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Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Thinking About States (and Why There Should be More of Them)

[Not exactly cross-posted at Front Porch Republic, but check out the comments thread there, nonetheless.]

We spent the 4th of July weekend down in Dallas, visiting a friend that we haven't seen in years, and getting a sense of a big slice of the old southwest that, despite coming up on five years in Kansas and numerous trips to Oklahoma during that time, we'd yet to even begin to expose ourselves to. I'm talking about Texas, of course.

It surprised everyone that we mentioned our trip to that we'd never visited the Lone Star state before--no Dallas, no Austin, no San Antonio. We'd flown into and out of the Dallas-Fort Worth airport on a few occasions, but that hardly counts. I did have a job interview once in San Angelo once, way out in western Texas, and the aforementioned friend drove me out there from Dallas, so I saw some of the countryside then. But really, Texas was terra incognita to us. And it still is, of course; there's so much of it, that it's kind of ridiculous to stamp a "been there" star on our map of the U.S. just on the basis of a weekend trip to it's biggest city. (Not that that stopped us from doing so.) But we did get a taste--the green rolling hills that begin at the Arbuckle Mountains (more like tall hills, but you take what you can get) and continue south into the plains around Dallas, the diverse cities and neighborhoods of the Dallas-Fort Worth region (Irving, Arlington, Plano, Denton, and I certainly won't forget the awesome Korean grocery in Carrollton!), the kindly Southern lady who ushered us around the fantastic Nasher Sculpture Center in the Dallas Arts District. Most of all, I got a fabulous, close-up look and taste of a living legend of the Texas music scene, Joe Ely, a country-blues-rocker and singer-songwriter, founding member of the legendary Texas band The Flatlanders, all of whom my Dallas friend had introduced me to years ago. Ely was touring with a band that he'd first formed and recorded with back in the 1980s, and the show--at Billy Bob's, in the Stockyards at Fort Worth--was an awesome showcase for the talent and precision they'd gained from having worked, on the road and in the studio. Fortunately, someone there was more technologically adept than my friend and I, so you can see what you missed:

Too bad our enterprising cell-phone-camera-wielder didn't record Ely's second encore, a tribute to his hometown of Lubbock (the birthplace of Buddy Holly) and to the Rolling Stones: a pounding version of "Not Fade Away." It was very simply one of the best live performances I'd ever seen. Next time, perhaps.

[Update: Our mystery cameraman caught it! Thank you, anonymous commenter, or Scott, or whomever you are. Here it is, for you all:

Call it a tribute to the enduring and cosmopolitan power of great local Texas music, if you will!]

Anyway, one thing the weekend convinced me of--Texas is worth it. And I mean "Texas" not just as a geographic location that incorporates the activities and achievements of whomever happens to make their home or workplace there at any one point in time; I mean "Texas" as a site with a culture, a history, a legacy (in music, food, and other things as well), a way of life. I didn't need much convincing of this, of course; my passion for embeddeness and belonging and authenticity makes me an easy mark for anyone who wants to sell me on the particularity of a place. And, of course, the slogan of "particularity" itself doesn't tell you much about the nature of, the boundaries of, the necessary limits (internal and external) to a place worth being particular about. But all those important questions aside, it's I think indisputable that Texas, at least, has got something, is a home for something, worth holding on to. Would that every community--or, at the outside, every state--could say the same thing. And maybe, just maybe there's something the nation as a whole could do to make that more likely: split some of them up.

Which leads me to an old post of mine, written back in 2005 (and slightly updated here), which speaks to the idea that there ought to be more states. There are some important political and economic considerations to this proposal that the post doesn't address--in some cases because I was aware of the issues but chose not to delve into them, in other cases because they involve questions which I've only come to appreciate as I've studied more about localism in recent years--but I think on a whole, the post stands up well. So herewith, as a belated celebration of our country, a proposal to divide it up even 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?


Patrick said...

Your old links are broken. I found an image of the Inland Empire (http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/8/83/Inlandempire.PNG), but I can't find Lind's article. Do you have a link?

Patrick said...

Okay, here's Lind's article: http://www.motherjones.com/politics/1998/01/75-stars

Russell Arben Fox said...


Thanks for alerting me to the bad links; I think I've caught most of them. Thanks also for saving me the time of digging up that old Michael Lind article on my own.

One thing I kind of wish I'd taken the time to update in this post when I prepared it yesterday is my line about Lind's suggestion of 75 states. I actually don't feel that suggestion is "a little much" any longer; I really don't see how the country as it presently exists could be said to include within its boundaries fully 25 additional and legitimate cultural, historical, demographic, and geographic cases for statehood...but I wouldn't at all be surprised by the existence of ten to fifteen or so. So I guess my thinking about states has been "localized" even further in the years since I first wrote this.

Brandon said...

And it still is, of course; there's so much of it, that it's kind of ridiculous to stamp a "been there" star on our map of the U.S. just on the basis of a weekend trip to it's biggest city.

Glad you could visit; although Houston, not Dallas, is Texas's biggest city (Dallas used to be second, but I think San Antonio has edged by it in the past decade). I think Dallas is in many ways a nicer place to visit, though. It sounds like you would very much like things here around Austin; very quirky, a great deal of local pride, with a notable music scene and some decent scenery.

Anonymous said...


Rob said...

(I added this comment over on FPR also, but thought it might stir things up here too...)

Divvying up some of the current states into smaller states might be a worthwhile idea - certainly there are many of us out here in dusty West Texas who feel a distinct disconnect from the more metropolitan regions of Texas. But I have a slightly different angle on the addition of new states. Rather than (or perhaps in addition to) carving up existing states, we just need to make some new ones. How? Take Mexico.

Right. Screw our immigration woes, stop trying to secure the U.S.-Mexican border with pathetic fence schemes, and simply take Mexico!

Yup, seize the country; divvy it up into a handful of new states; clean up the water; exploit the massive labor pool; tax the snot out of the tourism industry; and end the illegal immigration problem once & for all. Sound extreme? Maybe not so much. Would you rather continue to throw boatloads of money at useless border fences or earn $9 billion in tourism investment income?

The profits from the real estate boom on the beachfront property in those new states alone would be unimaginable — and the tax income could fund other vital infrastructure improvements in those new states.

Who's up for a land grab?