What Makes a Nation? Borders or a Community of Interests?

2017-08-03 – President Trump has said that “a nation without borders is not a nation.” And he wants to build a wall to secure our southern border. But do walls make nations or is it a shared commitment to some sort of national identity or national ideals? If it’s the latter, our nation needs quite a bit of remedial help.

The United States has always been divided—and most tragically on the subject of slavery. In the years leading up to the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln said: “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided.”

But it was divided and Lincoln led a war to put it back together. Yet the divisions remain.

Today, beyond the divisions of race, our country is faced with many more divisions:

The big fight today is about health care. But I’m not writing today to weigh in on that debate other than to point out how health care differs from one state to another. It’s almost like we live in different countries. Rural states have drastically fewer resources for their citizens than urban states.

When the Supreme Court struck down the part of Obamacare providing for mandatory Medicaid expansion, the divide in the level of care available was increased. Only 32 states have allowed the expansion. The rest have not.

Provisions in the Republican repeal and replace bills seek to increase the differences between the states by allowing states to define their own health insurance coverage packages. Should those measures ever become law, people in some states will be denied coverage based on pre-existing conditions while people in other states will be protected, people in some states will have contraceptive coverage while people in other states will not, sick people in some states will have coverage dropped when their bills reach a lifetime cap and people in other states will not.

And while this debate is going on in Washington, a number of states are looking at opting out of the debate altogether by enacting their own separate single-payer systems. In recent years, eleven states—most recently California—have taken steps in this direction.

Where you live in this country has a big effect on how you will afford care, and even the quality of care.

Where you live also makes a big difference in whether you can smoke weed. As of today, 29 states allow medical marijuana and eight of these states currently allow or recently approved recreational use. Yet, as of today, the federal government opposes local efforts toward legalization. This may seem minor in the scheme of things, but drug enforcement is a big part of our overall effort to control crime. How we want to use our public safety resources, and who we want in jail are big issues dividing the states and dividing the pro-legalization states from the federal government.

When I started this piece, I questioned whether a border wall creates a nation. Trump’s wall, if it is ever built, is meant to control immigration. But immigrants are not just found near our borders. They are found in distant cities across the country. And many of these cities have taken measures to resist efforts of the federal government to enforce national immigration laws against otherwise law-abiding individuals and families living within their city limits. Whether you agree with these cities or not, the idea that sanctuary cities can opt out of national laws is a challenge to our identity as a nation.

An opposite sort of opt-out is happening in the field of energy. When President Trump announced that he would pull out of the Paris Climate Accord, cities and states across the country announced—not that they would violate the law—but rather that they would continue to abide by the climate accord and pursue energy efficiency and sustainability to the best of their ability regardless of what the national government says. Many businesses followed suit. States are now making pledges to the international community as actors independent of our national government. You might see this as a good thing, but it is nevertheless a challenge to the concept of the United States as a single nation.

This list could go on and on, but I’m going to stop with a mention of the differential in economic development from state to state. While we’re thinking about climate, it is important to note that some states have economies that depend on the extraction of oil and gas and coal. Other states do not. Some states have suffered for decades from the decline of large-scale manufacturing, notably the rust belt state. Most states have not.

I’m just going to leave you with one fact: half of all venture capital in the United States goes to the New York City and the San Francisco Bay areas—two areas that are notably not in the rust belt and notably not in areas that are dependent on oil, gas, or coal for their economic livelihoods.

With half of the nation’s new investment going to two cities, that means that the other half is spread pretty thin.

Many of the divisions I’ve just mentioned are aligned with the split between red and blue states, but not all are. The availability of venture capital in New York and San Francisco obviously benefit the blue states of New York and California. On the other hand, federal spending, as compared to federal taxes, generally benefits red states on things as diverse as military expenditures and welfare.

None of this is to say that the United States is about to fall apart. But combined with the politics of division these issues are not helping the cause of nationhood. Like Lincoln, I do not (yet) “expect the house to fall,” but if we don’t pay attention to these things that are dividing us, it may someday happen.

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