Coming Soon: The Disunited States?

For a decade Russian academic Igor Panarin has been predicting that the US is going to fall apart. He says D-Day will be in 2010. For years he was ignored, but now he’s being sought out by the media and invited to Kremlin receptions. Could America’s time be over?

Despite the burst of interest in his work, most learned observers find his scenario to be, well, unlikely. But should we care? In fact, might not a Disunited States be better than the United States?

Prof. Panarin obviously is a bit of a nut. In the US, too, nutty professors often get more attention than their more serious colleagues. The Wall Street Journal summarized his views: "Mr. Panarin posits, in brief, that mass immigration, economic decline, and moral degradation will trigger a civil war next fall and the collapse of the dollar. Around the end of June 2010, or early July, he says, the US will break into six pieces – with Alaska reverting to Russian control." Indeed, he expects foreigners to take over everything else as well: California will go to China, Hawaii to China or Japan, the plains states and Midwest to Canada, the South to Mexico, and the Atlantic seaboard to the European Union.

It makes you kind of wonder if his brain cavity is filled with fruit flies or something.

Between America and Russia, the country which most recently found itself on the losing end of mass dissolution was Russia (which dominated the Soviet Union). The nation which most recently had to use force to prevent further secession was Russia (in Chechnya). And the state most dramatically shaken by the economic crisis was Russia (check oil prices, the stock market index, and the value of the Ruble these days). The US has more than its share of economic problems and Prof. Panarin is correct in noting that "there are no miracles" when it comes to the incoming Obama administration. But if one of the two countries is headed towards systemic crisis, it ain’t America.

Still, the fact that Prof. Panarin is living in an alternative universe doesn’t mean that he is wrong in perceiving that the United States is not all that united. Why are Hawaii, Alaska, Texas, Michigan, and Massachusetts, along with everything else, stuck in the same nation? Even if they aren’t likely to break apart, maybe they should do so.

Secession gained a bad reputation in America from the Civil War, which actually was not a civil war, since the southern states were attempting to break away, not seize control of the central government. More important, the Southern cause was irrevocably tainted by the role of slavery, even though racism was endemic in the North, which would have preserved slavery had the conflict ended quickly.

However, the victors write the histories, which is why most accounts of the Civil War assume that the death of the Confederacy was a grand victory for America. But it was triumph of the centralized American state headquartered in Washington, DC, not of Americans. After all, there was no obvious reason why South Carolinians should be forced to live in political union with New Yorkers. Rather, it should have been a matter of choice, and choices can change.

The destruction of slavery was a wonderful, unintended consequence of the war. But that isn’t why President Abraham Lincoln called on northerners to march south and conquer their erstwhile countrymen. Instead, Washington initiated a conflict that consumed more than 600,000 lives to force dissenters to remain in the same political compact. Even if the pro-union faction was correct on constitutional and practical grounds, from what stemmed its moral right to pinion the South to the North with bayonets?

The United States is a wonderfully diverse country, and its outermost points – Hawaii, Alaska, California, Maine, and Florida – are among its most interesting parts. Yet much of today’s so-called culture war reflects attempts by different groups to dominate national policy. Where government is limited, individual rights are respected, and people are tolerant, a federal republic is much easier to maintain. But as power has been centralized in Washington, and a distant and largely unaccountable bureaucracy has asserted increasing control over ever more individual decisions, it becomes harder to share a political union with so many other people. (America’s foreign policy of almost unremitting militarism is one outgrowth of today’s centralization of power.)

Obviously, the US is not alone in finding national unity ever more difficult to attain. The end of totalitarian communism left the Soviet Union without its unifying cement, which is why the multiethnic state cracked up so quickly. Even a much reduced Russia is not free of centrifugal forces. A freer and more prosperous China is facing some of the same forces of disunion. India does not unite so much as bring together enormously diverse peoples, and, lacking a powerful center, suffers from routine and startling levels of violence.

Nevertheless, Prof. Panarin’s musings could usefully trigger some serious soul-searching in the United States. What once united Americans was a shared commitment to individual liberty and to restricting government power to ensure respect for other people’s choices. That commitment disappeared decades ago, however. People still reflexively refer to the US as a "free country," but that is only true in relative terms. While Americans remain freer than most other peoples around the globe, they hardly are free.

Thus, today disunion might prove to be a blessing. If the Midwest wants socialism, with government control of manufacturing, then it should be separate from the South, which holds to a stronger if not exactly pure ethos of self-reliance. If California wants to be in the forefront of cultural relativism and experimentation, then it also should be separate from the South, which retains much of its heritage as home of the Bible Belt. The western mountain states prefer more of a rough libertarianism in economic and cultural affairs. New England and the mid-Atlantic states have their own cultural peculiarities and economic assumptions. If we can’t just leave each other alone, then maybe we should live separately.

For better or worse, the US isn’t likely to crack up on Prof. Panarin’s schedule. If Americans want disunion, they will have to choose to make that happen.

Whether that would be a good thing is hard to predict. A simpler solution would be to return to America’s tradition of limited government and individual liberty – and the corresponding foreign policy of nonintervention. A national government which left its people alone would provide a far more hospitable home for the increasingly diverse people who live within our country’s boundaries. Otherwise, Prof. Panarin’s predictions ultimately might just come to pass.