When President Obama said Vladimir Putin's invasion of the Crimea put him "on the wrong side of history," it made me wonder what those two sides consist of. I suppose there's the dark side, on which the sun is setting, in which history is made by force of arms. And the side basking in a rising sun, in which the peoples of the earth democratically choose their destinies.
But if sending troops into the next country over is so 20th century, the fervor of an ethnic minority welcoming the chance to get out from under isn't. The Crimea Putin wishes to reclaim for a greater Russia is dominated by people who speak Russian, regard themselves as culturally more Russian than Ukrainian, and—if granted a berth on the right side of history—might have freely chosen to join Russia. Multicultural states are breaking down on both sides of history—in bloody civil wars and in peaceful plebiscites. Tribes just want to be free.
Scotland votes this fall on whether to leave Great Britain. Quebec is in a constant state of indecision over leaving Canada. Catalonia forever has one foot out the door of Spain. Nothing much holds Belgium together but the conundrum of what to do with Brussels. Yugoslavia didn't long survive the death of Tito, the strongman keeping it together. If Ukraine were a thriving element of Western Europe, the Crimea would be the wayward province Kiev could never figure out how to satisfy. Alas, just now there's no easy way at the moment for Kiev and the West to say good-bye and good riddance to the Crimea. That would reward Putin over yonder on the wrong side of history.
Arguably, the two sides of history aren't even as I just described them. There's a fine essay in last week's Economist that asks "What's gone wrong with democracy," the evidence being democracy's diminished stature around the world. The Economist gives lots of reasons for this, but the big one is that people learn best from example, and today they have two: the rise of China, which has come so far so fast without democracy; and the failure of the Western democracies, since the crash of 2008, to get their houses back in order. If democracy is today's Washington, paralyzed by incompetent legislators contemptuous of government, what's to like about it?
The Economist's essay misfires in some of its details. It notes the threat to conglomerate states posed by independent movements in, say, Catalonia and Scotland, without explaining why these movements also threaten democracy. Secessionist leaders say they do not. And there's a passing mention of gerrymandering, which in the Economist's view corrupts democracy and "encourages extremism" because "entrenched incumbents" must satisfy only the party faithful.
Let's unpack the concept a little further. Yes, everybody disapproves of gerrymandering in the abstract, especially Democrats who believe that if not for gerrymandering their party would control Congress. And yes, the physical contours of gerrymandered districts are travesties. But people in gerrymandered districts get what everybody wants: a congressman or an alderman who sees the world as they do, who votes the way they want him or her to vote, and who—thanks to a secure seat—piles up seniority and influence. Who wants to live in a swing district that is constantly changing hands, changing parties, and is represented by somebody with no seniority who might stick it to you at any time on any issue because you're not the only voter out there? Gerrymandering is like a mini secession—it's how people who see the world one way separate themselves from people who see it another.
This might not be healthy for democracy—but the Economist's larger point is that democracy isn't the only game in town.
Separation is the new way of the world. The old common experiences of America—the magazines everyone read, the TV shows everyone watched, the wars everyone fought in—are nostalgic memories now. We assign ourselves niches and paranoia keeps us in them, which means of course that niches have a lot of trouble talking to each other. As other nations break up and we Americans spin our wheels, incapable of even agreeing to disagree, the inevitable question is if—or when—the U.S. will break up too.
The nation's cultural fringes have always been littered with secession movements. In 2005, some 400 leftists gathered in the house chamber of the Vermont statehouse and passed a resolution calling for Vermont to "return to its natural status as an independent republic." One of the leaders, Thomas Naylor, a former economics professor at Duke, compared his group to "Poland's Solidarity movement, who many said would never succeed. But Poland did get its freedom, mainly because it was a country liked around the world, sort of like how people in America feel about Vermont. When people think of Vermont, they have a warm and fuzzy feeling."
The United States on the other hand, "has lost its moral authority and is unsustainable, ungovernable, and unfixable." Said Naylor, "I don't want to go down with the Titanic."
Nine years later, six of them spent wallowing in an economic mire, I wonder how many millions of Americans not only agree that the U.S. is unsustainable, ungovernable, and unfixable but would entertain the idea that best solution is to break it down into parts. A 2009 article by Paul Starobin in the Wall Street Journal found it easy to imagine a "devolved America" of regional republics replacing an "American Goliath . . . too large to make any rational sense in an emerging age of personal empowerment."
Starobin observed that George Kennan, father of the American cold war strategy of containing the Soviet empire until it collapsed of its own weight, worried that the same thing could happen to the U.S. It had become a "monster country," Kennen wrote in 1993, and might benefit if "decentralized into something like a dozen constituent republics, absorbing not only the powers of the existing states but a considerable part of those of the present federal establishment."
Gun control, abortion, health care—these could become regional issues instead of national ones. In a sense, everyone certain of what America's needs are would lose, which might not be the worst thing in the world. Devolution isn't on the table yet because most Americans still think they have to insist America is the greatest country in the world, even if they can't say why.
But I suspect this could change with stunning speed.