These Not-So-United States

One hundred and forty years after the shooting stopped, the U.S. Civil War still rages on the battlefield of American politics. George Bush's narrow re-election and the Republicans' small gains in Congress were the result of his overwhelming popularity in the Southern states that tried to break away from the rest of the nation in the 1860s.

Bush won the 11 states of the Confederacy by 5 million votes, which means John Kerry won the other 39 by a million-and-a-half votes. Giving up on the South and concentrating Democrats' efforts on trimming back the Republicans' advantage in Western and Plains states (where Democrats saw a lot of good news in Colorado and Montana this year in congressional and state elections), seems the only productive course for rebuilding the Democratic party.

A lot of my friends are cursing Abraham Lincoln these days. The most revered figure in American history now looks a villain, or at least the architect of a great mistake, for his insistence that "the union must be preserved." Without the South, the United States would have turned out significantly different, probably resembling Europe or Canada with a more social democratic style of government. The South, meanwhile, would have endured slavery for a few more years but eventually would have undergone reform or seen a revolution that put the black majority in power. Perhaps a North American forerunner to Nelson Mandela in would have emerged to heal the wounds of slavery.

This is all, of course, idle speculation. But to a sizable number of my fellow countrymen it will sound treasonous. Patriotism is so thoroughly equated with the belief in bigness that any mention of a smaller United States seems to be interpreted as a wish for a weaker, poorer, less powerful country.

But is that really so? Looking around the world, it seems that small nations like the Scandinavian countries, Switzerland, and the Netherlands have been able to deliver a good life to their citizens in spite of their size. Tiny Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are thriving since leaving the Soviet Union. Even tinier places like Iceland, Luxembourg, the Cayman Islands and Monaco are among the world's wealthiest nations.

Compare that to the failure of national behemoths like Russia, Brazil and Indonesia in fulfilling the promise of greatness that conventional wisdom says should be theirs. Germany, on the other hand, offers grim lessons. Once a patchwork of independent countries, it was a generally good neighbor for the rest of Europe until the late 1800s, when it morphed into a larger, unified country under the hand of Prussia. We all know the bloody results. That's why Nobel Prize-winning German author Günther Grass opposed reunification after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The new Balkan nations seem happy to strike out on their own. Nostalgia for "greater" Yugoslavia seems to exist only in Serbia, and that's because they lorded over everyone else under that artificial arrangement. Some observers point to bloodshed in the region as a sign that small nations are a moral and practical disaster. But take a closer look. Things turned violent only when the rulers of larger political units wanted to block people from creating smaller ones.

All around the planet there seems to be a widespread belief that bigger is better – not just for nations but also for businesses and social institutions. But in reality this seems more faith than fact. We all have ample experiences of frustration or misfortune at the hands of huge, impersonal organizations. When it comes to schools, stores, buildings, neighborhoods, civic groups and many other aspects of life, small is not only beautiful, but more efficient and satisfying. The same likely holds true for nations. America might well be a greater, more equitable, more peaceful place if all the states were not united.


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