Let’s Come Undone

Sean Tevis, a forty year old self-described ‘information architect,’ suffered a setback to his bid to become the United States Representative from Kansas’ 2nd district on Tuesday, finishing third in that (rather red) state’s Democratic primary.  As a New Yorker not paid to know the political preferences of Kansans in August, perhaps my mention of this event might provide Mr. Tevis with some small consolation.  I say that not to flatter myself; I’m what keeps the consolation small.  But that I was even aware of Mr. Tevis’ reach for Congressional glory is a certain testament to the reason he ran, namely to spread word of his ‘plan to re-balance the US political system.‘

The plan, which he calls ‘The American Nations,‘ and explains in the comic-strip form that is becoming his calling card, is to have people politically organize online around certain social and economic issues, essentially creating ‘virtual nations‘ that provide specific policies and services sought by their respective members (e.g., discounted medical coverage).

The plan is simple in spirit: bypass the political posturing, the self-and-corporate-interested dealing, and ideological enmity that warps the discourse and decisions of the professional political class and give more power to ‘the people.’  If there are people willing to sign on to a single-payer health care system, let them group themselves together and do so.  Those preferring some form of non-profit cooperatives as the balance to private insurers could do the same.  And why not?  Why must they both have to settle for the  sausage – distasteful to each for different reasons  – their ‘representatives’ ultimately served up?

Settling for far less than our particular ideal is something to which we have collectively become accustomed.  That is part of being a  member of a democracy, especially a very large, demographically and philosophically varied one.  The immediate, intuitive appeal to the American Nations plan is that it side-steps this factional variety and redraws the political map with borders based on needs and preferences, thereby eliminating much of the need for national debates (traditionally conceived) about the proper form federal (re: one-size-fits-all) programs are to take.  In virtue of the nature of self-selection of ‘national’ identity, there is much less cause for compromise.  As a result, ‘citizens’ of the various nations get policies much closer to their ideal.

Getting the goods and services you want, in the way you want them, is something that one would expect to appeal across the political spectrum.  But I would think that something along the lines of the American Nations plan would be especially attractive to those inclined to intone against the evils of ‘big government’ and the stultifying tendencies of over-grown bureaucracies.  Anti-federalists might find this an even more amenable framework than the mere call for greater state autonomy, as many states are sufficiently fragmented (e.g., California, Florida, New York) to dysfunction as microcosms of the nation at large.

Perhaps communitarians and ‘localists,’ or ‘regionalists‘ would be attracted to it as well if it weren’t merely virtual.  (Interestingly, Tevis’ virtual plan seems to be a descendant from an earlier version that was more substantive, based on the idea of ‘domestic nations‘ as allowed for in the Constitution.)  Likewise those in the process of developing sustainable local economies with more equitable distribution of prosperity.  When it comes to political efficiency, ‘political’ in the largest sense, size matters; smaller communities, built on a more tangible and immediately and easily recognizable conception of a common good, hold out the hope of not only of actually being self-governable and more economically just (in a distributional sense), but of realizing the conditions for civic flourishing.

There is another, somewhat aesthetic appeal to an ideologically cohesive, physically real fragmentation of America: the possibility of truly diverse cultural development. Cultural diversity, as it is often formulated (and experienced) in America, is a matter of assimilation and absorption.  This is the result of the enormous pressure exerted by the national consciousness and that of an ‘American’ culture, in the singular.  Among the primary sources of this consciousness (and the culture that reflects it) is the culture industry itself.  The most influential aspects of the industry’s infrastructure (i.e., network and cable television, ‘Hollywood’) are calibrated to achieve national (if not global) appeal, the success of which demands national tastes. Of course the most effective means to creating (and sustaining) national tastes in a society as large and diverse as America’s is to find an all-too-common denominator.  The larger the audience/market, the lower that denominator.  Fragmentation’s cultural promise lies in the hope that smaller societies, with economically regional reference-frames, might eventually incubate new, peculiar variants of the American type that will be less susceptible to large-scale commercial pressures and so be provided with the opportunity to mature to the point of bearing ripe, distinctive fruit.

Simple plans are often branded naïve, and I have found from discussing it with others that the intentional fragmentation is no exception.  Some claim that the U.S. are too economically integrated both with each other and, collectively, with the larger global economy to permit any substantive inward turn.  Perhaps, but I believe that a growing number of Americans (not to mention other citizens of the world) are becoming convinced that it is in less, rather than more integration that a truly prosperous future is to be found.  In any case, fragmentation needn’t be understood as leading to miniature isolationism or even nativism (though nothing necessarily prevents that either).

The greatest obstacle to an American Balkanization is rather the very idea of America, that shining city on the hill.  In the land of the free and the home of the brave, the ideal of America captures both our cultural and military pride.  We are a tribe of artists, occupying a land of infinite creation, a place unencumbered by either history or tradition; and we are warriors, a nation of brothers willing to pay the ultimate sacrifice to defend freedom and resist tyranny, be it the English, the Germans, Soviets, or Islamists.  For each side of ourselves, to divide America is to diminish it.

America embodies the promise of reinvention; here multitudes have come to begin anew. Perhaps now is time for us to return the favor and reinvent America itself; to let the seeds of liberty sown over two centuries take root and grow in the peculiar ways local conditions permit.  Of course something would inevitably, irretrievably be lost.  But, as Mr. Tevis wanted to tell us, much might be gained.

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