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5: “Formidable only to each other…”

December 3, 2012

5: “Formidable only to each other…”

The Federalist 5: The Same Subject Continued. First published November 10, 1787. Author John Jay. Please see Introducing the American Bible for an introduction to this project.

What if there had been three United States? Or even four? The idea sounds frankly bizarre, but Jay is preoccupied with it. In his prior three entries he’d dropped dark hints of his pro-confederacy opponents. Now, Jay chooses to end his section of the Papers[1] dismantling the idea, as a sort of final foreign policy coup de grâce.

"Cascadia," a proposed union of Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia

“Cascadia,” a proposed union of Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia

If Jay’s preoccupation seems bizarre, the fact that a man as intelligent as Jay apparently considered this a very real possibility seems even stranger. The modern US is home to a few bizarre breakaway movements, to be sure: My own dear state of Oregon is home to the wonderfully odd Cascadia movement. Cascadians advocate the secession of Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia from their respective nations to form the green, happy, and presumably deeply liberal nation of Cascadia.

Still, the thought of three, four, or more United States is an odd one. It’s a parlor game, or a thought experiment. All but the most devoted “Cascadians” would admit Cascadia is more of a fun fantasy than any serious aspiration. And while a recent whitehouse.gov citizen petition to allow Texas to withdraw from the United States garnered plenty of press, even the 118,000 signatures it received represent less than half of one percent of the Lone Star State’s people.

No, when modern Americans think of division, a different number comes to mind: two.

Civil War Map

Civil War Map

Two is, of course, the number of nations America divided into in 1865. And, indeed, the war has left divisions that haven’t yet healed over (as Tony Horwitz engagingly documents in the delightful Confederates in the Attic). From our earliest days of Federalist vs Anti-Federalists, in fact, two seems to be our natural breaking point.

Modern America, too, is divided in twain. Even the famous “purple state” maps of M. E. J. Newman tell a divisive story. The Newman maps are often cited in discussions of our “purple” country—the idea that our differences are much exaggerated, and that America is a purple state underneath.

Newman’s methodology is simple. His maps divide the US up by county, then colour each county according to what share of the vote it gave to each presidential candidates. Finally, Newman resizes each county according to population, producing a fascinatingly distorted view of American politics.

Purple States?

The picture isn’t pretty. While the country still averages to purple, the general trend is clear: Cities are blue, rural and exurban areas red, and the purple suburbs divide the two. There are mixed areas, to be sure. But nonetheless, it’s clear that Americans generally live near people who think like them.

As I’ve written before, this is where the roots of America’s political dysfunction lie. This dysfunction may not be permanent. But if 1861, 2000, and 2010 have taught us anything, it is that we need not have worried about three or four Americas. Two, it seems, can provide quite trouble enough.


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  1. Actually, Jay has one more. But it will be some time before we get that far.  ↩

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From → The Papers

One Comment
  1. I can’t stop reading about this Cascadia thing. This article is good too of course. 😉

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