The United States of America is currently in the midst of its most politically polarized era since the Civil War.
The room for moderates within the two main political parties is vanishing, there’s a historical level of legislative obstructionism with a divided government, and distrust between voters of differing ideologies is becoming more potent. I’m not just saying this because it feels true; there’s plenty of data to back this up.
Just a few days ago, a Supreme Court Justice passed away unexpectedly and statements from leaders in both political parties demanded opposing courses of action regarding the nomination of his replacement no more than half an hour after the news broke. The level of such clear divisiveness is disturbing, frustrating, and sobering.
It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that political dysfunction is resulting from stark differences in political ideology or economic class; these are very apparent in the everyday lives of American citizens. Policy proposals to solve these issues are rooted in these differences. However, I believe there’s a more fundamental element at play.
After all, there have been more extreme ideologies to take hold in the halls of Congress, more blatant examples of corruption, and more dire levels of income inequality within the past 100 years than what we witness today. And yet, the schism seems more irreconcilable now than ever before.
I believe the real root cause of this political divisiveness and dysfunction is due to the fact that the defining elements of what constitutes the American ethos are no longer unified across the country. In other words, the commonalities of what defines American nationhood (even outside of the realm of politics) are scarcer and more diminished than ever before.
There is more prominent and more fundamental divergence from the traditional “American norm” in the daily lives of its citizens to the point where the United States can no longer be legitimately considered a single united nation.
Before I continue with this argument, I want to clarify what I mean by the term “nation.” A nation is a collective of people who share a common sense of civic belonging (a common nationhood) and have some level of commonality in culture, economy, etc. in a geographically coherent region.
A nation is not defined by auxiliary human characteristics such as race, ethnicity, skin color, language, or anything similar, as these characteristics do not force or compel any person(s) to act or interact with others in distinguishable ways which exemplify a given nationhood. Furthermore, a nation (in the sense I’m referring to) speaks to a collective of people meant to be effected by civic policy in a unifying manner, be it through formal self-governance or some other form of public power.
My argument is that American nationhood, as has been apparent in previous generations of American citizens, is not and has never been an identity formed out of a single, coherent foundation. I believe what we recognize as American nationhood is actually a conglomeration of commonalities derived from environmentally-distinguished regions within the geographic boundaries of the country.
The United States isn’t a single nation in this sense, but a country made up of several nations, each made distinguishable by its respective environment. Over the past 2-3 decades, the natural ethos (plural) of these regional nations have grown more influential and significant in their own right, causing the level of commonalities apparent between all of them to diminish. This is directly due to the effect of bioregionalism.
If you’re unfamiliar with bioregionalism, I’ll reference you to two of my previous blog posts here and here.
The “too long; didn’t read” summary of bioregionalism is this: the identity of a society is directly shaped, at least in part, by the bioregional environment that society resides in (bioregional environment includes plant life, animal life, geography, climate, etc.). You can understand bioregionalism as a philosophy, a phenomenon, or a system of intangibles, but each framework asserts the same truth: place shapes identity.
When we apply a bioregional framework to the United States, we see the country as a collection of bioregions which each have their own distinct ethos that contribute to the conglomeration of the whole. Because each region’s ethos is shaped by its respective bioregional makeup, there will be some level of fundamental differentiation between “national” identities from region to region.
The existing federal system within the United States is not capable of adequately embodying what each respective region understands to be “American” because that identity is subjective and regionally based. The federal system cannot and will not reflect any one region’s concept of national identity fully.
I believe this is why the American people, across many differing political ideologies, classes, and backgrounds feel something is fundamentally wrong with the federal body politic, as evidenced by the emergence of credible political candidates in the “extreme” wing of their respective party.
Factors such as too much money in campaigns or gerrymandering certainly exacerbate this problem, but I do not believe they are the cause. These issues have been present for nearly as long as the United States has existed, yet the country was able to function as a coherent federal system for most of its history prior to the present.
The problem now is that non-central bioregional identities (i.e. not the Northeast or the South), which were of small influence without significant population size up until a few decades ago, now have a very noticeable effect on the American ethos. This phenomenon is throwing the country out of whack because the existing federal system was not designed to handle the current level of bioregional diversity.
Think of it this way: the American identity is the black circle in the middle of the picture below. Its existence is made out of the commonalities which are present between its bioregional identities, represented by the colored circles below.
Throughout most of its history, the United States was almost exclusively influenced by 2 or 3 regional identities. Over time, the other bioregions grew in population size and have become home to generations of Americans which have lived their entire lives in these regions, each being influenced by their respective environment.
These other regions have “divergent” identities which don’t fit as well with those of the regions more central to America’s identity. As the influences of these other regions grow, it shrinks the level of commonality within the collection, thereby causing the black circle in the middle (aka the American identity) to shrink. And, as that black circle shrinks, each region finds themselves more distinguishable from the others now versus the past when the level of commonality was sufficient to adequately cover most everyone.
Where Do We Go From Here?
This bioregional reality means the citizens of the United States need to cease trying to understand the country as if it were a single united nation and, more importantly, trying to get the federal system to behave as if it was a single, coherent nation-state. Bioregionalism’s effect on national identity must be acknowledged and reconciled with the existing system. And, by the way, this argument holds true for Canada too, which is also a country made up of several bioregions.
If the United States is to continue to thrive as a federal union, this may mean significant changes in the near future, such as constitutional reform (i.e. a 2nd constitutional convention), the realignment of state boundaries to better reflect bioregional ethos, or possibly even the contraction of America’s borders to allow for greater unity.
I don’t know what the “correct” answer is. But, as a Cascadian who embraces that identity because it holds coherence and fidelity with my sense of civic belonging, I realize the path forward for Cascadia may eventually diverge from that of the United States and Canada.
Regardless, I believe one of the most important steps forward all Americans can make together is to recognize, understand, and embrace the true nature of American nationhood. Only then can there be clarity to move past this potent era of political division and polarization once and for all. Otherwise, I fear the consequences of what an angry populace will do when faced with a system which is no longer capable of responding to its will.
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