Politically, perhaps the most important talk given at Pop!tech was Juan Enriquez on “Transformation in Power Systems.” Enriquez is a businessman, academician, and best selling author. Curently he is chairman and CEO of Biotechonomy, a company researching and assisting startups applying the genomic revolution. He began by describing the sudden break up of the German Democratic Republic that for 40 years had seemed an impregnable totalitarian monolith. Once the dynamics of dissolution had begin, nothing could stop it. In a matter of weeks East Germany simply ceased to exist.
Enriquez used this example to argue that national identity is similar to brand loyalty. There is nothing inevitable about it, and as people can change their brands, so can they change their national identification. Ultimately countries are held together by legitimacy alone, and when that fades, the country falls apart. And shifts in national brand loyalty are happening with increasing frequency. A map of Europe in 1900 would reveal far fewer independent countries than one in 1950, and one for today reveals many more.
The only exception, so far, is in the Americas where both the US and Brazil have bucked this otherwise world wide trend. Both got bigger after independence. And the US has continued to do so, most recently adding Alaska and Hawaii as states. But Enriquez emphasized that even American national identity should not be taken for granted. He frequently flashed various “Texas identity” images on the wall behind him as he spoke. Texas has a strong sense of independent identity as well as one of being part of the US. Under different conditions the relative attractiveness of these two identities could shift.
I’m not too worried about Texas, whether they stay or leave. But I think Enriquez is pointing to a real problem for the US today.
Founding Father James Madison wrote in Federalist 10 that the way to prevent the demise of democratic republics was to encourage compromise and make tyrannical majorities impossible by incorporating such diversity that a unified faction could not take power, thereby raising the political stakes for every one. With the exception of the Civil War Madisonian logic has generally prevailed. Until now.
The modern Republican Party under first Newt Gingrich and then Karl Rove’s strategic leadership has sought to undermine Madisonian principles without quite understanding what they were unleashing. Gingrich used his position as Speaker of the House under Clinton to bring government to a stop, preventing the kinds of compromises that leave both parties satisfied enough but not completely victorious. Significantly he used the rhetoric of war in describing his strategy. While Americans were wisely disgusted with Gingrich, his tactics nevertheless played a crucial role in creating the disciplined Republican organization that triumphed in 2000.
Karl Rove has continued using divisiveness as a strategy. His tactic of always playing to the base and seeking the minimum number of voters to win cuts at cross purposes to Madison’s principles. The additional tactic of seeking to make campaigns so negative as to turn off less ideologically rabid voters increases the intensity of his divide and conquer tactics. As a result, for the first time ever, I heard in 2004 liberals saying it might be time for the blue states to secede.
Interestingly, many older Bush people were involved in the Nixon administration during Watergate. It was then that Pat Buchanan circulated a extraordinary memo arguing Nixon should deliberately polarize the country. “In conclusion,” Buchanan wrote, “this is a potential throw of the dice that could bring the media on our heads, and cut the Democratic Party and country in half; my view is that we would have far the larger half.” [Source is here.] The retreads from Watergate never forgot Buchanan’s essentially treasonous advice.
As Canadian pollster and analyst Michael Adams points out in Fire and Ice, his important comparison of the US and Canada, today there are far greater cultural differences between California and Massachusetts on one hand and the deep South on the other than between any two provinces of Canada, where talk of secession is nothing new. Further, when Americans move, they are moving into areas more culturally homogeneous with their values. Certainly there is no way in Hell I would happily move to the deep South. And I suspect people attracted to that life style would never look forward to moving to Northern California or New England.
The political poison that the Republican Right and their ‘conservative’ allies are spreading is laying the groundwork for the possible demise of the United States in its present form. We may be able to prevent the establishment of a Caesarist elective dictatorship under George Bush, but we may not be able to prevent the far more deeply rooted cultural disintegration of American national identity encouraged by the radical right. The United States could be headed to the same sort of break up that has fragmented many powerful countries throughout the Twentieth Century.
For a sad study of how politicians pursuing power by exaggerating divisions can unleash far more than they can handle, see Chris hedges heartbreaking study of the former Yugoslavia in War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. It didn’t have to happen.
If break up happens peacefully I am no longer convinced that would necessarily be bad. Europe has demonstrated that even very small countries can be extraordinarily prosperous, indeed more prosperous than many, perhaps all, American states. Yet they are smaller than many states. Think of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Finland, Iceland, Belgium, and the Netherlands for starters. Singapore is one of the most prosperous (if hardly democratic) countries on earth, and it is a city state. Further, democracies have never fought wars with one another, and there are good reasons to think they will not. (For one study as to why, go to here and scroll down to “Democracy and Peace: The Self-Organizing Foundation of the Democratic Peace” This article appeared in The Review of Politics, Spring, 1995.
Of course we would not exercise so much military power. That to me is yet another argument in favor of smaller and more numerous countries in North America. Many Americans have proven so abysmally stupid concerning Iraq in part because as a culture we are drunk with power. Danes are not intrinsically smarter, but they live with fewer illusions of omnipotence.
Anyone genuinely caring for the future of the US would be wise to take a look at Enriquez’s The Untied States of America.