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Friday Takeaway: The Disunited States of America

  • Ilan Stavans, Amherst College Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture, at his Amherst home, Monday, June 5, 2017.



For the Bulletin
Thursday, August 22, 2019

I have a hunch, vague yet persistent, that the United States won’t last in its current geographic configuration. With such pulls within it (ideological, racial, economic), it isn’t impossible for it to implode as a nation before the end of the century, and maybe much sooner.

There wouldn’t be anything remarkable about the collapse. Lest it needs to be restated, maps are fictional creations, inherently unstable. Take Europe. Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin, Churchill and other leaders changed its complexion rather dramatically. Its current shape is the results of stretches of expansion and retrenchment.

The same might be said of countless other regions: the Middle East and the Arab world, Asia, Africa and Latin America. Independence was the craze not too long ago, and splitting into two or more entities (think Yugoslavia and Sudan) follows a pattern. Nowadays there are recognized peoples (the Kurds) and regions (Catalonia, Scotland, Quebec) fighting for self-determination the way the Jews did, leading to Israel’s creation in 1948.

What gives a nation its raison d’etre is rather simple: a common mission. That mission is intricately linked to utilitarianism. The United States came together in 1776 as a place where individuals would be allowed to be free to pursue their personal objectives in exceptional terms beyond religious, ideological and cultural constraints. They created a centralized government that protected that mission.

Soon the country went through dramatic growth, abruptly devouring weaker entities in its orbit (the American Southwest, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, etc.). Its map was thereafter refurbished to justify an expansive mission statement: bigger is mightier. It was done while endorsing a premise of internal unity: the nation could swell as long as its people remained one (e pluribus unum) through assimilation and a shared sense of belonging.

All that is being tested in painful, unequivocal ways. The question of what makes the United States a single, homogenized whole is increasingly difficult to answer. Just as slavery was the catalyst for a civil war between 1861 and 1865, pitting states against each other, the politics of race are dividing the country today.

The disunion occurs not only geographically but within families, communities and regions. There is discord between urban and rural environments, between the young and the old, between immigrants and those who have been in the country for generations, and, of course, between a portion of the white population and people of color. These fractures aren’t settled; they are fluid and precarious.

Although harder to spot, the discord also manifests itself across regional lines. I imagine the United States breaking apart into smaller nation-states. Given the right circumstances, California and New England could secede. The center would hold (in a counter-narrative to W. B. Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming”) but in an alternative fashion, with the south reclaiming itself as a white stronghold. Other parts of the union might also push in alternative directions.

Needless to say, this is a dystopian vision. It would take a lot of reshuffling to be consolidated. It isn’t improbable, though. What is clear is that the practical objective that brought the 13 original American colonies together is swiftly receding into the past.

For a nation with a population of more than 325 million, having a shared goal is proving elusive. Worse, the concept of large countries is more contested today than ever. Democracy doesn’t lend itself to large constituencies. Norway, Switzerland: small countries are better at taking care of its citizens. As in the case of China and Russia, the only way to keep those corporate nations together is through political repression.

Immigration, climate change and the scarcity of global resources are putting a dent on democracy, nationally and globally. Donald Trump is undoubtedly having a long-term effect on the fabric of American society. But I don’t believe he is the cause of the discord; instead, he is just a symptom of larger unhappiness.

Imagining a second American Civil War isn’t absurd. According to a 2018 study of the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, there are more than 393 million civilian-owned firearms in the U.S. — enough for every man, woman and child to own one and still have 67 million guns left over. In other words, there are enough weapons around, pitting people against each other, to bring down the United States in a rather quick period. We have seen recent evidence in El Paso and Ohio.

For a number of independent countries to emerge out of the wreckage of the behemoth we are now, people would need to feel compelled to move: from the center to coastal states, from the countryside to the city, and vice versa. In any case, it is clear — to me, at least — that the representative, federalist system of government we have had for more than 200 years will be under rising fire, just as the European Union and other all-embracing confederacies are at the moment.

For how long are people going to accept a corrupt, inefficient Washington government dictating their everyday life in places as far away as Sacramento, Miami, and New York City? Why not embrace a more local approach to government instead?

Let me be clear: I don’t have any agenda in pushing for such massive breakdown. I simply see the existing shape of the United States as gradually untenable. Like stars, nations are born and die all the time. In utilitarian terms, smaller is better. The view of our nation as we currently know it isn’t eternal. Nor should it be.

Ilan Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities and Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, the publisher of Restless Books, and the host of “In Contrast” on NEPR.