America is way too big to be a real democracy. But bigness appears to be embedded in our bones. By Michael Brendan Dougherty
America is way too big for its own good. And you may be sick of it.
After all, Reuters found in a recent poll that nearly one quarter of all Americans are open to the idea of secession. These numbers cut across partisan lines and different regions. It's not about the North versus the South, but about a different kind of breaking up. George Kennan, the architect of the U.S.'s containment policy during the Cold War, wondered whether it would be better if the United States were "decentralized into something like a dozen constituent republics, absorbing not only the powers of the existing states but a considerable part of those of the present federal establishment." A dozen seems hardly enough.
You can make a lot of hay out of a survey like this. But talking to a pollster is very different from actually pledging your fealty to an emerging nation-state, particularly if it costs anything. We're a long way off from amicable divorce papers. So where does this dissatisfaction point us?
The expositors of our national ideal have never come to terms with just how wrong James Madison was about the nature of an extended republic. He believed that by enlarging a republic, you could achieve the enlightened representational ideal of classical republicanism but without the debilitating influence of factions. Unfortunately, Madison was wrong.
The factions that Madison believed to be "actuated by some common impulse of passion or of interest adversed to the rights of other citizens" have found it relatively easy to organize themselves across our continent-wide nation. They are so deeply institutionalized a feature of our governance that K Street deserves the appellation of "fourth estate" more than the media. Madison might have even looked at our national, ideologically separated parties as factionalism writ large.
But Madison believed bigger was better. In Federalist No. 10, he wrote:
The other point of difference is, the greater number of citizens and extent of territory which may be brought within the compass of republican than of democratic government; and it is this circumstance principally which renders factious combinations less to be dreaded in the former than in the latter. The smaller the society, the fewer probably will be the distinct parties and interests composing it; the fewer the distinct parties and interests, the more frequently will a majority be found of the same party; and the smaller the number of individuals composing a majority, and the smaller the compass within which they are placed, the more easily will they concert and execute their plans of oppression.
This hasn't panned out. At some point, Madison concedes that legislative districts could become so large that the connection between representatives and the represented is effectively severed. No kidding.