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Monday, July 11, 2005

My Homeland, the 51st State (and Why There Should Be Even More)

We got back from another one of our semi-regular pilgrimages to the Fox family home in Spokane, WA, last week. As usual, the vacation was a delight. (Many photos available here.) First and foremost for family reasons--I'm the only child of Jim and Kathleen Fox to live further east than either Washington, Oregon, Idaho or Utah, so we aren't able to get together with my family and in-laws, and our kids aren't able to spend time with their Fox cousins, nearly as much as we'd like. Big vacations like these can't erase that distance, but they go a long ways towards building connections that mitigate it somewhat. The fact that my folks have been fortunate enough to be able to build a family cabin big enough to contain us all, on top of a hill (dubbed "Fox Hill") that will likely stay in my family's hands for years to come, only makes these occasional gatherings even more fun. And, of course, the reason for this gathering--honoring my parents' 40th wedding anniversary--was a special one.

But completely aside from family, we also like visiting Spokane because it gives us a chance to ramble around Washington and other parts of the Pacific Northwest with our kids. We've taken them to Seattle and Portland and Coeur d'Alene, and driven back and forth along the Columbia River Gorge; this trip, we made it to both Mount Rainier and Mount St. Helens. (I particularly wanted to visit the latter, since this year is the 25th anniversary of the 1980 eruption which I remember well.) 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 unweildliness 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 republican concerns, obviously, 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? 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. 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 west 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?


Anonymous said...

1. Great idea.

2. Since when did 'one man, one vote' become the lodestar of our polity?

3. What exactly is wrong with annexing BC and Alberta? ;)

4. As you know, I argue that some states should be combined (http://www.timesandseasons.org/index.php?p=1236). Since you're arguing that states should be redrawn to coincide with regional identities, I don't see why you don't agree. 

Posted by Adam Greenwood

Anonymous said...

1. If you agree with me Adam, then obviously I must be on the right track. Thanks!

2. My post isn't a defense of "one man, one vote," but I do think that it is a probably inevitable result of pursuing democratic principles in the context of the modern liberal order. Democracy in other contexts leads to different outcomes. As you know, I don't like the modern liberal order, but I do like democracy, and so we might as well work to make it the best it can be given the world we have.

3. Nothing. My Canadian friends will greatly disapprove of my saying so, but I'm not sure there's much to "Canada" (as a civic entity) west of Ontario, anyway. Quebec and the Maritine provinces are still very much their own societies, and Ontario is the official powerhouse of the Official Canadian Alternative--but Manitoba? Just like Montana, only more of it.

4. I'd forgotten about that post of yours; thanks for reminding me. In fact, I don't think we disagree. The second (unwritten) half of this post is that an increase in some states could be offset by a unifying of other states, leaving us at 50 if that's the preference. Between an enlarged state of Deseret, a redrawn Montana and Colorado, and my new states of Columbia and Jefferson, we could take care of much of the Great Basin, dealing with Idaho and Wyoming once and for all. 

Posted by Russell Arben Fox

Anonymous said...

Nah, we don't want the UP.

I've not lived on the west coast, but I grew up on the east coast and now live in the midwest (WI). I disagree that people don't feel loyalty towards their states. Especially here in the midwest, where the state universities reign (and fuel inter-state rivalries.)

Though, I do like what Lind did with Florida. Is anyone really *from* Florida, anyway? 

Posted by Kristen

Anonymous said...

I have a colleague, Robert Nelson, who argues for secession as a democratic right. He claims that the Confederacy gave secession a bad name, but there can be a good case "for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another." That would apply to states as much as to nations.

There is some precedent for your modest proposal: the creation of West Virginia.

However, while we're imagining schemes for reorganizing political units to increase representativeness, I'd rather do what Congress can achieve by a mere majority vote: 1) Increase the number of House seats from 435 to at least the 600+ that we see in the British House of Commons. 2) Use computer algorithms to draw electoral districts. 

Posted by Peter Levine

Anonymous said...

Adam: I'm also of the opinion that one person, one vote is not the only consideration when drawing up states and assigning representation, but at least it's one reasonable principle which can be balanced among others. Presently in the Senate, however, we are stuck with a method of representation which only really made sense as a compromise measure to get the Constitution passed in the first place. If African-Americans had as much extra representation in the Senate as small-state voters do, then the Senate Black Caucus would be around 45 Senators strong. This kind of distortion is becoming a greater problem now that the Senate is abandoning its former ways of consensus in favor of simple majoritarianism.

Russell: I think the problem you identify with Lind's proposal (which in many ways I like) lies in the tension between the American states as units of representation and states as political communities in themselves. In one mode the state attempts to make its own way as a somewhat coherent regional and cultural identity; in the other mode it participates in a federal system which undercuts the particularity and uniqueness of that identity. Or, put in more pessimistic terms, while the state government tries to show that 'we can govern ourselves', our representatives in DC fight over federal grants.  

Posted by Jeremiah J.

Anonymous said...

On the smaller issue: As a resident of Spokane (okay, the absolutely non-euphonious City of Spokane Valley, but close enough), talk of splitting the most economically disadvantaged and most conservative bits of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho into a separate state sends me into a cold sweat. If I wanted to live in north Idaho (low taxes, sucktacular public schools, horrible social services) I'd move 15 miles east and darn well live there! 

Posted by Ab_Normal

Anonymous said...

Kristen--You're right that many Midwestern states still do a good job inculcating--through education institutions or what have you--a sense of attachment. I think that's more true, however, of the Midwest east of the Mississippi (Illinois, Michigan, Indiana) than west of it though: Nebraska, Kansas, etc., where state boundaries are little more than lines of latitude. You're also right that Lind's treatment of Florida would be another good place to start.

Peter--I hadn't thought of the West Virginia precedent; thanks. As for increasing the size of the House of Representatives, I'm all for it. It would, of course, happen to a small extent through my proposals, but it ought to be done anyway regardless: the degree of "popular" representation in the House today, thanks to our overall population, is far less than it should be.

Jeremiah--Good analysis. Obviously I favor, along with Adam, the first model, in the sense of creating representative federal bodies that both reflect and help reify local identities (thus, in my mind, increasing the impetus to civic participation), but I don't think it's entirely impossible to kill two birds with one stone here.

Ab_Normal--I sympathize. My folks live in Spokane Valley (technically Otis Orchards), and it's not my preferred polity either. Obviously, my hypothetical state of Columbia would be seen by some of as a redneck place, little better than Mississippi. (And I say that as someone who has lived in Mississippi.) But even as someone with feelings about taxes and social services similar to yours, I'm not sure that justifies jury-rigging boundaries so that there's always a liberal metropolis available to "balance out" the locals, especially when that comes at some civic cost. 

Posted by Russell Arben Fox

Anonymous said...

I see your point about jury-rigged borders; but I'm still not sure eastern Washington is viable without the tax revenues of the west side. As a liberal/progressive, a "knowledge-worker" (okay, nerd), and a (very quiet) atheist, I already feel like a minority here. If they changed the borders, I don't know if I'd have the guts to stick it out and try to make my voice heard, because it's my feeling that the conservatives would feel *very* empowered. 

Posted by Ab_Normal

Anonymous said...

I think that's the point. One of the advantages of federalism is that it allows for local differences, which sound like they're currently being suppressed in Eastern Washington. Of course local minorities can get hurt, which is why, historically, centralizing powers (empires, colonizing nations, kings) have cooperated with local minorities to tear down local authorities.

But I'm not to worried about local minorities in this country because (1) I think most everyone share's a fundamental commitment to certain American principles, such that no one's rights are likely to be seriously infringed and (2) the ability to pick up and move is very real. 

Posted by Adam Greenwood

Anonymous said...

There is a good book on the history of the Inland Empire concept by Katherine Morrissey. 

Posted by David Salmanson

Anonymous said...

This is the lamest thing I've seen on the web.
P.S. One of your family members is definitly gay. 

Posted by Eddie

Anonymous said...

I lived in Western Washington my whole life (until a year ago when I moved to Cali) and rarely went east of the Cascades. It's like a whole different world over there.

One of the things I really love about Washington State. 

Posted by Susan M

Anonymous said...

May a friendly foreigner make a suggestion? I see why the Executive and Legislative branches of your federal government are both in the same capital city, but wouldn't it be sensible to separate the third arm of government literally? Move the Supreme Court to some part of the country that could use a boost to its economy, and thus also get the Justices living in a society that is more representative of the country than the suburbs of Washington D.C. 

Posted by dearieme

Anonymous said...

Well, I am not sure the current American citizenry will get any more "civically minded" by any geographical boundary changes made, but I think redrawing some of the lines to make more sense in terms of peoples with like interests actually makes a lot of sense. In that I am in favor of working toward eliminating all political boundaries everywhere, this is a small step towards that goal.

People in Northern California are just more like Oregonians. Upers are more like folks in Wisconsin. People in Toledo root for the Tigers and Lions and most of their commerce is deeply tied into Detroit's industries. The capital region populace - people in Northern Virginia and Suburban Maryland - represents a community whose focus is very much on D.C., and thus would make a good state (but should included at LEAST everything in the beltway, if not an even larger radius).

It's just that the dividing lines were made when the country was very different. In fact, I might be able to argue that whole separate nations (friendly to one another) could be recarved out of North America. Ohio, Michigan and Western New York State have MUCH more in common with Ontario than we ever have had with Idaho or Arizona.

I mean, I don't think any of this is going to happen, but perhaps if more and more people become aware of these things, they too will see the benefit of thinking outside the political boundary box! 

Posted by Tony O'Rourke