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Democracy: Is a Continent Too Big?
(Image: Democracy Collaborative

Democracy: Is a Continent Too Big?

(Image: Democracy Collaborative

Part of the Series

This “Chapter Five” is part 9 of Truthout’s continuing series of excerpts from Gar Alperovitz’s “America Beyond Capitalism.”

This is an exclusive Truthout series from political economist and author Gar Alperovitz. We will be publishing weekly installments of the new edition of “America Beyond Capitalism,” a visionary book, first published in 2005, whose time has come. Donate to Truthout and receive a free copy.

Is it really feasible – in systemic and foundational terms – to sustain equality, liberty, and democracy in a very large-scale, centrally governed continental system that spans almost three thousand miles and includes almost 300 million people? And if not, how might a democratic nation ultimately be conceived?

Reflection on the impact of very large scale on democracy can be traced back to the Greeks, and later especially to Montesquieu, who held that democracy could flourish only in small nations. The judgment that very large scale is inimical to democracy was also taken very seriously by the founding fathers. Indeed, at a time when the United States hardly extended beyond the Appalachian mountains, John Adams worried: “What would Aristotle and Plato have said, if anyone had talked to them, of a federative republic of thirteen states, inhabiting a country of five hundred leagues in extent?” Similarly – again, at a time when the nation numbered a mere 4 million people – even James Madison (who challenged the traditional argument that democracy was possible only in small nations) believed that a very large- (rather than a “mean”-scale) republic could easily become a de facto tyranny because elites at the center would be able to divide and conquer diverse groups dispersed throughout the system. Few people imagined democracy in a continent.

One can also isolate important and difficult aspects of the question of scale in the larger complex of issues that in the nineteenth century culminated in the Civil War. For our purposes, however, it is sufficient to recall that a sophisticated theoretical debate over scale problems began to develop in academic and political centers during the early years of the twentieth century, continuing up to and through the 1920s and 1930s.

The traditional response to the argument that democracy is difficult if not impossible in very large-scale units, has been to propose decentralization to the states. The point of departure for the more sophisticated debate is recognition that many states are simply too small to manage important economic issues, or for instance (in the 1930s as well as in modern times) a number of important ecological matters. Logically, if a continental national system is too large and many states are too small, the obvious answer must be something in-between – the unit of scale we call a “region.”

Historian Frederick Jackson Turner put it this way: “There is a sense in which sectionalism is inevitable and desirable” – going on to observe: “As soon as we cease to be dominated by the political map, divided into rectangular states…. groups of states and geographic provinces, rather than individual states, press upon the historian’s attention.”

A leading conservative theorist who urged the same logic during the 1930s was Harvard political scientist William Yandell Elliot: “Regional commonwealths would be capable of furnishing units of real government, adequate laboratories of social experiment, and areas suited to economic, not-too-cumbersome administration.”

“The libertarian argument against ‘too much government,'” Henry C. Simons held, “relates mainly to national governments, not to provincial or local units – and to great powers rather than to small nations.” Simons believed a “break-up” of the United States “desirable” (though he did not think it politically feasible). The alternative, he urged, required taking seriously a process of “steady decentralization.”

Another Harvard professor and president of the American Political Science Association, William Bennett Munro, did not mince words about the issues and logic that he believed needed to be confronted: “Most Americans do not realize what an imperial area they possess,” he said, adding, “Many important issues and problems…are problems too big for any single state, yet not big enough for the nation as a whole…. They belong by right to regional governments.”

The then innovative experiment with regionalism, environmental management, and public ownership – the Tennessee Valley Authority – was related to the early twentieth-century regional rethinking movement, as were proposals by Franklin Delano Roosevelt for similar regional authorities throughout the country. Even though President Harry Truman continued to offer such ideas (in connection, for instance, with the Columbia River), the regionalist movement was cut short by a combination of anti–New Deal politics and the advent of World War II and the era of the Cold War.

The underlying issue of scale, however, is plainly still with us. Moreover, the extraordinary cost of modern campaigning in large areas has added to the advantages that scale gives to wealthy elites and corporations, thereby further undermining democratic possibilities. Money talks louder when expensive television ads are the only way to reach large numbers.

We rarely pause to consider the truly huge size of the American system. The fact is, the United States is extreme in scale. Germany could fit within the borders of Montana alone; France is smaller than Texas. Leaving aside the two nations with large empty land masses (Canada and Australia), the United States is larger geographically than all the other advanced industrial (OECD) countries taken together – that is, Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Korea, Luxembourg, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, the Slovak Republic, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, and the United Kingdom.

Moreover, population growth alone is likely to raise ever more challenging questions as time goes on. Census Bureau “middle series” projections suggest the United States will add another 120-million-person nation to its population by mid-century – for a total of approximately 400 million; and then will add another 170 million, to roughly double the current population to 570 million by century’s end. There are reasons to believe these may well be conservative estimates, but even if they are discounted considerably, the population of the United States will become extraordinarily large by any measure as time goes on.

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What is of interest now are a series of discrete indications that the question of scale has begun to resurface in diverse quarters – in part as a resumption of the trend that was interrupted by World War II and the Cold War, in part in response to emerging considerations and global developments.

A 1973 book, “Size and Democracy,” by Robert A. Dahl and Edward R. Tufte, opened the modern discussion by offering a detailed assessment of the then available studies. A variety of questions had to be confronted by those concerned with democracy, it concluded, as “the inexorable thrust of population growth makes a small country large and a large country gigantic.”

Daniel Bell subsequently joined in, arguing that the “nation-state is becoming too small for the big problems of life, and too big for the small problems of life.” Bell went on, “[T]he flow of power to a national political center means that the national center becomes increasingly unresponsive to the variety and diversity of local needs…. In short, there is a mismatch of scale.”

George F. Kennan took the argument a step further: “We are, if territory and population be looked at together, one of the great countries of the world – a monster country…. And there is a real question as to whether bigness in a body politic is not an evil in itself, quite aside from the policies pursued in its name.” Kennan proposed long-term regional devolution which, “while retaining certain of the rudiments of a federal government,” might yield a “dozen constituent republics, absorbing not only the powers of the existing states but a considerable part of those of the present federal establishment.”

The radical historian, the late William Appleman Williams, suggested a strategy embodying socialist principles: “[T]he issue is not whether to decentralize the economy and the politics of the country, but rather how to do so. The solution here revolves about the regional elements that make up the existing whole.” And the modern conservative regionalist, Donald Livingston, asked in 2002: “What value is there in continuing to prop up a union of this monstrous size?” He went on: “[T]here are ample resources in the American federal tradition to justify states’ and local communities’ recalling, out of their own sovereignty, powers they have allowed the central government to usurp.”

The titles of several general works are themselves illustrative of the modern trend: “Downsizing the USA,” by Thomas H. Naylor and William H. Willimon; “The Nine Nations of North America,” by Joel Garreau; and Robert Goodman’s “The Last Entrepreneurs: America’s Regional Wars for Jobs and Dollars.”

A converging trend of environmental thinking is also significant. Much of the work of the Environmental Protection Agency is already organized along regional lines, and as Harvard analyst Mary Graham observes, “Many environmental problems are inherently regional in scope, rather than national or local.” Among the interesting proposals here are suggestions by Kirkpatrick Sale that emphasize small “bio-regions” and work on “eco-regions” by World Wildlife Fund experts in the Conservation Science Program. A fully developed long-term ecological vision in which many “regions within the United States could become relatively self-sufficient” has been put forward by Herman Daly and John Cobb. “[T]he nation-state is already too large and too remote from ordinary people for effective participation to be possible.”

The various developing arguments have also received indirect support from research on the achievements of smaller-scale nations – some roughly equivalent to US regions. The Scandinavian nations and such countries as Austria and the Netherlands, for instance, have demonstrated that smaller scale has commonly helped -rather than hindered – their capacity to deal with major economic, social, and environmental problems. In general, equality has been greater and unemployment rates lower than in most larger European countries. Moreover, although such nations are far more involved in trade than larger nations, for the most part they have found more effective ways to manage the dislocations and other challenges brought about by economic globalization.

In a related development, political scientist Michael Wallerstein has demonstrated how the United States’ very large scale and huge labor force have made union organizing both difficult and expensive. This in turn has tended to limit union size, thereby both weakening collective bargaining and undercutting one of the primary organizational foundations of progressive political-economic strategies in general.

The modern reemergence of regionalist ideas is no accident. Although the primary thrust of the argument concerns what it takes to achieve democratic accountability and participation, the American discussion is part and parcel of a worldwide trend that is already producing different forms of regional devolution in nations as diverse as Britain and Canada, on the one hand, and China and the former Soviet Union, on the other.

A global perspective, in fact, suggests that the quietly emerging – and seemingly unusual – American arguments are only the beginning of something that is all but certain to grow in force and sophistication as time goes on.

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