You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
History Lesson

Why Our Country Is Too Big Not to Fail

Maybe the United States was doomed from the start. And Jean-Jacques Rousseau can explain why.

When I was growing up in central Pennsylvania, my working-class family took vacations to places we could drive to—for example, Pine Creek Gorge upstate, better known to locals as the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon, or Delaware, where an aunt and uncle lived on the way to Rehoboth Beach. To this day, neither of my parents have been on an airplane, or west of the Mississippi River. The first time I flew anywhere was the summer after I graduated from college.

I mention those biographical details to explain the relative lateness and force of a realization I had on a trip to Wyoming in my mid-twenties. A friend had moved to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where he was a teacher. As a graduate student, I had my summers off, too, so I’d fly to Sioux Falls, he’d pick me up at the airport, then we’d pack food, gear, and supplies into his car and head west to the mountains and hiking trails that usually took two or three days of driving to get to. I’d never seen country so vast and so empty, and I remember going long stretches without passing a gas station or restaurant, let alone anything resembling a town. Sometimes, I’d notice a solitary house off in the distance and think about why someone might have moved there, or stayed, and just how much they must want to be left alone.

At the time, I was in a doctoral program studying political theory, and I couldn’t help but relate my experience of Wyoming to the texts I was reading, especially the Federalist Papers, and, even more important, a late, somewhat offbeat writing of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s, The Government of Poland. The two were linked in my mind by Willmoore Kendall, who had been William F. Buckley Jr.’s professor at Yale and an early contributor to National Review. He’d also translated Rousseau’s short treatise about Poland and written a provocative introduction to it that, among other things, explicitly compared its arguments to those of James Madison and Alexander Hamilton.

Rousseau finished The Government of Poland in 1772, after a Count Wielhorski, supposedly on behalf of a convention that gave itself the task of drawing up a new constitution for the country, solicited his advice. Rousseau didn’t know much about Poland, though he claimed to study its history and laws for six months before offering his recommendations, and he may have taken on the project for the money. As such, The Government of Poland has tended to languish in relative obscurity, in part because it fits uneasily among Rousseau’s other political writings. Whereas one might expect the author of The Social Contract to tell the Poles to set about razing that country’s old order, Rousseau does no such thing—if anything, he impresses upon them the danger of change, and directs them to keep the most backward and unworkable features of their existing system.

These peculiar suggestions have typically been attributed to The Government of Poland being a “practical” work, one that takes up the concrete problems of a particular regime, as opposed to the more “theoretical” Social Contract. Or perhaps Rousseau, the aging revolutionary, had taken a conservative turn in his last years. Kendall would have none of it. A close reading of the text, he argues, revealed a more esoteric truth: The Government of Poland wasn’t really about Poland, it was about the “radical vice” Rousseau saw emerging—what Kendall called the “territorially extensive modern state.” “Large populations, vast territories!” Rousseau writes. “There you have the first and foremost reason for the misfortunes of mankind.” If man was born free, but everywhere in chains, here was one reason why.

For Kendall, the significance of reading Rousseau’s Government of Poland in this way was the challenge it posed to the theory of the U.S. Constitution expounded in the Federalist Papers, especially Madison’s idea of the extended republic. So many debates about the American system of government understandably focus on the mechanics of how it works (or doesn’t)—say, Senate rules or the separation of powers—that it can be easy to forget that the Framers’ true innovation was attempting to govern such a large territory by anything resembling popular government. Thus, the terminological confusion that prompts the right’s favorite refrain, “a republic, not a democracy.” At the time, democracy mostly was associated with the direct democracy of ancient city-states, and, in the Federalist Papers, Madison gropes toward different linguistic formulations to describe the Constitution’s newfangled combination of the sovereignty of (some of) the people, representation, and federalism across what was already a massive country.

I’ve thought a lot about Kendall’s reading of Rousseau, and its implications, in recent years amid all the discourse about our deep political divides and possible “national divorce.” The states it took me days to drive across in my twenties—South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana—were not yet a part of the United States when Madison wrote on behalf of the Constitution, and neither were dozens of others. But even then, Madison believed that an extended republic would contain a “greater variety of parties and interests,” preserving liberty by ensuring no faction could wrest control of the government. For Rousseau, that was the problem—the greater the scale, the more and different kinds of people, with proliferating and conflicting needs and desires, a regime would have to encompass. A similar argument was made by the Anti-Federalist opponents of the Constitution. The pseudonymous Cato, who many believe was New York Governor George Clinton, held that republics should be small, because larger territories allowed for greater wealth to be accumulated, which would eventually lead to the regime’s demise. And, anyway, he wrote, “The extent of many of the states of the Union, is at this time almost too great for the superintendence of a republican form of government.”

If I can take some liberties with Rousseau’s argument, I think his essential insight about scale has to do with what it would feel like to be governed in a country with “large populations” and “vast territories.” He praises ancient founders—or rather, legislators—like Moses and Lycurgus, for creating peoples; that is, for founding regimes in the fullest sense of the word, something like a shared way of life, which for him necessarily could only be extended and stretched so far. To put it in American terms, how could legislation promulgated from a distant capital, aiming to govern a mind-bogglingly diverse people stretched across a continent, not cause too many of them to chafe too often?

Rousseau’s argument obviously can be put to nefarious contemporary uses—a way to give a veneer of intellectual seriousness to hostility toward pluralism. But it also can serve as a reminder of the affective dimensions of citizenship, and how difficult it can be to govern a place as various, in multiple senses, as the United States, even assuming the good faith of its many people. For most of our history, we’ve evaded this challenge by excluding, in various de facto and de jure ways, some portion of the people from counting, making our political system and power structures more homogeneous than the lives they ruled. The window in which the United States has attempted what Rousseau thought so misguided—to nationally govern a vast, diverse people in a vast, diverse place—has been rather narrow.

I’m doubtful that the experiment will still be going by 2050. I don’t necessarily mean that the United States will “collapse”; in fact, I think that’s unlikely. The Constitution will still be under glass in Washington. But in the years to come, under the pressure of negative polarization, geographic sorting, an ever more fragmenting culture, and the extant anti-democratic features of the Constitution, ambitious national governance will be nearly impossible, with a right-wing Supreme Court attacking whatever accomplishments are mustered. Maybe state governments will take on new importance, or regional coordination and policymaking become more prevalent; maybe not. If I had to predict, stalemate, halting achievements stymied by legal wrangling, and continued conservative assaults on what few public goods remain will carry the day, a behemoth military and security apparatus atop a gradually crumbling society incapable of reckoning with its problems. What could go wrong?