In Praise of States (and Why There Should be More of Them)

By Russell Arben Fox for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC

Wichita, KS

Over the July 4th weekend, we made a quick trip south to Dallas, and were blessed with a brief look at that particular large chunk of the American southwest, with all its geographic and historic and cultural particularity. (More about the trip here.) One thing it put me in mind of, however, was an old post of mine, written back in 2005 (and slightly updated here), in which I praised the value of particular states, and suggested that we needed more of them. I figured that notion ought to appeal to at least a few folks around the Front Porch Republic, so herewith, my suggestion–as kind of a belated contribution to our annual holiday of praise–that America is a great place, and would be even greater if we divided it up more.


When the opportunity arises, I like to take my family to visit Spokane, Washington, where I grew up. Not only does it give us a chance to see extended family, it enables us to ramble around Washington states and other parts of the Pacific Northwest with our kids. Over the years, we’ve taken them to Seattle and Portland and Coeur d’Alene, and driven back and forth along the Columbia River Gorge, we’ve taken them to Mount Rainier and Mount St. Helens. Whenever I return to Washington, I’m always struck once again by the diverse beauty of its environment: the Cascade Range, the Yakima River Valley, the Palouse Prairie, etc. And, of course, I’m reminded of how much I’d like to divide it up.

The ambition (mostly humorous, but sometimes serious) to carve a new state out of parts of Washington, Idaho, and a little bit of Oregon has been around for a long time; I remember people talking about it when I was a kid. The most reasonable plan usually calls for taking the region often referred to as the “Inland Empire” (here’s a rough map) and renaming it “Columbia,” with Spokane as its capital, bordered by Canada on the north, Kalispell and Missoula, MT, on the east, Wenatchee and Yakima, WA, on the west, and maybe Baker City, OR, on the south (just so long as we get Hells Canyon). Granted, most of the local people who talk about creating such a state are doing so only because they want to make some sort of point about the ideological divide between the liberal, metropolitan enclaves of Seattle and Portland, and the conservative, mostly rural territory which those areas politically dominate. But if you look at it that way, you force the question of who is really being “served” or “represented” by whatever strange ideological combinations the boundaries of Washington (or any state, for that matter) call into being–and by that standard, poor Eastern Washington benefits a lot more from wealthy Western Washington than local politicians care to admit. Which means, of course, that the debate founders on the usual dispute over economic advantage vs. political liberty, with plenty of mockery and cheerleading to be found on both sides.

I don’t see it in those terms however; my concern is more cultural and civic. The whole theoretical point of granting substantive political power to individual states–given that the logic of “one man, one vote” suggests that we ought to actually abolish both the electoral college and the U.S. Senate, and turn the whole United States over to a single unicameral legislature–is the old republican notion (as transformed by James Madison and Co., of course) that people will take their democratic duties as citizens more seriously when they feel a greater attachment to that public of which they are a part. Of course, that’s only part of the issue–the historical reason for granting substantive political power to the states in the U.S. had little to do with theory, and a lot to do with the fact that distinct sovereignties existed along the eastern coast of North America, had existed for quite some time, and couldn’t be gotten around in any imagining of a new American polity. But still, that factors into the theoretical concern–if you have historical localized attachments, then they need to be constructed, legitimated, and assembled in such a way as to preserve their function in the larger whole. As the country has developed, much of that function has broken down, at least in part due to the unwieldiness of certain state boundaries as they’ve developed over time. Spokane (despite what some of its boosters claim) doesn’t dislike Seattle, anymore than Pendleton dislikes Portland or Bonners Ferry dislikes Boise. They just don’t have a lot of mutual affection for each other, that’s all. So, why not divide up certain boundaries to reflect the developed history of these places? The result would be along the lines of what Michael Lind suggests: more states, making for more and more balanced representation.

Okay, I admit, Lind’s vision of 75 states is a little much. Moreover, Lind is, as always, a purely civic nationalist; his vision is entirely wrapped up his drive to make the American nation a more unified and democratic political body. I’m sympathetic to such national republican concerns, but I also think that Lind’s proposal foolishly ignores the cultural and historical aspects of belonging. You can’t just divide up states left and right for the sake of representational equivalence, however worthy the goal; the roots of identity begin locally, not with lines drawn for wholly political purposes. Sure, politics is part of it–as I’ve discussed before, boundary-drawings, like all foundings, is a complicated affair, with outright acts of political will balanced against the pre- (and non-)political elements of “people-making,” whether linguistic or geographic or cultural or otherwise. But nonetheless, the affective aspects of identity, as they grow (and change) over time, need to be considered. Which just means that it’d obviously be plain electoral suicide to try to get the Great State of Texas, with all its myth and history, to submit to a break-up. If you’re going to be that crazy about it, you might as well throw your lot in with those who advocate annexing British Columbia and Alberta as well. I don’t think a purely representative calculus will serve America–to say nothing of eastern Washington–very well. The goal shouldn’t be achieve a perfectly responsive representativeness (we arguably already are too addicted to that chimera anyway, what with recall elections and ill-considered election laws hampering the overall process); rather, the goal should be more representation in general. Where possible, where the people’s sympathies clearly support it, let’s have more states, with a larger Congress and more representatives serving the people on a smaller, more affective basis. (Which will also, I think, also turn out to be more effective–but that’s, as I say, a separate matter.) Moreover, let’s start with my Inland Empire homeland (and let’s do it soon, before my father is too old to run for governor).

What other new states do I think are plausible? Western Kansas, unfortunately, almost certainly isn’t, but there are other candidates out there was well; Lind’s list, over-enthusiastic as it is, contains some obvious possibilities. Clearly, California should be split up–it’s too large, spread out and disconnected as a population for current arrangements to be defensible, to say nothing of economically sustainable. Plus, there’s precedent for northern California separating itself; consider the proposed state of “Jefferson”. Splitting up New Jersey, perhaps in conjunction of some redrawn boundaries within New York and Pennsylvania, would follow natural population lines. (No doubt Long Island would love to be its own state.) I’d personally like to give Michigan’s Upper Peninsula back to Wisconsin, since that makes more sense geographically, but dividing the state along a north-south line, giving the U.P. to the western half and forming a new state out of the Detroit area and the “thumb” probably wouldn’t cause too many tears (at least not if my Ann Arbor-raised wife’s opinion is any indication). And that doesn’t even begin to address harder cases, like Puerto Rico. But this would give us 5 new states, and they’d be fairly evenly divided between “red” and “blue” too, on my reading. Why not 55 states? We could add another line of stars to the flag, don’t you think?

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