Would America be more governable, if our states weren’t quite so unrepresentative of the people who lived there?

So suppose you find yourself accepting the possibility that within the United States today a discursive space wherein people can truly meet, argue, listen persuade, change their minds, make plans, and otherwise govern themselves democratically can no longer be reasonably expected to emerge. In other words, that republican government is at an end. One possibility would be to wash your hands of the whole thing. Another possibility would be to look at whether there is something in the structure of our 300 million-plus country which makes even the bare elements of democratic republican–that is, representative government–practice harder and harder all the time. (Of course, at a localist site like this one, that’s not a new question, but bear with me.)

One obviously place to begin would be with the Senate, which has become progressively less democratic and more difficult to get legislation through as the decades have gone by. But beyond some procedural reforms regarding the filibuster, isn’t there something more that could be done to make the states more likely sites for real democracy, whether locally or on the national level. That might require something dramatic. Not as dramatic as abolishing the Senate; I like federalism, and I like states having power on the national level. (Fact is, it’s the 17th Amendment which I’d like to see abolished.) But what if the states the Senate represented were themselves a little more “democratically” organized? Like, say, this?

It’s a thought experiment, designed around the idea of creating fifty states, all with essentially equal population. (Find out more about it here, here, and here.) Of course, states will never be–or at least, probably never should be–redrawn solely on the basis of population for electoral purposes, even democratic ones; there is history, culture, geography and more to consider. Still, such reconsiderations go along with my oft-stated wish that we could have more states–more locations for people to center themselves around, identify themselves with, and develop as a culture, a community, a demos capable of listening to, learning from, and even sometimes agreeing with one another. It’s worth imagining, at least.

20 COMMENTS

  1. I guess I find the thought experiment of dividing up the U. S. into more countries more interesting than moving state boundaries around, especially since populations can move.

    Quick question though: why do you think slower passage of legislation is indicative of our nation being less democratic than before? Faster passage of national legislation would seem to occur in (benevolent) dictatorships or oligarchies, after all.

    Also, I’m not sure if there is a need to be able to pass 1,000+ page bills that aren’t even being comprehended even faster than is being tried now.

    But I think the more interesting and complex question is the state of the American people’s democratic character. Ezra Klein cites the conventional wisdom of political scientists:

    “It’s also, as political scientists argue, because the country was less polarized…

    Yet, I think polarization is actually confined to a relatively narrow set of topics. There is far more agreement on most issues than is often heard about, issues which are under the radar precisely because they are unquestioned assumptions. This shared agreement makes sense of the particular substantive direction politics has quickly headed in the past few decades; it is a direction that most people are okay with, while arguing about the superficial veneer of hot-button issues.

    Sometimes, I wish there were more “polarization” and disagreement than there already is, i.e. on those fundamental, unquestioned issues. The democratic character of the American people would be a bit deeper and healthier for it.

  2. Apologies for veering wildly off-topic, but I wanted to briefly note my dismay at the Porch’s redesign. I much prefer the older version.

  3. Nice thought experiment. Nevertheless, I think it is somewhat disheartening that borders are (seemingly) moved to accommodate like-minded communities. It says something that we rather retrench among those who agree than learn from those we disagree. The problem seems to be that we have lost the ability to engage in healthy debate. We have lost a certain measure of civility when we seek to denigrate or vilify those who disagree with us. Personally, I enjoy diversity of opinion. My friends need not be like-minded. Some of my closet friends are atheist. They have yet to convince me. They do not seem to understand that faith needs no reason. We have lively discussions and always look forward to sharing more conversations. I digress.

    —–

    In terms of the new format, it is growing on me. It is smooth, perhaps too smooth but the more I visit the more intuitive it appears.

  4. Aside from the original 13, the states are not “natural” creations, but acts of the congress. Nothing with that many straight lines could be natural. One problem with devolution to the states is that many of them would simply not be viable as nations.

  5. Great comments, all; many thanks.

    Albert, I too agree that creating more states would be preferable to just changing boundaries. Still, it’s worth thinking about. I think the issue of speed–or, as I would put it, “responsiveness”–is relevant in a representative democracy because in its absence, there is little accountability, and hence little sense in which voters can be truly connected with the act of governing.

    Will (and Albert), I’m not convinced about the new design either. There are some things about it I very much like, but about the whole package I haven’t made up my mind.

    Rex, you’re right–that could result in some very interesting debates. (Though Mormons are more prevalent in Las Vegas than you might think…)

    John, you’re right of course the great majority of our present state boundaries were straightforward political determinations. But still there is something to be said for history: a straight line may be unnatural, but if that’s the way the people who live there have come to interact with it over generations, it comes to hold a certain natural significance. But again, I’m not advocating anything in particular here; just speculating.

  6. I’ve been rereading the WPA Guide to Kansas. One thing that stands out dramatically is the importance of counties; small but real wars were fought in nearly every county to determine the seat, and county boundaries were redrawn until an equilibrium of economic power centers was reached. County-sized units seem to be the best natural “cell”; most other nations have county-sized prefectures or provinces. Most tellingly, the loss of the federal structure since 1861 has steadily pulled power away from governors, but counties have still held their own as centers of policing, tax collection, road-building and conservation.

    Oh, and I hate the new rotating thingie too!

  7. Russell, you are having Thomas Jefferson’s kind of fun. He drew up “states” in the Old Northwest with whimsical names like “Illinoia” and”Assennesipia.” As was true of most of TJ’s fantasies, they made some geographical and cultural sense. He also assumed something that was truly remarkable: that all of the territories of the United States would eventually become equal states and an integral part of the Union. The Northwest Ordinance was perhaps the most significant law passed between 1781 and 1850, and it was passed, gasp!, by the Articles of Confederation Congress. But as long as we are engaging in Jeffersonian fantasies, I agree with Albert. We should divide this “nation” into five.

  8. Counties are a southern thing. Townships are more efficient. And Nathan, the 17th amendment finished off the old republic. An explanation would take some time.

  9. Oh, John, I know what the Seventeenth Amendment did — although I’d submit that Father Abe killed the Republic, and the Seventeenth merely nailed the lid on the coffin. I’m just one of those Porch-sitters who will go to his death hoping and praying that someone has the sense to revoke the Seventeenth. Regarding whether that would do much good, I have my doubts, but my localist republicanism is imbued with just enough aristocratic-ism for me to dream of Mitchellian leaders with an inherited sense of place in the Senate, if not in the House.

    It’s interesting that you mention townships contra counties. Here to your south, in the Hoosier State, “Our Man Mitch”‘s administration has pushed to strip the townships of what little power they still have, consolidating their duties into county government.

  10. Some suggestions:

    1. Have municipal government in non-metropolitan zones based on actual settlement patterns. There are about 3,500 small towns in this country (concentrated settlements of 2,500 to 50,000). One might have one municipality for each and one for the rural territory tributary thereto.

    2. Replace counties with metropolises and cantons. The former would be a federation of the municipalities within discrete settlements of 50,000 or more; the latter would be a federation of the small towns and countryside tributary to a given city.

    3. Reconstitute a selection of states into confederations of components. This would be particularly advisable in the case of states like Illinois or Massachusetts, which are demographically dominated by a single metropolitan center. Such a state would have one constitution and one congressional delegation, but parallel governments and statutory law codes, with little or nothing in the way of common institutions.

    4. Make use of territorial cession or interstate compacts in order to place metropolitan centers which cross state boundaries under a unified government.

    5. Assemble the states with lower population and/or lacking in the upper rungs of the settlement hierarchy into regional federations. New Zealand does tolerably with a population of 4.2 million and a national metropolis of 1.3 million. One could make these the baseline criteria for constituted regions.

    6. Replace intergovernmental transfers composed of dedicated funding with unrestricted subsidies distributed by formula. As of now, subordinate governments seem largely stripped of discretion and even the most attentive citizen cannot figure who is to blame for what.

    7. Require rotation in office for elected officials and more severe eligibility restrictions on aspirant office holders. Too many bloody vocational pols.

  11. Yeah, the country would be more “governable” is you ripped out the institutions that have some independent existence and replaced them with arbitrary regions that are totally creatures of the center.

    Making the country “governable” would probably be a good thing for the ruling class, but not so good for the people.

  12. Counties are the one level of government I could see getting “bigger” and more powerful than now, provided they come closer to a republican form of government. But I would also like to see “townships” (and I live in a state without them) replace incorporated cities, or at least require the incorporated cities to divide all unincorporated land among them so that all citizens could have a level more local than the county. Since we identify ourselves by post office, perhaps township or “borough” divisions should follow Post Office lines.

  13. Interesting that Missouri is the one state that keeps its name and survives almost intact. Are you from Missouri, Mr Fox? 🙂

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