Conscious Uncoupling: Ending The American Political Death Spiral
It’s really hard to look at the state of the United States Federal Government and conclude that it’s really working for… well… anyone.
The Federalist Papers made the original arguments for the need for a strong federal government. In the wake of the Great Depression and World War II, that federal government transformed the nation, dramatically shifting the focus from states toward centralization.
The death blow to the federal system, however, is the Trump presidency. The fatal flaw? The effective dictatorship that can result from control of either a) 50%+1 of the House or 34% of the Senate — blocking any attempt at impeachment and therefore any remedy for the behavior of the executive. The poisoning of the federal court system with wildly, incredibly unqualified judges ensures the long term nightmare.
It took the COVID-19 pandemic to finally break the logjam and push things from the realm of theory into reality. The corruption of the executive is literally resulting in the death of the citizenry and the collapse of the economy. Instead of coherent, effective programs to bring us together, the federal government is seizing supplies, pouring money into the pockets of friends, and ending programs designed to save lives in order to save face.
In the face of all of this, in certain portions of the country, Trump still enjoys a 50%+ approval rating.
This is not something that is going to be fixed. This is a cultural divide too great to be bridged. This is authoritarian and cult madness, writ large. This is not new — this is something that has been embedded in the country since the founding, from the 3/5 “compromise” to the Civil War to today.
In the Great Depression, the New Deal was designed to save capitalism from itself. I would argue the only way to save the United States is to begin the process of decoupling — to break up the current federal system and replace it with something new.
Things To Be Saved
The United States Federal Government has several functions. It’s worth taking a few minutes to describe these in order to understand the implications and process for decoupling.
- The US Military, the most powerful in the world.
- The US Nuclear weapons systems, also the most powerful in the world.
- Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid.
- The US Debt.
- All other spending — transportation, housing, etc.
- Foreign relations — State and Trade, in particular.
- Regulatory systems — for example, the Environmental Protection Agency.
- The various federal courts, including the Supreme Court.
- The US Federal Reserve and the US Dollar.
That’s it. That’s the federal government in a (laughably simplistic) nutshell. There is, of course, no way to really explain an organization such as this quickly and easily… but it’ll have to do for now.
The Nations of North America
With a brief summary of the high level roles of the federal government, what would the alternative be?
I would suggest looking toward the Eleven Nations of North America by Colin Woodard for a guide.
Source: https://www.businessinsider.com/the-11-nations-of-the-united-states-2015-7 with a bit of additional grouping coloration added by this author.
You can see these clumps of states emerging in the recently announced state pacts for COVID-19 response.
The resources represented by these clusters are massive. They would easily match those of large European nations — California alone, for example, would be the fifth largest economy in the world.
My proposal is that we deliberately accelerate the process of transferring authority from the current overly centralized US Federal Government and toward these regional areas. I’m going to go with the term “provinces” to describe these greater-than-state-smaller-than-federal entities — it’s the least loaded term I can think of… and besides, it brings to mind Canada. Who doesn’t love Canada?
Clarifying the Proposal
Simply put, the states would form into new provinces as a new framework. Provinces would be smaller than the current federal system but much larger than the states. The provinces would still (as mentioned above) be some of the largest nations in the world.
Mechanically, by default, each province would get a copy of the existing federal system, but would then be able to modify the systems to meet their needs. This would allow for seamless continuance of the existing legal frameworks on day one, but would also allow for cultural separation over time.
Some notable areas where I would personally expect cultural separation over a fairly short term:
- Different health care systems
- Different approaches to abortion rights
- Different approaches to social safety nets
- Different approaches to foreign policy
- Different approaches to representative apportionment
- Different impeachment rules
…and that’s just off the top of my hat.
The default, however, would be separation.
Challenges and Areas for Discussion
Remember that list of things the Federal Government does? Let’s quickly review:
- The US Military, the most powerful in the world, would be split between the various provinces. I would assume that the provinces would immediately agree to a mutual defense pact... but then again, maybe not. They would still be some of the largest militaries in the world.
- The US Nuclear weapons systems would also be split between the various provinces. Each individual province would still have enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world several times over.
- Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, foreign relations, spending, and regulatory systems. These programs would be taken over and managed by each province individually. I would expect these would diverge relatively rapidly.
- The US Debt. The debt would be assumed by each province along a proportional system. Whatever the issues around the debt, it’s a lot cheaper to split it up than fight a civil war.
- Each province would have a different Supreme Court and court system. Each would almost certain diverge fairly rapidly from each other along cultural lines.
- The US Federal Reserve and the US Dollar. This is one of the big ones. As the European Union is discovering, it is extraordinarily difficult to break apart economic policy from cultural policy. In theory, the current United States Federal Reserve is already supposed to operate independently from the political pressures of the political system, so perhaps the provinces would agree to sustain that system initially. Much like the tensions between, say, Germany and Greece, however, it’s more likely that the various provinces would be happier in the long run breaking currencies. It’s never been done before — maybe the provinces can wind up sharing the Federal Reserve. Or maybe a province would start by creating a new currency that would begin coupled with the dollar and then after a few years it would be allowed to float independently. Who knows? Again, still easier to sort out than a civil war.
Travel and Citizenship
The biggest challenge with decoupling is (again, as we see with the European Union) the question of free travel and citizenship. Initially, each province will need to create a framework for identity and passports, with a guaranteed right of free travel between provinces.
Eventually, this framework would need to evolve. For example, let’s say that the CA+WA+OR province of Pacifica decides to offer a generous immigration package — worker permits with a relatively quick path to citizenship. The Deep South, however, decides to dramatically restrict immigration. Would the Deep South recognize the travel rights of the citizens of Pacifica, or instead decry (even if for base political reasons) the newly-minted citizens of Pacifica?
It is almost certainly critical for the initial period that the provinces maintain the free and open movement of goods and services. Eventually, certain provinces (I’m looking at you in particular here, Deep South and Texas) will also almost certainly want to proceed with some sort of Brexit-style independence. That’s fine!
In the run up to the Deep South-Brexit, however, the citizens of the province will be able to move. It’s pretty easy to imagine a lot of citizens, when confronted with the reality of being a minority (of whatever type) in certain provinces will decide that it is best for their long term prospects that they want to move. For example, a Trump true-believer might decide that their cultural opportunity will be best met in the Deep South, or that a person of color might imagine that the Deep South might not be where they want to live.
I’d call this “the Great Sorting,” and it’s also less traumatic than a civil war. To make this process easier, some provinces might want to offer a one-time assistance program for anyone who wants to move. Or not. The most dramatic way for an American to affect their life today is to move — certainly far more than the control offered by exercising the right to vote — and breaking things apart into provinces would make that just that much clearer.
How This Happens — The Ugly Version
Well… there’s the messy way and the deliberate way.
The messy way is to watch the Federal government continue to implode. Worst case scenarios?
- A botched 2020 election, with a large percentage of the country viewed it as illegitimate
- Massive federal violations of civil rights in the name of COVID-19 and/or the election
- The declaration by Trump of martial law
- The announcement by several large state governors that they no longer view the federal government as valid due to violations of the Constitution by the executive. Perhaps announcing that they will withhold federal tax payments, or that they will forcibly remove federal officers attempting to seize COVID-19 medical supplies. This could culminate in the announcement by Trump that National Guard troops will be ordered to seize state capitals for non-payment. State troopers and the national guard wind up shooting at each other… and historians spend a generation or more sorting out who shot first.
Yeah. It could get real bad. Civil war, millions dead bad.
After the war, the survivors get together and start drafting.
How This Happens — The Better Version
Assuming we skip the second American civil war, to fix our current problems with the Constitution going through the amendment process. The thing is… even if we put on a legalistic patch, will it still work? Or will some future would-be dictator still be able to figure out a way to work around it and seize control?
That said, the only legal framework for consciously uncoupling is the current Constitutional amendment process. There is (uhh, rather famously) no framework for a state to leave the United States.
The first step in the process is to start talking about it. We start to really think about the Federal Government and our relationship with it. We think about the cultural chaos that will result from wild swings of control of so much power every four-to-eight years. All of the problems, and the textual issues that would be required to fix it. The Electoral College. The Senate. Gerrymandering the House. The nature of the Supreme Court and the cultural impact of a single judge living or dying.
We’ll need a national spokesperson for decoupling, someone who can put it on the table and really push for it. The same way that Andrew Yang put basic income on the table.
The response to putting it on the table will be absolutely fascinating. It’s hard to see politicians in the Deep South arguing against it… and given the current situation in the states that have already formed the early pacts, it would be interesting to see (for example) governors arguing against it as well.
On some level, it boils down to some really basic questions of faith and identity. Do people really feel like Americans any more?
Do they believe in the ability of the Federal Government to protect them and solve problems?
If the approval for Congress can barely crack 30% (and struggles to maintain 20%)… it’s really not that hard to imagine dissolution.
Once it becomes part of the national conversation, the next step would be for the reputable polling firms to start consistently polling on the topic. As of ~2015, state secession ranged from 20–30%. It’s easy to imagine an advocacy group raising funds to start this coverage, especially for the province model (as opposed to individual states). Once it starts to break 50% approval… it’s mainstream. Once it breaks 60% approval… it’s essentially a done deal.
As it starts to get to be around 50%, a constitutional amendment would need to be drafted. Key to this would be to keep it really short and brief — 2–3 pages, ideally. We are talking Bill of Rights territory, not detailed legalese. It needs to be something that everyone can understand, simply and powerfully. Then the amendment goes through the one of the ratification processes.
As part of the process, a list of states and their associated provinces would need to be assembled. Initially, each state would need to decide which province to join. The cultural model above would almost certainly be the basis. Would Texas decide to go it alone or join up with Appalachia? Does the Midlands become a province or decide to join up with the adjoining provinces? It’ll be a hell of a discussion… or maybe not. My gut says that people will quickly know exactly where they stand. The specifics of this are beyond this writing… but the conversation would be very revealing.
And then… one day… it’s done. The amendment is passed, and the national cultural wars are over.
Congratulations! We all won.
PostScript: Wait… Does this mean Putin is winning?
It’s pretty easy to imagine that Putin would be wildly excited about sowing the divisions in the United States that would lead to a province-style dissolution. He’d probably even enjoy the parallels with the breakup of the Soviet Union.
That said, the provinces would almost certainly be more durable in the face of external meddling. It’s beyond the scope of this to really calculate the impact of Putin on the Trump presidency, but currently the entire nation of over 300 million is currently absolutely crippled in terms of an effective response to Russian interference. It’s much easier to imagine, say, Pacifica and the upper-east coast provinces responding to Russia (and China!) more effectively.
So, in the short term, Putin might think he’s winning. In the medium-to-long term, he’ll have a suite of much more united and focused provinces to contend with.