Imagining Imaginary Alternatives

When the world seems a mess there’s always alternative history to consider. Things might have been different. In 1931, British historian Sir John Squire collected a series of essays from some of the leading historians of the period for his anthology If It Had Happened Otherwise and Winston Churchill’s contribution was on what the world would be like if the Confederate States of America had won the Civil War. America would have a white-nationalist government that systematically chipped away at everyone’s civil rights until they were all gone. That was preposterous, but not really. America’s momentary Civil War went on and on. The South may have won that war, finally, but Keith Laumer’s Worlds of the Imperium (1961) imagines something else – a world in which the American Revolution never happened, a world ruled by Britain, a world ruled by a ruthless dictatorship. That was preposterous. The Brits aren’t ruthless. They’re polite, and in 1962, Philip K. Dick published The Man in the High Castle – about a world where Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan won World War II – but that too was preposterous. America would never have a somewhat fascist president, of German descent, who strutted about and loved big military parades, who demonized “the other” – maybe not Jews but certainly Muslims and Mexicans and gays and black folks – a leader who demonized the press and insisted that only what he said was true – nothing else – and a man who sneered at anyone who wasn’t as rich as he said he was. That was preposterous.

And then it wasn’t:

The Man in the High Castle is an American television series depicting a dystopian alternate history. Created by Frank Spotnitz, the series is produced by Amazon Studios, Scott Free Productions, Headline Pictures, Electric Shepherd Productions and Big Light Productions. The series is based on the 1962 novel of the same name by Philip K. Dick. In the alternative 1962, the Axis powers have won World War II and divided the United States into the Greater Nazi Reich, comprising more than half of the eastern part of the continent and the Japanese Pacific States to the west. These territories are separated by a neutral zone that encompasses the Rocky Mountains. The series follows characters whose destinies intertwine after they come into contact with a series of propaganda films that show different histories.

Premiering in January 2015, the pilot was Amazon’s “most-watched since the original series development program began”. The next month, Amazon ordered a ten-episode season, which was released in November to positive reviews. A second season of ten episodes premiered in December 2016, with a third season announced a few weeks later and released on October 5, 2018. In July 2018, it was announced at San Diego Comic-Con that the series had been renewed for a fourth season.

When the world seems a mess there’s always alternative history. Things could be worse. There could be real Nazis, but Amazon Studios’ Nazis are wholly imaginary. They use the standard disclaimer:

This motion picture is protected under the copyright laws of the United States and other countries throughout the world. Country of first publication: United States of America. Any unauthorized exhibition, distribution, or copying of this film or any part thereof (including soundtrack) may result in civil liability and criminal prosecution. The story, all names, characters, and incidents portrayed in this production are fictitious. No identification with actual persons (living or deceased), places, buildings, and products is intended or should be inferred. No person or entity associated with this film received payment or anything of value, or entered into any agreement, in connection with the depiction of tobacco products. No animals were harmed in the making of this motion picture.

That covers everything, but Amazon Studios created a television series where identification with actual persons – living and dead – is unavoidable. That’s the reason they have a hit on their hands. The parallels are obvious. Something has gone wrong in America.

That calls for alternative history, but the kind of alternative history that imagines better alternatives, so Sasha Issenberg offers a simple proposition:

The country is hopelessly split. So why not make it official and break up?

Issenberg is serious:

This arranged marriage isn’t really working anymore, is it? The partisan dynamic in Washington may have changed, but our dysfunctional, codependent relationship is still the same. The midterm results have shown that Democrats have become even more a party of cities and upscale suburbs whose votes are inefficiently packed into dense geographies, Republicans one of exurbs and rural areas overrepresented in the Senate. The new Congress will be more ideologically divided than any before it, according to a scoring system developed by Stanford political scientist Adam Bonica: the Republicans more conservative, the Democrats more liberal.

And things won’t get better:

Come January, we are likely to find that we’ve simply shifted to another gear of a perpetual deadlock unlikely to satisfy either side. For the past eight years, there has been no movement toward goals with broad bipartisan support: to fund new infrastructure projects, or for basic gun-control measures like background checks or limits on bump stocks. Divided party control of Capitol Hill will make other advances even less likely. For the near future, the boldest policy proposals are likely to be rollbacks: Democrats angling to revert to a pre-Trump tax code, Republicans to repeal Obama’s health-care law.

Now add this:

We have discovered that too many of our good-governance guardrails, from avoidance of nepotism to transparency around candidates’ finances, have been affixed by adhesion to norms rather than force of law. The breadth and depth of the dysfunction has even Establishmentarian figures ready to concede that our current system of governance is fatally broken. Some have entertained radical process reforms that would have once been unthinkable. Prominent legal academics on both the left and the right have endorsed proposals to expand the Supreme Court or abolish lifetime tenure for its members, the latter of which has been embraced by Justice Stephen Breyer. Republican senators including Cruz and Mike Lee have pushed to end direct election of senators, which they say strengthens the federal government at the expense of states’ interests.

And add this too:

Policy wonks across the spectrum are starting to rethink the federal compact altogether, allowing local governments to capture previously unforeseen responsibilities. Yuval Levin, a policy adviser close to both Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio, wrote in 2016 that “the absence of easy answers is precisely a reason to empower a multiplicity of problem-solvers throughout our society, rather than hoping that one problem-solver in Washington gets it right.” In a recent book, The New Localism, center-left urbanists Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak exalt such local policy innovation specifically as a counterweight to the populism that now dominates national politics across the Americas and Europe.

Even if they don’t use the term, states’ rights has become a cause for those on the left hoping to do more than the federal government will. Both Jacobin and The Nation have praised what the latter calls “Progressive Federalism.” San Francisco city attorney Dennis Herrera has called it “the New, New Federalism,” a callback to Ronald Reagan’s first-term promise to reduce Washington’s influence over local government. “All of us need to be reminded that the federal government did not create the states; the states created the federal government,” Reagan said in his 1981 inaugural address.

At the time, Democrats interpreted New Federalism as high-minded cover for a strategy of dismantling New Deal and Great Society programs. Now they see it as their last best hope for a just society.

And this is not just theory:

Some states have attempted to enforce their own citizenship policies, with a dozen permitting undocumented immigrants to acquire driver’s licenses and nearly twice as many to allow them to qualify for in-state tuition. Seven states, along with a slew of municipal governments, have adopted “sanctuary” policies of official noncooperation with federal immigration enforcement. Many governors, including Republicans in Massachusetts and Maryland, have refused to deploy National Guard troops to support Trump’s border policies, and California has sued the federal government to block construction of a wall along the Mexican frontier. After the Trump administration stopped defending an Obama-era Labor Department rule to expand the share of workers entitled to overtime pay, Washington State announced it would enforce its own version of the rule and advised its peers to do the same. “It is now up to states to fortify workers through strong overtime protections,” Washington governor Jay Inslee wrote last week.

But wait, there’s more:

In California, officials who regularly boast of overseeing the world’s fifth-largest economy have begun to talk of advancing their own foreign policy. After Trump withdrew from the Paris climate agreement, Governor Jerry Brown – he has said “we are a separate nation in our own minds” – crossed the Pacific to negotiate a bilateral carbon-emissions pact with Chinese president Xi Jinping. “It’s true I didn’t come to Washington, I came to Beijing,” said Brown, who is often received like a head of state when he travels abroad. Around the same time, Brown promised a gathering of climate scientists that the federal government couldn’t entirely kill off their access to research data. “If Trump turns off the satellites,” he said, “California will launch its own damn satellite.”

And that leads to this:

Brown’s successor Newsom comes to office just as Californians may be forced to reckon with how much farther they are willing to take this ethic of self-reliance. Since 2015, a group of California activists have been circulating petitions to give citizens a direct vote on whether they want to turn California into “a free, sovereign and independent country,” which could trigger a binding 2021 referendum on the question already being called “Calexit.”

During the Obama years, it was conservatives who’d previously talked of states’ rights who began toying with the idea of starting their own countries. “We’ve got a great union. There is absolutely no reason to dissolve it,” Rick Perry said at a tea-party rally in 2009, before adding: “But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what may come out of that?” Perry’s lieutenant governor, David Dewhurst, met with members of the Texas Nationalist Movement on the opening day of a legislative session. Right after this year’s midterms, the would-be leaders of the breakaway republics of Texas and California met at a secessionist conference in Dallas.

In 2012, the White House website received secession petitions from all 50 states; Texas’s was the most popular, with more than 125,000 signatures. (A counter petition demanded that any citizen who signed one of the secession petitions be deported.) Two years later, Reuters found that nearly one-quarter of Americans said they supported the idea of their states breaking away, a position most popular among Republicans and rural westerners.

There is something in the air:

After John Kerry’s loss in the 2004 election, a homemade digital graphic migrated across the pre-social internet. On it, the states that had cast their electoral votes for Kerry were labeled “the United States of Canada”; George W. Bush’s became “Jesusland.” After Trump’s victory, those memes graduated into op-eds, including from others who would have to acquiesce in the fantasy. “Is it time for Canada to annex Blue America?” a columnist in the Canadian news magazine Maclean’s asked last year.

That’s the lay of the land, and then Issenberg spins out his alternative history of the Blue Federation and the Red Federation – their precise geography and the details of their economies, and their demographics, and their cultures – with just who from “now” is a player “then” and why and how. It’s detailed. It’s inventive. It’s fascinating – and then Issenberg explains why this will never happen. Our system of government cannot allow this alternative. There may be no alternatives.

The midterm elections may have proved that. Ron Brownstein says that this is now the lay of the land:

So much for the old rule that all politics is local – the results of last week’s election demonstrated how powerfully national trends now shape election outcomes in every region. The election produced remarkably consistent divides along demographic and geographic lines in states as diverse as Arizona, Georgia and Texas on one side, and Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania on the other. Though some important regional differences remain, voters who shared the same characteristics or resided in similar places largely voted the same way no matter what state they lived in.

In virtually every state, Democrats last Tuesday displayed a clear advantage in densely populated, culturally and racially diverse white-collar metropolitan areas, while Republicans relied on elevated margins in the preponderantly white, religiously traditional, smaller places beyond them. In almost all cases, the outcome in each state was determined less by how much they varied from that persistent pattern than by how much of each group was present in the state’s electorate to begin with.

The continued nationalization of American politics threatens greater polarization and social tension as the lines harden between these two distinct political coalitions.

Issenberg was wrong. This has nothing to do with geography:

The results offered a vivid portrait of the price Republicans are paying among younger voters as Trump redefines the party in his confrontational image.

The exit poll measuring preferences in House elections found that Democrats carried fully two thirds of voters aged 18-29. That was their best showing with them in exit polls since at least 1986 (narrowly exceeding their level even in former President Barack Obama’s sweeping 2008 victory) and a big improvement on Hillary Clinton’s 55% among them in 2016. And preliminary calculations indicate that youth turnout may have been half again as large in 2018 as it was in 2014, the most recent midterm.

Even more striking was the consistency of the Democratic advantage around the nation. The Democratic candidate won voters aged 18-29 in all 21 Senate races with an exit poll except for Indiana, where Joe Donnelly tied Republican Mike Braun.

But it’s worse than that for Republicans:

Republicans in turn consistently performed better with older voters – though with a surprising crack in their armor. In the national House exit poll, voters aged 45-64 split almost exactly evenly between the two parties. But Republicans won them, often convincingly, in most of the closely contested Senate races, including Florida, Indiana, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia. That group of older workers, often described as the “anxious generation” facing the final years before retirement, has emerged as a key Republican constituency.

The results among seniors, though, were competitive.

So that key Republican constituency is shaky, and there’s this:

Republicans suffered very few dents in their dominance of small town and rural House seats last week. Democrats won only three districts whose rural population ranks in the top 20% of the House, while losing two of their own in those ranks, according to tabulations by CNN producer Aaron Kessler.

But the palpable recoil from Trump among white-collar voters in all regions explains why the GOP losses in suburban House seats extended so widely. It was perhaps not a surprise that Democrats ousted many of the last House Republicans who had survived for years in suburbs of otherwise blue-trending metro areas, such as Philadelphia, Chicago, Miami, Denver, Los Angeles and Seattle. The breadth of the movement toward Democrats among well-educated white voters explains why the GOP also lost suburban House seats last week in Atlanta, Charleston, Houston, Dallas, Kansas City, Des Moines, Oklahoma City, Orange County (CA), and possibly Salt Lake City, all places that had earlier resisted the white collar Democratic tide. Of the 33 Republican-held seats that CNN has called for the Democrats, 26 (or nearly four-fifths) are in districts where the share of college graduates exceeds the national average.

There’s much more, but Martin Longman sums things up in simple terms:

Traditional GOP constituencies are moving against the party with what can only be described as revulsion and indignation. Chief among these are white professionals, particularly women, and particularly in the suburbs… As younger voters get older and settled in their communities, they will vote in greater percentages, while the base of the GOP is already geriatric. It’s true that today’s kids will likely get more conservative and tax-averse as they reach their peak-earning years, but the GOP is starting off at a very low point with this generational cohort. That they’re already losing people in their peak-earning years is a bad sign for the future.

This is a death-spiral:

An obvious reason why the Republicans are doing so poorly with people under retirement age is that their message is basically a rebellion against the growing diversity of America. That movement isn’t going to slow down and will in fact accelerate regardless of whether or not Trump succeeds in building a southern border wall.

If the Republican Party doesn’t start to adapt, they will suffer increasingly big political losses over time…

The other major indicator in the midterms was educational attainment. Pretty much any area with above-average education levels was a killing zone for the GOP. With some exceptions in the Senate races, like West Virginia, Montana, and Nevada, any places with below-average education levels were unfriendly to the Democrats.

And then things will get worse:

Just as conservatives now see diversity as a political threat, they are beginning to see a college education as a political threat. It’s not just that college students are increasingly hostile to conservative opinions. The Republicans aren’t going to remain committed to higher education if they think it is costing them elections.

When their ideas are seen as disreputable and immoral by academia, it’s easier for them to reject expert opinions and the entire scientific method, leading them into an unfit condition to exercise leadership. They’ve already traveled pretty far down this road, but it’s likely to get far worse in the near future.

Longman thinks they have trapped themselves:

Increasingly, the GOP doesn’t want to live in reality. They don’t want the country as it is, and they don’t want the evidence that scientists and experts provide. They’ve created a right-wing media-saturated bubble to protect them from outside facts, but this seems more like a holding action than any kind of permanent solution… The GOP in January will be representing a less diverse, less educated, and less affluent slice of America than they are today, making it unlikely that they’ll hear the right messages from their constituents.

And then their party dies.

Of course, that’s a projection, alternative history – but sometimes there is no alternative. And all names, characters, and incidents portrayed here are not fictitious at all. Identification with actual persons (living or deceased) should be inferred. Things might have been different. Things weren’t different.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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