By ALAN CRAWFORD
A few years ago, the former Education Secretary Bill Bennett said we need to "to find out why the citizens of the world's wealthiest, most envied, most powerful country are so cynical, so distressed, so angry, so ticked off about so many things."
An obvious answer - that people like Bennett construct entire careers out of making Americans mad at one another - is to add fuel to existing levels of aggravation. So, perhaps, would mentioning that the revelation of the moralizing Bennett's gambling problem might have something to do with our cynicism. It probably wouldn't help much, either, to note the fact that this sanctimonious blowhard said what he did while introducing a study of the subject, for which he and his colleagues received a grant for $950,000. (One of its conclusions was that we watch too much TV.)
More than a decade has passed since Bennett's group released its findings, and by every indication, we are even more irritable now than then. Judging from TV, which of course we should not watch, we're a whole lot angrier. Whenever you do give in to weakness and turn the thing on, there's our Diogenes of the slots explaining with characteristic pomposity just how intolerable things are and why we shouldn't put up with it a minute longer. The person Bennett is telling this to - Sean Hannity, maybe, or Glenn Beck - then ups the ante until it is all any red-blooded American can do not to grab a coonskin cap from the Halloween close-out sale and join the tea party.
Even "furriners" have noticed how mad we are, and that's really infuriating. A writer for Australia's The Age (like Australia's so great!) notes "a new class of mad-as-hell Americans," which means no more Bloomin' Onions from the Outback Steakhouse for this patriot. From now on, give me Freedom Fries, or give me death.
Even scholars (Bennett elevates himself to be the status of "philosopher") have observed how furious we've become at one another and asked why. A promising line of inquiry pursued by calm and detached academicians has been to explore the cultural and ethnic divisions of our sprawling and diverse nation and suggest alternative geographical and governmental arrangements.
That saucy Aussie calls us the "divided states of America." Well, that's not news. America has always been composed of cultural groups that have little in common with one another. The divisions - north and south, white and black, urban and rural, red and blue, etc. - have taken different forms through the years, and we have always lived in a state of more or less (often less) peaceful coexistence, if not what the Presbyterian Church refers to as "mutual forbearance." The pot has never really melted, for which there is much to be thankful. Diversity comes at a cost, which is almost always a bargain at twice the price.
What our arrangement has never been is rational. As early as 1991, for example, Joel Garreau looked at the "Nine Nations of North America." Just this November, Dante Chinni and James Gimpel's "Our Patchwork Nation" broke the country's more than 3,000 counties into 12 groups with common interests. Plotted on a map, they would make even Elbridge Gerry of "gerrymander" fame look twice.
The same fissions and fractures making life difficult for the federal government are ripping up the states as well. In "California Crack-Up: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It," also published in 2010, Joe Mathews and Mark Paul argue that the Golden State is too big and diverse to be effectively governed from Sacramento. Today, more than 7,000 separate governments try to tend to Californians' business but operate under such restrictions that the state "is incapable of performing the most basic functions, such as passing a budget, maintaining a water supply, running prisons, and providing public education," as Mathews explained in a recent interview.
Hardly a secessionist, the self-described moderate doesn't even think Californians gain much by remaining part of the United States. "We are ruled not only by Sacramento," Mathews says, "but also by a federal government 3,000 miles away, in which we have the same representation in the Senate as West Virginia. That means West Virginia can block California's efforts to meet its own energy needs by adopting policies not based on coal. I am not a tea partier, but these people are onto something when they talk about the 10th Amendment," which reserves to the states all powers not explicitly granted to the federal government.
"When California came into the union, no one ever expected it to remain one state," says Bill Kauffman, author of "Bye Bye, Miss American Empire: Neighborhood Patriots, Backcountry Rebels, and their Underdog Crusades to Redraw America's Political Map," published in July. "There were serious proposals in the early 1990s to divide California into two or even three states."
Kauffman finds such decentralist impulses encouraging - and deeply American. "What I see in California, in Hawaii, in Vermont, and in my own upstate New York is a desire for finding local solutions to local problems and for protecting local culture against the demands of bigness - big business, big media, and big government," Kauffman says. "There is in all this a love for communities and ways of life that are threatened, but there's anger, too. There's anger at a federal government that is unresponsive to peoples' problems but won't let them solve them on their own."
This was not only predictable but predicted. Ten years after he left the presidency, Thomas Jefferson came to fear for the future of the United States as it expanded westward. The ongoing transfer of power from local governments to the states and from the states to the federal government in Washington, Jefferson feared, would mean the effective end of self government in America. Citizens far removed from the decisions that affected their lives they would no longer feel any responsibility for these decisions, which would be made by a professional class of government agents. The citizens would gradually, almost unknowingly surrender their liberties and, in time, become unfit to govern themselves.
Jefferson's pessimism suggests resignation flecked with anger. Jefferson's resignation can be heard in the left libertarianism of the Second Vermont Republic, but his indignation is echoed in the outcry of tea partyers who want "to take our country back."
Jefferson's remedy was a radical one - divide the entire United States into "ward republics" no larger than six square miles. In these wards, everybody would know one other and their problems could be addressed "by the common reason" of all the participants. The only powers exercised by higher levels of government would be those beyond the wards' abilities, and these would be few and far between - providing for the national defense, for example. The administration of schools would be left entirely to the parents, meaning no Department of Education.
The conventional wisdom holds that polarization creates gridlock, which prevents us from solving our problems, which contributes to greater polarization. In fact, our inability to solve our problems may be the cause of polarization, and that cynicism, distress, and anger - as Bennett put it - is the inevitable result. If people are "ticked off," there just might be a good reason for it.