A New War Between The States

Joel Kotkin
Editor of NewGeography.com and Presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University

Cross posted with NewGeography.com

Nearly a century and
half since the United States last divided, a new "irrepressible
conflict" is brewing between the states. It revolves around the
expansion of federal power at the expense of state and local
prerogatives. It also reflects a growing economic divide, arguably more
important than the much discussed ideological one, between very
different regional economies.

This conflict could grow in the coming years, particularly as the Obama
administration seeks to impose a singular federal will against a
generally more conservative set of state governments. The likely
election of a more center-right Congress will exacerbate the problem.
We may enter a  golden age of critical court decisions over the true
extent of federal or executive power.  

Some states are already challenging the constitutionality  of  the
Obama health care program. Indiana, North Dakota, Mississippi, Nevada
and Arizona joined a suit on March 23 by Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum to overturn the
law. And Arizona’s right to make its own pre-immigration regulations
has gained support from nine other states: Texas, Alabama, Florida, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Michigan and Virginia.

These may be just the opening salvos. If the Republicans and
conservative Democrats gain effective control of Congress, the  White
House may choose to push its agenda through the ever expanding federal
apparat. This would transform a policy dispute into something
resembling a constitutional crisis.

Such legal kerfuffles are unlikely  to serve as precursors to armed
conflict. But the political and rhetorical battles will certainly be
heated. The federalistas
can take heart from the the Civil War of a century and a half ago,
which was decisively won by the union. They can also gain some
encouragement from the ultimate success of the New Deal and of World
War II.  

The federal government’s greatest bragging right–ending the absolute
evil of slavery–was  secured during the last war between the states.
While most Union soldiers may have gone to war for the Union, the final
result was an end to slavery. The consolidation of that gain during the
1960s  also rests on expanded federalism.

But the Civil War also was, as Karl Marx observed, a conflict between
powerful economic interests. The Southern economy depended heavily on
the export of commodities–primarily cotton, but also tobacco and
other foodstuffs. It enjoyed profitable trading ties with the
capitalistic superpower of the time, Great Britain. The North, in
contrast, was an emerging industrial power for whom the British Empire
represented the prime competitor.

After the war the industrial capitalists ran the country virtually
unchallenged. They overcame the Southern commodity producers
politically and burdened them with high tariffs. By the 1890s American
manufacturing surpassed Great Britain. The North became relatively rich
while the South and much of the West remained backwaters until the

The economic map looks very different today.  Generally speaking,
states in relatively good economic shape are concentrated in an
economic "zone of sanity"  across the vast Great Plains. They are also in the least "fiscal peril,"  according to a recent Pew study. Not surprisingly, these states see little reason to extend federal
power and increase taxation in order to bail out their more profligate

To a large extent these states, according to Pew, are also the ones willing to reform their pension and other spending
to keep down costs. Significantly, strong pension reforms have been
enacted in some hard-hit sunbelt states–such as Nevada, Georgia, New
Mexico and Arizona–which appear to be following the fiscal model of
the zone-of-sanity states.  

In contrast those states most  favorable to a more powerful Washington
are often the ones suffering the worst fiscal situations. They also
seem least willing to  solve their structural budget issues.
Free-spending, poorly managed states like New York, California,
Michigan, Oregon and Illinois–all of which are controlled by the
president’s political allies, need massive federal largesse to pay
their bills without ruinous tax increases or painful cuts. Some
localities in these states could become the Greeks of late 2010 as they head inexorably toward defaults.

The differences between the states, however, extend beyond budget
items. Many of the worst-managed also benefit from more federal
spending on academic and medical research, and from subsidies for their
often expensive  green energy policies. They can also argue, with some
justification, that the zone-of-sanity states have benefited in the
past from federal crop supports, military spending and highway funding.
Now it’s their turn for disproportionate time at the trough.

Perhaps the most divisive issue will be the Obama administration’s
proposed "cap and trade" legislation. For the most part, the strongest
opposition comes from   coal-dependent, industrial heartland states
such as Indiana, whose governor, Mitch Daniels, has denounced the
as "imperialism" from Washington. Other keen opposition can be
expected among  members in both parties from energy-producing states
like West Virginia, Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, North Dakota, Alaska
and Wyoming.

In contrast "cap and trade" seems less of a problem to the rapidly
deindustrializing coastal states. Many of these states pride themselves
as exemplars of an emerging low-carbon "information economy" and seem
determined to limit their gas-spewing sectors like agriculture,
manufacturing and transportation. A strong federal mandate on carbon
emissions also would diminish the competitive gap between states like
California, burdened by draconian local climate change policies, and
less restrictive places like Texas.

So who is likely to win the emerging new war between the states?
Federal partisans might paint their opponents as the new "Confederates"
fighting a protracted rear guard action, this time against science and
social enlightenment. Certainly some demographic trends–youth
attitudes on environmental issues, growing ethnic diversity and
urbanization of "rural" states–favor the unionists.

Yet  you  can argue that the fiscally strong  states will be better
positioned for the future. In contrast to the mid-19th-century
Confederates, whose population growth paled compared with the Northern
states, many of today’s demographic trends favor the anti-federalists.

Over the past decade America’s population and enterprises have been
shifting away from the unionist strongholds. Once depopulating states
like Kentucky and the Dakotas are enjoying net in-migration from the
rest of the country. Texas gradually threatens to supplant California
as the leading destination for the young and ambitious.

This suggests that after the 2010 census we could see something of a
neo-confederate majority in Congress. Historical patterns may be
repeating themselves, but they could produce a very different final

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