Opinion | America Needs More Than Just 50 States

By Noah Millman

Mr. Millman has written extensively about politics, policy and culture and is a columnist at The Week.

From its beginning, the United States was built to expand. Article IV, Section 3 of the Constitution grants Congress the power to create states. Starting with the Vermont Republic in 1791, as America grew, the country’s roster of states expanded as well.

But since the addition of Alaska and Hawaii in 1959, America hasn’t increased the number of states, and unless some future president winds up buying Greenland, the United States is unlikely to expand territorially. Nonetheless it continues to expand — demographically. Since 1960, the country has added over 150 million people through a combination of immigration and natural population increase. Yet we haven’t upped our state count.

This is a problem. America needs new states not only to provide representation for those living in territories but also more urgently to provide adequate representation to those who have congressional representation but whose votes perversely carry less weight because of their state’s size.

And America needs new states to improve the internal governance of the states and the country. We need new states — and the place to start is to carve them out of the largest states that already exist.

Since 1980, about 40 percent of America’s population growth has accrued to only three megastates: California, Texas and Florida. California has more than eight times the population of the median U.S. state; on its own, Los Angeles County would be the 10th-largest state in the union. The four largest states by population now make up roughly one-third of the population of the entire United States — more than the smallest 34 put together.

This poses a critical problem for democratic legitimacy primarily because of the Senate. Those four largest states have only eight senators, while the 34 smallest states have a supermajority of 68. Because of the unusually large scope of power granted to America’s upper house — the Senate not only is capable of blocking legislation but also plays a key role in approving many presidential appointments, members of the judiciary and treaties with other countries — such an acute disproportion of representation effectively disenfranchises much of America’s population. Moreover, this disproportion cannot be rectified constitutionally, because Article V forbids any amendment to the Constitution that would deprive any state of equal representation in the Senate without that state’s consent.

One reason to break up the largest states, then, is to give their citizens something closer to appropriate representation.

At the same time, the sheer bulk of states like California and Texas gives them far greater influence than a typical state has. On issues like environmental regulation and education policy, these behemoths can shape or frustrate national policy by their unilateral actions in ways that smaller states cannot easily dissent from. Their key industries and interest groups, meanwhile, wield disproportionate influence in the national and state capitals.

So another reason to break them up is to reduce the power they exert over the country.

Whatever you think of the merits of granting statehood to the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands or Guam, doing so would not rectify these problems. Democrats would be pleased to get additional safe Senate seats, but adding tiny states would only make the Senate's disproportion worse. Nor would their addition do anything to cut down the concentration of power in state capitals like Albany and Sacramento or provide adequate representation to those who feel increasingly alienated from state capitals.

The solution has clear precedent in American history: break up the largest states, ideally into components with populations as close to the state median as possible. Kentucky was created out of territory that originally belonged to Virginia, as was Tennessee from North Carolina territory and Maine from the territory of Massachusetts. No constitutional amendment would be required; per the terms of Article IV, creating states from a state that already exists would merely require the state legislature to vote to split up and for Congress to assent. And unlike consolidating smaller states, which would reduce their citizens’ representation, splitting up the large states would increase it, giving their voters a reason to be supportive.

Congress could help structure the process by setting a minimum size for new states (say, one-half the population of the median state, about 2.25 million) and requiring them to have territorial integrity and avoid partisan gerrymandering, all of which would help assure that the break up improved national governance. But carving the four megastates into three or more states each might have a host of benefits for their internal governance as well.

For example, New York City currently lacks many powers that are crucial to management, like full control of its transportation system. If, as part of a larger national reorganization, New York City were to become a city-state — as Berlin, Hamburg and Bremen are in Germany — it could assume most of those powers, while its senators in Washington could focus on a national agenda relevant to urban America. Inasmuch as New York City needs partners to coordinate with, the most important ones are in New Jersey and Connecticut, not in Buffalo and Rochester — so splitting up New York State could give new momentum to proposals for regional governance across state lines. Meanwhile, upstate New York would have a better chance at pursuing its own development in ways that suit its commonality with other Rust Belt regions without being captive to the needs and preferences of a city with which it has had little in common economically since the near obsolescence of the Erie Canal.

Similarly, splitting California into at least three states — as has been proposed before, most recently in a failed ballot initiative — would allow its very different regions to pursue policies appropriate to their character and interests. California could even plausibly be broken into as many as five states, if the Bay Area and Los Angeles were hived off to become city-states, which they are certainly populous enough to be.

Splitting up the largest states would not necessarily favor Democrats or Republicans — which is another reason it might be a good idea and why Congress might want to condition approval of one state breakup on others, much as Maine and Missouri were admitted in 1820 and 1821 to preserve the national balance between free and slave states. New York City would undoubtedly be a safe Democratic state — but upstate New York might well be as competitive between the parties as Pennsylvania is today. A state carved out of northern Florida would likely be reliably Republican, but the central region would probably be purple, while southern Florida would have a Democratic lean. Carving up Texas, meanwhile, would open up opportunities for Democrats but could also lower the temperature on the possibility of the state’s flipping blue by giving residents of Lubbock and Midland an escape route to a safely red republic.

There will be sentimental objections to these suggestions as well as practical ones — how could we even consider breaking up the Empire State? But sentiment about the past should not obscure the possibilities of creation. How often does a political community get a chance to choose a new name for itself, a new flag to fly? We shouldn’t pass up the opportunity to refound political communities on a new and more inclusive basis.

The states that exist today, even when they were given names with Indigenous sources, were founded and organized overwhelmingly by white settlers. So it could be powerfully symbolic if, for example, members of the Seneca, Oneida, Mohawk and other nations of the old Iroquois Confederacy played a central public role in defining a state covering their old territory.

It sometimes seems the United States is flying apart into mutually hostile factions. The genius of our federal system is that it provides a framework for a multiplicity of communities, with different interests and values, to live together as part of a single country. If that system feels as though it’s breaking down, maybe it’s partly because its components are out of balance.

The work of dividing states might not only give us the space we need from one another but also help us learn how to cooperate again. Breaking up can be hard to do, but sometimes, it’s the best way to ultimately come together.

Noah Millman is a political columnist at The Week and the film and theater critic at Modern Age.


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