Thoughts on the Democratic Government Experiment

I read a novel over the weekend by Harry Turtledove. His ouvre is alternative history, and he's a very prolific writer. This particular book is titled The Disunited States of America and it is the fourth book in his "Crosstime Traffic" series. The series' plot supposition is that while time travel is not possible, it is possible to move into alternative realities at the same point in time. In the late 21st Century, scientists in our timeline discover how to do this, and send traders to other timelines in order to trade for resources that have become scarce in our future but not in the other timelines. Naturally, they don't tell the natives of those other timelines who they are and how they got there.

Unlike the novels in many Turtledove series, Disunited States can stand alone; you don't need to have read the first three books in the series (and indeed, I haven't) to understand what is going on, since Turtledove fills the reader in early about what is going on. The timeline that the traders are visiting was identical to ours until the late 1700s, when their U.S. constitutional convention failed to come up with a compromise between the small states, who wanted equal representation for each state, and the large states, who wanted represtation to be based upon each state's population. In our timeline, we ended up with a constitution with a bicameral legislature. In theirs, the United States continued to muddle along under the Articles of Confederation until the early 1800s and then things fell apart. The states became separate countries, fighting innumberable little wars with their neighbors. There was no central government.

The traders are based in Charleston, Virginia, and a couple of them, including Justin, the teenaged protagonist, get stuck in a town near the Ohio border when war breaks out between those two states, and Ohio sends a tailored virus into Virginia, causing a quarantine. Justin meets Beckie, a girl about his age from the state of California, who is visiting the small Virginia town with her grandmother, who was born there. They are all stuck there for several days as the story unfolds.

The story's concept is intriguing: What would have happened had our Founding Fathers not had the wisdom to compromise? Our democratic experiment could have ended a long time ago, and we could be living under any of a number of types of despotic government. Instead of a powerful nation, we might be living in the North American equivalent of Portugal or Belgium.

I thought about this as I looked at what is happening in Iraq, and it seemed to be relevant. Just as in Iraq today, there were various factions among the early United States who didn't like each other and who had conflicting interests. What was good for a Yankee merchant might be bad for a western frontiersman or a southern slaveowner. But with a still-unfriendly Britain perched along our northern border, with many Tories settling into being Canadians who might have wanted to return to claim what they had left behind when they fled America, it was urgent that there be a federal government so that the states could act in their common interest. As Benjamin Franklin said, "We must all hang together or assuredly we shall all hang separately."

As individual states, they were weak and vulnerable to British aggression. As a unified nation, they were too strong to be conquered. Look at the bundle of thirteen arrows that the eagle clutches on the back of a (non-state design) quarter: The symbolism is that an individual arrow can be easily snapped, but a bundle of arrows cannot.

Iraq has three main factions as well as many smaller ones, and unlike the early Americans, some of them may see their interest in siding with others outside of Iraq. Many Iraqis don't think of themselves as Iraqis, but rather as Sunnis or Shiites or Kurds, or members of a particular tribe. Early Americans were more likely to identify themselves as residents of their home state than as Americans, and this was true up through the Civil War, which decisively settled the struggle for power between the federal government and the individual state governments. Look at how many U.S. Army generals resigned their commissions to join the Confederate Army and defend their home states (Robert E. Lee, for instance). Today, however, we are all Americans with a strong sense of national identity. It took a while to achieve that. It's an open question whether the Iraqis are capable of doing the same thing or not. For their sake, I hope so.