A work in progress essay, comments welcome while I am working on it.
Nationhood in a time of globalization
A quick survey of history might suggest there is an inevitable progression from the individual, to the family unit, the village, the city-state, and finally to the nation-state. Extrapolation might suggest a global-state to be the next logical stop on this journey. While this may occur at some point in the future, this is unlikely in the next decade or so, and certainly while individual countries retain their own military and independent national goals. While there are some quasi global organizations in play, such as the UN, WTO, and IMF, nation-states are still largely independent actors, with independent goals, occasionally shepherded towards joint action by one of these global organizations, when there is a global issue that is important enough to be addressed. Climate change being the current issue of focus.
As global administration is likely to remain a loosely coupled affair in the foreseeable future, each country will need to address what it means to be a “nation”. Whether there has ever been a UNITED States of America is bought into question by the robustly argued Federalist and Anti-Federalist positions/papers, the American Civil War in the 19th century, the American cultural upheaval in the the 1960’s, and the current toxic partisanship (either on a party or issue basis). Despite a tumultuous history, the 20th century was by conventional wisdom the “American” century, suggesting that homogeny of thought is not necessary to create a prosperous nation. In fact, it is the implicit assertion of liberal democracy that diversity of thinking leads to prosperity, certainly on an individual basis, and optimally on a national basis. So what does it mean for the United States of America to be a nation in the 21st century, a century where China has or will surpass America in economic contribution to the world economy, and possibly in global influence as well. The assertion by the current USA President is to “put America first”. This, along with other comments by the President, has been met with characterizations of bigotry, racism, and worse. This is occurring at a time when media has splintered from a common “middle America” perspective to a spectrum of opinion sourced from national TV networks, Cable TV, and the Internet. Since the 1960’s, and perhaps even before that, there has been a growing trend towards Americans distrusting their national institutions, government and media.
Nations come into being through the consolidation of power (families, principalities, kingdoms) and/or by appeal to a common wealth. The latter being the idea that all member states benefit from the participation of all others. So for example, even if California does contribute more in taxes than other states, it benefits by the investment in other member states between which there is open movement of goods, services, and people; a large, open, trading bloc; imperfectly open and free as any nation might be. Some historians would assert that the nation-state is characterized by an association of people with a common culture. The idea that America does have, or will ever have, a common culture, is easily dispelled by traveling around the country, or simply listening to mainstream political rhetoric. A national public education system and an homogenous media once held the promise of creating a single national culture, but both remain diverse.
Americans have united best when the country as a whole was under attack, for example, post Pearl Harbor, and where there has been a compelling vision of national infrastructure. An example of broadly embraced infrastructure is the national highway system sponsored by President Eisenhower for reasons of defense, economics, and safety . Issues of values is where Americans differ the greatest: Abortion, sexuality, special protection for minorities, to name a few. Globalism could be thought of as simply an economic issue, but in a time where globalism is perceived as leaving working class Americans behind, it has become an issue of national values. Healthcare is another interesting area of infrastructure. Healthcare is seen by many countries, though not all, as a central human right, with healthcare being offered by the government. Healthcare remains a contentious issue and as a result has also been characterized as an issue of values. America has always been a nation where there has been a robust discussion of values, be it the puritan religiousness in the early years of the nation, or the puritan secularness (?) of current times. With this as a backdrop, in an era where national institutions (secular, religious, business, and media) are distrusted, there is a growing sense by Americans that their values must be reflected in their individual words and actions; in how they spend their money, how they live their lives, and how they vote. It is no wonder that people who hold different opinions and vote for different political parties, see each other as immoral, for everything we do today, is supposed to reflect our highest values, according to modern orthodoxies. Infrastructure and values are important discussions when it comes to the question of what it means to be a nation.
Among the most contentious issue in any nation is that of citizenship. There are both legal and cultural tests for citizenship. Legally, citizenship can be obtained through a naturalization process, or through certain conditions surrounding birth; the latter being a currently debated issue. Lest Americans think that citizenship via birth is contentious only in America, it is not. In my recent trip to ASEAN countries, there were numerous countries struggling with the same issue, with recent issues in Europe being well know. Beyond the legal tests, there are, rightly or wrongly, cultural tests of citizenship. For example, the participation of African Americans in the military, during WWII, is viewed by some as the gateway that led to consummating their full citizenship. By extrapolation, we might suspect that the participation of women in the Gulf War had a similar, though less dramatic, consummation. From a cultural point of view, you are a full citizen (legally and culturally) when you have made sacrifice for your country – contributed to the common wealth. Paying taxes is one example of sacrifice, but facing death to defend your country, is arguably, the ultimate sacrifice, and the surest ticket to cultural citizenship. It is not surprising that Democratic politics advertises the role of minorities in the military as it confers cultural credibility; cultural citizenship.
Maybe the most contentious issue of all is that of how we decide what the laws of the land are and who gets to govern. The recent election of Republic Presidents despite losing the popular vote, Bush over Gore and Trump over Clinton, with the latter being a significant margin, has led to some calling for an America ruled by majority vote, casting aside the very foundations of the American nation, which was entered into not by individuals, but by member states; member states that agreed to become a nation on the grounds of an understanding about representation, among other things. On one side of the debate is the concern that the will of the majority of Americans is being cast aside. On the other side of the debate is a concern that a tilt towards majoritarianism threatens the long term liberties and rights of individuals, minorities, and states. Federalist and Anti-Federalist perspectives were hotly debated at the birth of the nation, with a compromise being reached in the form of constitutional protections for individuals and states. Amending this social contract would be no trivial thing, and I would suggest not the most productive investment of energy. For those that disagree, constitutional amendments would need to be pursued, as it is unlikely, in my opinion, that even a partisan activist judiciary would make this kind of dramatic change. Therefore, I will take as a given, certain state and individual rights, and focus on the issues of infrastructure and citizenship.
As infrastructure and national defense is where Americans have achieved some agreement over the years, we should start here, with a discussion of what it means to be a nation.
WIP: To be completed
 50th Anniversary Interstate Highway System