Despite all the talk, the federal government shutdown hasn’t greatly affected daily life for most Americans so far. Some have been hit hard, especially federal employees, those receiving certain benefit payments, and tourists planning to visit the Smithsonian or a national park. But as apocalypses go, a couple weeks without “non-essential” federal services has been underwhelming for most American families.
Things could get worse if the closure were to extend from weeks into months. But judging by past shutdowns, it’s likely that Obama and Congressional Republicans will soon reach a deal to restart the federal services that have been suspended since Congress failed to pass a funding bill by the start of the federal fiscal year on October 1.
The World War II Memorial will then be open again. But that won’t mean that America can go back to normal.
The new normal
Normal ended for most of us when the economy crashed in 2008 and the government shutdown shows definitively that no help can be expected from Washington for ordinary citizens who continue to suffer. Despite economists having declared the Great Recession finished in June 2009, in today’s economy most Americans outside the top 1% are still battling financial hardship:
- One in five families relies on food stamps, food banks and other feeding programs to make sure that they’ll have enough to eat next week
- Overdue student loan debt and youth unemployment remain at all time highs
- For the last decade, the stock market has soared, helping the rich, but middle-class household income has declined
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair
The shutdown demonstrates beyond doubt that Washington, plagued by partisan intransigence and captured by corporate special interests, has finally become unable to effectively govern the United States.
In 2009, early in the economic downturn, Paul Starobin made the case in his book After America: Narratives for the Next Global Age that governing America from Washington has become such an unwieldy system as to justify alternative arrangements. His perspective is even more prescient after the government shutdown.
“The present-day American Goliath may turn out to be a freak of a waning age of politics and economics as conducted on a super-sized scale — too large to make any rational sense in an emerging age of personal empowerment that harks back to the era of the yeoman farmer of America’s early days,” Starobin wrote in the Wall Street Journal.
Starobin comes at the problem of an oversized America from the right-wing — he rails against imperial overreach by President Obama and the expansion of social programs that Republicans refer to as “Big Government.”
But there are plenty of people on the left who also think that America has gotten too big to operate as a democracy. Just take the example of the secessionist movement in ultra-liberal Vermont, whose adherents want the freedom to eat local and organic and exclude nuclear power without interference from Washington.
While the mainstream media seem to find the idea of secession laughable at best, groups on both sides of the political edge are embracing the eventual breakup of the United States as not merely thinkable but even desirable.
Secession from Oregon to Texas
Here are five reasons why secessionist movements like the microbrew-friendly Republic of Cascadia in the Pacific Northwest and the immigrant-unfriendly Texas Nationalist Movement may ultimately win some degree of autonomy from Washington:
- Political Polarization — Does anyone think that, after Boehner and Obama make a deal to re-open the government, the two parties will begin to work harmoniously in the national interest anytime in the near future? Look for the trend of take-no-prisoners partisan warfare to ramp up, not down, in coming years, bringing the machinery of national government to a halt again and again through future battles over the federal debt, social programs, financial regulations and environmental protection. Partisan fighting will alienate voters and make clear the increasing impotence of the federal government.
- Resentment of the One Percent — No one benefits more from centralized power than big corporations and the rich people who own them — and who pull the strings of power in Washington. Coming from opposite ends of the political spectrum, both Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party are populist movements critical of centralized power in both the government and the economy. As the economy continues to decline and government falters, movements on the political extremes will gain followers as more families have to struggle to keep their homes on part-time jobs. Americans who fall out of the middle class will grow angry and resentful at the rich for so cruelly rigging the system against the ordinary wage-earner.
- Economic Collapse — The collapse of an economy that requires continuous growth but is stuck on a planet with finite resources may be unavoidable, but gridlock in Washington will help to bring it on sooner as the ripple effect from a decline in federal spending acts as a negative stimulus, killing jobs and causing businesses to close. After a few more government shutdowns, the next financial collapse could make 2008 look tame. As the national economy fails to deliver the prosperity that Americans used to expect, they’ll look more to economic solutions from local manufacturing to local currency.
- Climate Chaos — Mounting costs to deal with the superstorms, derechos and other weather disasters that will become both more frequent and more damaging due to runaway climate change will stretch federal, state and local budgets to their breaking points. As schools, roads and social services are cut to pay for rebuilding hurricane-ravaged cities or constructing sea walls to protect coastal areas from rising seas, populations will grow restless. Initially, they’ll look to Washington for help. When that help disappoints or fails to arrive altogether, citizens will fall back on their states and localities, making the federal government increasingly irrelevant.
- Peak Oil — By itself, depletion of fossil fuels will raise the cost of energy beyond the point at which transportation costs will make governing any nation of continental scale, whether the U.S. or Russia or China, impractical. In the long run, an ongoing reduction in travel by air, road and rail in response to rising costs for liquid fuels from crude oil will weaken the national ties forged in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by the rise of those same forms of transportation. This will provide more slack to breakaway regions and secessionist movements. In the short-term, a 1970s-style energy crisis or some more catastrophic oil shock may be the Black Swan event needed to push the weakened and brittle edifice of national government and global trade over the edge into collapse.
All of these factors could clear the way for regional secession movements that could ultimately break up the U.S. and all of North America into half a dozen or more regional nations. In the meantime, as the economy continues to cool down, the climate continues to heat up and Americans get more cynical about Washington and Wall Street, campaigns for everything from local food to local money could coalesce into a grand localist wave like the Transition movement, which already boasts nearly 150 Transition Towns in the U.S. committed to building local autonomy.
In a future where central government has clearly lost control, that local autonomy could evolve into local sovereignty.
– Erik Curren, Transition Voice