Both the Democratic and Republican national conventions have attempted this year to show total unity to the viewing public. More so than in the past with the Democrats going to great length in casting as diverse a lineup as they could, with out importing some alien beings from Alpha Century.
But one needs only to dig a little below the surface to see that this mask of unification is superficial at best. With Washington’s increasing inability to be responsive to a larger and larger portion of America, state revenues falling and large metro areas loosing money and population and states asserting what they believe to be their prerogative on voting rights, immigration, environment and other issues. The changing demographics were more and more people of similar economic class, ethnicity and social values are self segregating.
All this makes one wonder just how much longer this country will remain one or whether if should. If as some of our founding fathers had questioned a strong central government can keep the country together without the use of force.
The governments of Europe have taken their limits and form from adventitious circumstances, and nothing can be argued on the motive of agreement from them; but these adventitious political principles have nevertheless produced effects that have attracted the attention of philosophy, which have established axioms in the science of politics therefrom, as irrefragable as any in Euclid. It is natural, says Montesquieu, to a republic to have only a small territory, otherwise it cannot long subsist: in a large one, there are men of large fortunes, and consequently of less moderation; there are too great deposits to trust in the hands of a single subject, an ambitious person soon becomes sensible that he may be happy, great, and glorious by oppressing his fellow citizens, and that he might raise himself to grandeur, on the ruins of his country. In large republics, the public good is sacrificed to a thousand views, in a small one, the interest of the public is easily perceived, better understood, and more within the reach of every citizen; abuses have a less extent, and of course are less protected. He also shows you, that the duration of the republic of Sparta was owing to its having continued with the same extent of territory after all its wars; and that the ambition of Athens and Lacedemon to command and direct the union, lost them their liberties, and gave them a monarchy.
From this picture, what can you promise yourselves, on the score of consolidation of the United States into one government? Impracticability in the just exercise of it, your freedom insecure, even this form of government limited in its continuance, the employments of your country disposed of to the opulent, to whose contumely you will continually be an object. You must risk much, by indispensably placing trusts of the greatest magnitude, into the hands of individuals whose ambition for power, and aggrandizement, will oppress and grind you. Where, from the vast extent of your territory, and the complication of interests, the science of government will become intricate and perplexed, and too mysterious for you to understand and observe; and by which you are to be conducted into a monarchy, either limited or despotic; the latter, Mr. Locke remarks, is a government derived from neither nature nor compact.
Indeed it has been torn apart in the past and was reintegrated with only a great deal of blood on both sides being spilled. Or has the country become so large and diverse that it can no longer be effectively governed with out an increasingly oppressive use of force as we have seen and continue to see either directly or indirectly by the federal government to maintain control.
Reflection on the impact of very large scale on democracy can be traced back to the Greeks, and later especially to Montesquieu, who held that democracy could flourish only in small nations. The judgment that very large scale is inimical to democracy was also taken very seriously by the founding fathers. Indeed, at a time when the United States hardly extended beyond the Appalachian mountains, John Adams worried: “What would Aristotle and Plato have said, if anyone had talked to them, of a federative republic of thirteen states, inhabiting a country of five hundred leagues in extent?” Similarly – again, at a time when the nation numbered a mere 4 million people – even James Madison (who challenged the traditional argument that democracy was possible only in small nations) believed that a very large- (rather than a “mean”-scale) republic could easily become a de facto tyranny because elites at the center would be able to divide and conquer diverse groups dispersed throughout the system. Few people imagined democracy in a continent.
One can also isolate important and difficult aspects of the question of scale in the larger complex of issues that in the nineteenth century culminated in the Civil War. For our purposes, however, it is sufficient to recall that a sophisticated theoretical debate over scale problems began to develop in academic and political centers during the early years of the twentieth century, continuing up to and through the 1920s and 1930s.
The traditional response to the argument that democracy is difficult if not impossible in very large-scale units, has been to propose decentralization to the states. The point of departure for the more sophisticated debate is recognition that many states are simply too small to manage important economic issues, or for instance (in the 1930s as well as in modern times) a number of important ecological matters. Logically, if a continental national system is too large and many states are too small, the obvious answer must be something in-between – the unit of scale we call a “region.”
Which brings the questions should the United States remain a nation with a large powerful central government ? And more importantly is it possible for it to remain this way ? Or will it inevitably spit into to small regions as some have predicted ? And would this be a good thing or bad thing ? How would it happen ? What would be the trigger ?
It seems less and less likely that the riffs that have been occurring politically, socially and economically will be healed any time soon. That they seem to be getting broader and broader and each group more intransigent. In any event what comes next will very different that what we have now.