Isolated Thoughts: The End of America, or, Living the Dystopian Tropes

One of the attractions of teaching a pandemic fiction course in the Fall is that it will be interesting to teach speculative fiction that doesn’t really require much speculation, given what we’re living through in the present moment.

A fairly standard bit of furniture in dystopian fiction is the dissolution of the nation-state as we know it, with whatever country in which the story takes place still possessing vestigial elements of its old self, but otherwise re-shaped by war, political upheaval, environmental catastrophe, pandemic, or all of the above. In the most extreme cases, as with The Road by Cormac McCarthy, all has been erased (including identifiable landscapes) and survivors must negotiate the Hobbesian lawlessness as best they can. In Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, there is no nation, just an archipelago of self-governing settlements. This latter vision, as I mentioned in a previous post, is where The Walking Dead has arrived. I also wrote at length about how a key narrative and thematic element of Max Brooks’ World War Z was imagining how a certain idea of America might persist through an apocalyptic catastrophe.

In other cases where there is no catastrophe per se, the dissolution of the nation-state is often depicted as an inevitability proceeding from contemporary circumstances. This, indeed, is a favourite consideration in much cyberpunk, like William Gibson’s Neuromancer or Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash—in both cases, the stories take place (at least partially) in a political entity still known as the United States, but in which civic government has effectively been displaced by massive transnational corporations.

And then there is the figuration of the fracturing of a former civic entity into regions of distinct character and governance. America is a useful country for this particular futurism, considering the size and regional distinctiveness of the continental U.S., to say nothing of the fraught history of federalism and those several years in the nineteenth century when the country literally broke in two.

Richard K. Morgan’s novel Black Man envisions a future in which the U.S. has fractured into three political entities: the U.N. States, which is a loose transatlantic confederation of northeastern states, part of eastern Canada, and the U.K; the Rim States, which as the name suggests comprises the Pacific Rim, itself also a post-national confederation including part of British Columbia. And finally there is “the Republic,” the middle swath of the country that has laid claim to white Christian identity as the basis of America and which is essentially an economically depressed theocracy (to those in the other two regions, it is frequently identified by the derisive nickname “Jesusland”). The three regions all bear characteristic familiar to the present moment, with the Rim driven by technology and the sort of Randian faith in disruption that currently marks Silicon Valley; the U.N. States are identified by their cosmopolitanism and transnationalism, such that the priority isn’t national identity but economic alliances; and the Republic is revanchist, anti-science, and resentful of its economic backwardness while still viewing itself as the “authentic” America.

Since I first read the novel eleven years ago (I wrote about it at some length on my previous blog), Morgan’s future America has seemed more and more of an actual possibility. And lately it’s been on my mind an awful lot as I keep seeing maps like these in the news:

state groups

One of the central tensions in the United States since even before its founding has been the argument between having a strong central government versus a weaker one that would leave most of the governing up to the individual states. The original argument was embodied by Alexander Hamilton on one hand and Thomas Jefferson on the other, and today pretty much falls along the axis of Democrats and Republicans, with the former advocating for a larger government and the latter frequently quoting Ronald Reagan’s famous line that government isn’t the solution to the problem, government is the problem, and doing their best to reduce its size to  the point where, per Grover Norquist, it can be drowned in a bathtub.

Which is what makes what’s going on now kind of fascinating from the perspective of political history. On one hand, you have a Republican executive and Senate, in an effort to staunch the economic hemorrhaging caused by the coronavirus, spending like drunken sailors on shore leave—over twice as much money as Obama’s 2009 stimulus, which they howled about at the time. On the other hand, the utter incompetence of Donald J. Trump and all of the hacks he has running the show has meant that, at a time when one ideally wants a strong central government, we’re witnessing the effective abdication of federal power, ceding it to the states.

There’s a truism about Republicans, which is that they inveigh against big government when they are out of power, and when they are in power they cut budgets and funding and reduce the size of every governmental department except the Department of Defense. When the federal government then, not unpredictably, struggles to perform its basic functions, Republicans point to that as evidence of government’s innate incompetence.

Not that this sort of thing is limited to the U.S.—it’s been part of the Right’s basic playbook since the Reagan/Thatcher years, but the 21st century has escalated it by a magnitude with the antagonism to expertise and science and the elevation of, say, a horse breeder to the directorship of FEMA just in time for one of the most devasting hurricanes to ever strike the Gulf Coast. But Bush’s appointment of Michael “Heckuva job, Brownie!” Brown to FEMA was just a hint of things to come as the Tea Party stormed the halls of Congress in 2010 with people whose entire purpose was to bring government to a screeching halt. And then with Trump’s election, we have seen the elevation of the most spectacularly unqualified, semi-literate, narcissistic incompetent to the most powerful office in the world; and along with him he brought an army of hacks and enablers who haven’t the faintest idea of how to govern in the best of times. It’s not for nothing that the “adults in the room” at this point are all career bureaucrats, people like Dr. Anthony Fauci who have spent long and distinguished careers in public service—the very people Steve Bannon had in mind when he fulminated against “the Deep State” and avowed that his principal goal was “the deconstruction of the administrative state.”

At the rate we’re going, he may get his wish. I have read a number of think-pieces that have speculated that the current state of affairs, in which state governors have entered into loose regional coalitions to manage their pandemic responses, essentially giving up on any meaningful assistance from the White House, might ironically end up being a spectacular vindication of Thomas Jefferson’s vision of federalism. Alexander Hamilton’s legacy, by contrast, will have to be satisfied with Broadway box office returns and a raft of Tony awards: Donald Trump is precisely the corrupt and incompetent man of low manners he argued that the Electoral College would guard against.

That didn’t really work out so well. And it might be that Trump’s own most indelible legacy will be the fracturing of America into regional coalitions that will be resistant to kowtowing to the federal government in the future. Though I somehow doubt Thomas Jefferson would feel particularly edified to have his philosophy of governance realized by a subliterate cretin.

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Filed under Isolated Thoughts, politics

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