A tourist mecca like Venice now boasts that it dreams of breaking away from an insolvent Italy. Similarly Barcelona, and perhaps the Basques and the Catalonians in general, claim they want no part of a bankrupt Spain. Scotland fantasizes about becoming separate from Great Britain. The Greek Right dreams of a 19th-century Greece without Asian and African immigrants who do not look Greek. Belgium increasingly seems an artificial construct, half Flemish, half French, with the two sides never more estranged. These days Texas and California do not even seem like two parts of a united nation, just as Massachusetts is growing ever more distant from Wyoming.
Here at home, it is not just that taxation and government are different in red and blue states, or that for the last two decades national elections have hinged on what the shrinking number of purple-state voters prefer. Social and cultural questions are also dividing us, almost as much as slavery did in the 1850s. Fault lines over abortion, the role of religion, gay marriage, affirmative action, welfare, illegal immigration, and gun ownership are starting to manifest themselves regionally. We have long had the Blue–Gray game; soon will there be a Red–Blue Bowl? If Mexico plays against the U.S. soccer team in Merced, Fresno, or L.A., will the spectators root for the country in which they live or the country that they left?
Europe may in the not-too-distant future end up as it was in the 16th century, before the rise of the nation state. If current trends continue, the United States may unwind in the reverse of the manner in which frontiers became territories and then states. No entity is ensured perpetual union. The process of forming nations and empires and then disassembling them back into small city states or provincial units is certainly not novel, but rather ancient, and more likely fluid and cyclical than linear — even if the process takes decades or at times centuries. When an empire or even a nation state can no longer guarantee locals that the increased security and wealth of a vast union makes it well worth transcending their parochial customs and ethnic profiles, then we have a Greece of 1,500 city states, or a medieval Europe of castles and moats.
Why is there today a nostalgia for localism? Shrinking Western populations with growing numbers of elderly and unemployed can no longer sustain their present level of redistributive taxation and entitlements. Europe, which can endure neither the disease of insolvency nor the supposed medicine of austerity, is only a decade ahead of what we should expect here in the United States, or what we see now in California — a construct more than a state, where the Central Valley is to the coast as Mississippi is to Massachusetts.
Voters are also disgusted with government, and feel that their overseers are not even subject to the consequences of what they impose on others: We expect the Obamas to trash the 1 percent as they jet to Martha’s Vineyard, or a zillionaire John Kerry to demand higher taxes as he seeks to avoid them on his yacht, or an upscale French Socialist president to have a home on the Mediterranean — or, on the other side of the ledger, social-conservative elites to speak and act like metrosexuals.
The frustration with the distant redistributive state extends beyond the technocracy to the very nature and legitimacy of the bureaucracies themselves. We know that no one trusts the National Bank of Greece or believes much in Eurobonds, but who trusts any more the GSA, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, or even the Secret Service to fulfill their missions competently, and with honesty and decorum?
Nor can the redistributionist technocracy any longer make the case that its certifications, its very claims to legitimacy and entitlement — a PhD from Harvard, a JD from Yale, an MBA from Stanford — and its experience — tenure at Freddie Mac or Fannie Mae, two years in OMB, a billet at the CBO, three years at the Federal Reserve — have warranted our trust. We certainly do not believe any more that such a résumé makes one a better legislator or administrator than another who has run a company, built a business, farmed, piloted a plane, or served in the military. Certainly an Al Gore or Barack Obama does not seem wise, no matter where he was educated or how many government posts he has held.
High-tech communications of the 21st century are a force multiplier, in real time conveying the failures of redistributionist schemes, through cable news, Internet blogs and tabloids, and downloaded videos. A nurse in Des Moines has the power in the palm of her hand to read the Wall Street Journal, watch a YouTube video, or browse a news site at Google, accessing more information than what the aristocratic class was privileged to obtain just a few decades ago. The result is that we see and hear instantaneously what “They” do and say, even though we rarely meet them any more in our daily lives. They have become Orwellian visages on our collective screens, whose empty platitudes seem instantaneously familiar and yet irrelevant to the people we live, work, and enjoy our leisure with.
As those who run the nation state become ever more estranged, we yearn for the safety and security of our own neighbors, who seem to think, speak, and live more as we do. In other words, we are unhappy residents of Hellenistic Greece who dream of the romance of the lost face-to-face city state, or the bread-and-circuses turba of fourth-century Rome, who feel that their fellow citizens in Gaul, Numidia, and Pontus seem hardly Roman. These days the problem is not just that an Italian wants to leave the EU, but that a Florentine or Venetian would prefer to leave Italy itself. A Texan not only wants us out of the U.N., but may feel he is already out of the U.S. Britain may want no part of the EU, but Scotland wants no part of Britain.