificially constructed geographic entities that certainly would not be formed today. Borderlines between states are especially nonsensical. Pensacola, Fla., is a lot more like Mobile, Ala., than Miami. Upstate New Yorkers are less than happy about being in the same tax pool as Manhattanites.
In fact, despite all the attention to divisions within the country based on geography (or race, gender, class or any other demographic measure, for that matter), Americans share a remarkably similar way of thinking and acting. (The so-called red-vs.-blue-state divide is a crude, media-driven concept that looks great on maps but has little basis in reality.) Regional differences have drastically dissipated over the course of the past 240 years, turning the once radical proposition of the “United States” into an anachronism that now has little or no real value.
Where to even begin with this mess? It’s absolutely true that that state borders are far less definitive than they were in the early days of the nation and the ability of Americans to easily migrate tends to dilute the pool quite a bit. But that doesn’t mean that Americans share a remarkably similar way of thinking and acting in geographic terms. There are still distinct flavors and cultures in different regions of the country and they do break down in many cases along state lines. If Samuel’s contention were true we wouldn’t have nearly so much variety in the laws and customs from state to state. For starters, just look at something as controversial as the death penalty. Add in marijuana legalization and rules about civil unions or gay marriage prior to the Supreme Court decision on that subject. Now tell me that the citizens of the several states don’t see things differently on key issues.
But even if we were to accept Samuel’s premise about some sort of culturally homogeneous nation, just thinking about the steps required to do away with the states should be enough to give anyone chills. A single state nation would fall entirely under the power of Washington. Every court would be a federal court. What would happen to state police forces? Would they all be federal agents?
Samuel goes on to argue that this might somehow be a cost saving measure as well.
Why does any of this matter? Quite a bit, as the problem with states goes far beyond their illogic and irrelevance. State governments are expensive to run and taxpayers are forced to foot most of the bill. We can’t afford them anymore — and we don’t need them.
Here’s a news flash. All of those state and municipal government entities actually do things. Granted, they often do too much and operate inefficiently at a minimum and corruptly in worst case scenarios, but we can say the exact same thing about Washington. If you did away with the states the federal government would have to swoop in and fill that void. And we all know what a bang up job Washington does when it comes to controlling costs and eliminating waste, fraud and abuse, right? (Insert “end sarcasm” tag here at your leisure.)
The relative independence of the states has been greatly weakened by abusive practices in the Supreme Court (such as the redefinition of the commerce clause) as well as an appetite to bestow more and more power on the presidency. But even for all of that, the states remain standing as the founders intended. (More or less) Calling for their elimination isn’t just foolish… it’s unamerican by definition. If we were to adopt Samuel’s scheme what would the new name of the country be? The United State of America?