American future: The rise of the meta state
That the United States suffers a profound — and paralyzing — polarization along ideological lines is no big revelation. The question is: Will the coronavirus pandemic heal the divide, or will it deepen the fissure? With unemployment forecast to exceed the worst of the great depression, with the wholesale destruction of its industrial base, compounded by the rising tide of irrationality and science denial that has already swamped much of the country, there is a real possibility that the nature of US society will undergo fundamental and irreversible change.
We’re already bracing for something akin to — or worse than — the great depression, and we may have to steel ourselves for something incomprehensibly more extreme. My personal terror is the looming one depicted in the movie Mad Max: Society is slowly crumbling as the world runs out of oil; but, for now, even as the darkness encroaches, the lights still turn on, the water still runs out of faucets.
Already, there are early signs that the United States may not survive as one country. The Federal Government and the states are at loggerheads over the response to the virus, with the states wresting control from the Feds over their independent destinies. Thanks to the leadership vacuum left by the White House, the nation’s governors — notably Democrats Gavin Newsom of California, Andrew Cuomo of New York, Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, Jay Inslee of Washington State and Republicans Mike DeWine of Ohio and Larry Hogan of Maryland — have stepped up, directly challenging the power of the president.
This is the clear culmination of the trends that have been playing out for several years — on many issues — but have accelerated during the Trump administration. Contravening federal guidelines California, former Gov. Jerry Brown led the fight against climate change; in Virginia, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe restored the right to vote for convicted felons who had served their time; in Ohio, former Gov. John Kasich defied his own party by expanding Medicaid to more than half a million Ohioans. And, despite Congressional dithering on national gun laws in the aftermath of past mass shootings, individual state legislatures unilaterally enacted strict measures.
While these issues have simmered only slightly below the surface, the fight over coronavirus response is different. It is likely to embolden the states like never before. The denouement might be a “virtual secession” of some states from the Union; states increasingly flexing their muscles on issues such as immigration, gun laws, climate change, healthcare, LGBTQ rights, women’s reproductive health, legal cannabis, minimum wage levels, etc. It would be a secession-lite, based on social values, not a physical rupture.
To magnify their clout these renegade states are likely to make common cause. Though not physically contiguous they would be bound by common social values. They would harmonize their policies around best practices: California’s on climate change regulations and gun laws; New York’s on immigrant rights; Massachusetts’ on health care; Oregon’s on women’s reproductive rights, etc.
I call such a coalition the “meta state.”
The governing framework for such an outcome would be the concept of “States’ rights” enshrined in the Constitution; the 10th Amendment says that the guiding philosophy of States’ rights is that the government closest to the people is best able to decide most issues, with the federal government retaining only those powers specifically delegated to it.
States’ rights used to be a loaded term because Southern states used it to oppose federally mandated racial desegregation (it was the primary reason for the civil war) and, more recently, same-sex marriage. But now, the shoe’s on the other foot; the progressive states are using it in defense of their social policies.
States with a “Democratic Trifecta” — democratic control of the state house, state senate and the governor’s mansion — are the obvious candidates for membership in the meta state. But so are certain cities: Houston, Miami and Atlanta for example, embedded though they are within red states.
Currently there are 15 states with a Democratic Trifecta, mostly situated on the on the East and the West coasts, but also including Colorado, New Mexico and Illinois. The combined population of these 15 states would be slightly more than a third of the current US total. But they are economic powerhouses. The combined GDP of these states would be half that of the US as a whole, making it the second largest economy in the world, only after China. The meta state would dominate three of the largest industries in the US, technology, finance and media/entertainment. The meta state would also dominate pharma, advertising and would be a strong contender in agriculture. It would hold a near monopoly in wine production. If traditional blue states, currently with mixed governments — Massachusetts and Minnesota, for example — were to be added, the meta state economy would be even larger.
While the Federal Government is not likely to regard this move benignly, it would have to reckon with the doctrine that holds that the federal government is barred from interfering with certain rights “reserved” to the individual states by the 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. “Secession lite” does not require boundaries be redrawn or defended; the meta state would not dig into tax-payer pockets to finance a military. The fight would be in the courts. States’ moves to restrict gun ownership and to act as immigrant sanctuaries have faced stiff resistance from the Federal Government. Battles will be won and lost on both sides.
There is another reality that ties the hands of the Federal Government: it relies on the states to do much of its dirty work. States implement federal policy and states may choose not to. The Federal Government simply doesn’t have enough resources to enforce its laws within states that oppose such laws. How long before it loses the will? Marijuana legalization is a case in point. At the federal level the production, possession and sale of marijuana is a crime. But nearly a dozen states have ignored the federal mandate in enacting laws that allow their residents to possess, grow, and sell marijuana for recreational and medical use. More states are likely to follow.
In “The Rise of the States,” historian Jon C. Teaford describes how states actively assumed new responsibilities, developed new sources of revenue, and created new institutions during the twentieth century. As the 21st century unfolds that vitality stands in stark contrast to the increasingly dysfunctional nation state.
But before we get carried away with the fantasy of the meta state as an escape from all that ails the country, here’s a sobering thought: The meta state will succeed only if it serves as a luminous beacon for progressive values — only if helps lift the rest of America out of disrepair and ruin. In fact, the raison d’être of the meta state — its mission — is to act as a laboratory experiment for healing the great divide.