An Alternative America
January 30, 2014 § 4 Comments
A couple of days ago, an interesting article appeared in the Des Moines Register. I knew of it because my social media friend, and a geographer at Mansfield University in Pennsylvania, Andy Shears, had a map published with the article. Andy’s map is an alternative United States, based on historically proposed states, none of which came into existence. He created the map 2 1/2 years ago for his own blog. The Register also mis-identifies Andy’s map as one of what the country would look like if all the separatist movements in history had actually worked. But, either way, it’s actually a really interesting map, put together in what I image was after agonising research, Andy came up with an alternative United States based on a country of 124 separate states, all based on proposals that never came to be. In the case of Massachusetts, there would actually be two states: Massachusetts and Boston. Of course, anyone who lives outside the Hub, especially in Western Mass, would say there already ARE two Massachusetts. Cascadia, in this version, is a state that straddles the mountains of eastern Washington and Oregon. And then there’s a wonderful little state called Forgottonia carved into what is today the border between Illinois and Missouri, just north of the hypothetical state of St. Louis.
But I digress. The column in the Register was written by Steffan Schmidt, a political scientist at Iowa State. In it, Schmidt ruminates on an apparent proposal in California to split the state into six smaller states, based on a proposal from Silicon Valley. Schmidt notes that this would give the general California region 12 senators compared to the 2 it has now, which means that it would have much greater power in Washington. Schmidt, though, seems to assume that the 6 Californias would all elect Democratic senators, which is incredibly unlikely.
Schmidt’s larger point is about the apparent immutability of the United States, that Americans consider the national boundaries to be sacrosanct. He ties that back to the Civil War, just another legacy of that war in American life. But then he goes on to note that countries fracture into newer ones continually, pointing to various examples from Slovakia to Scotland to South Sudan. Interestingly, he does not mention Québec and Canada. But that’s an entirely different kettle of fish (though, interestingly, both Canadians and Quebecers consider their national borders to be sacrosanct). But it is a point well worth considering, at least to a degree.
The difference between, say, Scotland and the United States is simple. Scotland was annexed by England to create Britain in 1707. The United States is comprised of states that all chose to be part of the Union. By that I mean the European settlers of the territory that is now the United States of America all petitioned to Congress to be admitted to the Union. And even if the Confederate States were defeated and then had to be re-admitted to the Union, they also did so willingly (or at least as willingly as they could). In contrast, Scotland was annexed. Slovakia was annexed. We all know how Yugoslavia was formed and what happened when that came apart.
So there is a huge difference between the American model and those Schmidt offers in comparison. Similarly, Canada was formed in a manner very similar to the United States. But Schmidt is correct to note that it is remarkable how resilient the American state has been since 1776. I was recently thinking about this when I saw news that the population shift in the United States, based on recent census data, will make the South and the West stronger politically, at least in the House. This led me to think about my current research, of course (The far right of American politics and history), and I began to wonder if the relative decline of New England and the Northwest in favour of greater power in the South and Southwest would lead to separatist movements throughout the nation. Not that I think they’d ever be successful, any more than I think Québec will ever separate. But it’s fun to have such idle thoughts.
And then I got one of the great classics of punk rock in my head, “Alternative Ulster,” by Belfast punks Stiff Little Fingers. The song dates from 1978, the height of the Troubles, and the Stiffies, two Catholics and two Protestants, simply wanted a different future for themselves.