We need City-States

What happens when the world changes sufficiently that a subset of the institutions that laid the groundwork for the most successful nation of the last 200 years becomes becomes maladapted to their context? Well, thanks to a couple billion year of evolutionary biology, we know the possible outcomes. The classic evolutionary answer is that the species in question will either adapt, migrate, or die. Repurposed for the modern nation-state, the country in question will either:

  1. Adapt it institutions
  2. Change the context (i.e. whole nations can’t migrate)
  3. Steadily decline into some combination of irrelevance or chaos

Omar Wasow put together a nice thread, where each individual tweet stands wholly on it’s own as an acute observation, on the current state of the Senate as an elected institution:

So let’s think about our options here.

Decline into Irrelevance and Chaos

I mean, it’s a choice, but it’s not one I’m particularly excited about.

Adaptation

We could amend the constitution to change how the Senate is apportioned in some clever way that still maintains the mandated suffrage of every state. We could change/abolish the electoral college. I’ll be blunt: I don’t ever see a path forward for constitutional change that will entirely undermine the political power of the one of the major parties (good luck getting 2/3 of Senators to push through an Amendment that will undercut the careers of at least half of them). The resistance to it, at every level, will be extreme. The last time we tried to make an institutional change with that much impact on the balance of power, we had to fight a war to resolve it. There may be a path forward here, but not on a timescale that I’m interested in. I’m only interested in solutions that could be feasibly enacted in my lifetime.

Change the Circumstances

Unlike your typical seed-eating bird of the Galapagos Islands, we do have the means to change the map upon which the Senate is selected. In other words, more states. I don’t mean just granting statehood to Puerto Rico and DC (though it is mildly unconscionable that we haven’t done so already). And I don’t just mean (the very good and perfectly reasonable idea) of splitting California and Texas into 5 and 3 states. I mean a lot more states.

Let’s think about the underlying problem for a second. The Senate biasing representation towards a small minority of voters is a symptom of a larger phenomenon: the continued movement of Americans to dense urban areas. People keep moving to cities, and often from states without a major urban center, and into states with multiple large cities. The rural areas that they are emptying out from maintain their pool of slots for elected Senators, while the cities gain none. So what’s the answer?

Welcome to the great state of Seattle! [state motto: “If it’s not caffeinated, send it back”]

The Vinegar-Tomato Sauce State of Raleigh! [state color: halfway between Duke blue and UNC blue]

The Beechwood Aged State of St. Louis![ state left fielder: Lou Brock]

The Always Hustling State of Atlanta [state anthem: written and performed by Outkast]

City-states. Remember city-states!? Yes, I know, when we speak historically of city-states we mean entities independent of any other nation state – classic Venice, current Singapore or Monaco, but that doesn’t mean we can’t piggyback on their awesomeness. Texans already joke about the “People’s Republic of Austin” – let’s make it official! We can set a size minimum as either an explicit population threshold (e.g. 500k) or a moving bar, such as the population of the smallest state in the previous census. It’s essentially adding another option for a city to apply for inclusion in the next tier of our federalist system.

This is more feasible than you might think and vastly more feasible than amending the constitution.

Consider:

  1. These cities already have government infrastructures. The governor on day 1 is the current sitting mayor.
  2. The citizens of most medium- and large-sized cities derive the bulk of their regional identity from their city, not their state. Most urbanites will be thrilled at the notion of elevating the political status of their city while losing the affiliation of their previous state.
  3. New state coffers will be heavily subsidized with flag and swag sales the first few years (only mostly kidding)
  4. The remaining rural states will have the far more manageable task of trying to serve rural citizens without having to serve an urban voter base with radically different needs and preferences. Public goods will be better matched with the citizens of rural states as well.
  5. States will often look like Swiss cheese, which will be both hilarious and, slightly less importantly, will allow for constituents to even more easily vote with their feet when elected officials fall short in their duties.

Are there downsides? Sure.

  1. The speed traps before you enter and as you exit city-states into their rural envelopers will be aggressively extractive. There will be rampant attempts at exporting taxes across borders.
  2. Reconstituting water supplies as special districts supporting multiple states will be tricky.
  3. Coordinating interstate public goods will, no doubt, at times become even more farcical than the status quo.
  4. Decent chance this turns into a Neal Stephenson novel within 100 years.

But, in the medium and long run, I believe the benefits will greatly outweigh the costs. Throughout the pandemic there has been a constant tension, particularly in “red states”, between the public goods desired by the citizens in cities versus rural areas. While urbanites have been desperate for mask and vaccine mandates, rural citizens have been far more interested in consuming personal liberty and symbolic group-identity goods, at the expense of greater Covid cases and deaths for those in denser areas.

I’ve said it before and I’ll keep saying it tomorrow: there isn’t a red-blue divide, a religious divide, or a class divide. America is currently defined by an urban-rural divide. If we don’t adapt our institutions to reflect it and balance the equal political enfranchisement of people on both sides of that divide, it will continue to erode the integrity of our political infrastructure.

I imagine I don’t have to persuade many people that the integrity of the franchise is not something to be taken lightly. Regardless of the mathematical salience of an individual vote to any election, the fact remains that the less people believe their vote has at least the potential to be realized in the form of representation that serves them, the more they will look to alternative channels to the political process. And maybe, for the libertarian inside of you, the alternative you imagine might exist in the private marketplace for goods and services. But history informs us that the dominant alternatives to democracy are heritable lineage and bloodshed, and I don’t see any benevolent American scions laying in wait.

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