The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion States are a relic of the past. It’s time to get rid of them.

(Michael Quirk/iStock)

Each week, In Theory takes on a big idea in the news and explores it from a range of perspectives. This week we’re talking about American identity. Need a primer? Catch up here.

Lawrence R. Samuel is a Miami-based author whose books include “The American Dream: A Cultural History” and “The American Middle Class: A Cultural History.”

While Donald Trump resoundingly won the electoral college — the state-based “point system” we’ve used in presidential elections for more than two centuries — Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by about 780,000 as of a week out of the election. In other words, more Americans wanted Clinton to win, reason enough to revisit the wisdom of using the electoral college to determine elections. But a larger, more important argument is often overlooked in this ongoing debate.

The United States of America: We use the phrase all the time but rarely think of what the words actually mean. In 1776, when this country officially became the United States of America, the words signified a bold idea. Geographic neighbors had formed alliances previously in history to form nations, of course, but these united states shared a vision and philosophy that was literally revolutionary.

Do Americans still have a shared identity?

The coming together of 13 disparate colonies was itself a historic achievement; never before, perhaps, had a collection of diverse, often contrarian regions merged to create a country whose leaders so vigorously rejected the political and religious doctrines of the times. (The people were not as enthusiastic.) We tend to forget how difficult a process the uniting of the original states was, as the cultural boundaries of the 13 regions persisted after the Founding Fathers joined forces to form a federated republic.

But times have changed, and we need to rethink the notion of the “United States of America.” Our states are no longer culturally diverse regions with their own respective identities; rather, they are artificially constructed geographic entities that certainly would not be formed today. Borderlines between states are especially nonsensical. Pensacola, Fla., is a lot more like Mobile, Ala., than Miami. Upstate New Yorkers are less than happy about being in the same tax pool as Manhattanites.

In fact, despite all the attention to divisions within the country based on geography (or race, gender, class or any other demographic measure, for that matter), Americans share a remarkably similar way of thinking and acting. (The so-called red-vs.-blue-state divide is a crude, media-driven concept that looks great on maps but has little basis in reality.) Regional differences have drastically dissipated over the course of the past 240 years, turning the once radical proposition of the “United States” into an anachronism that now has little or no real value.

More than anything, it was the barrage of mass media and mass marketing through the 20th century that crushed regionality in this country (and much of the world), flattening out attitudinal and behavioral dissimilarities. Suburbanization — as well as the kudzu-like spread of strip malls, chain stores and franchises — transformed much of the country’s physical landscape into something that makes it difficult to know where one is.

The automobile and the jet allowed us to conquer space, and the Internet has virtually obliterated the lines of geography. We now shop at the same kind of stores (or websites), watch the same kind of television shows and work at the same kind of jobs. More important, we share the same basic principles and core values grounded in the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — despite trivialities like New Englanders’ charming (or annoying) pronunciation of the word “park” or Southerners’ inclination to eat grits for breakfast.

Why does any of this matter? Quite a bit, as the problem with states goes far beyond their illogic and irrelevance. State governments are expensive to run and taxpayers are forced to foot most of the bill. We can’t afford them anymore — and we don’t need them.

A federation of states was a wonderful idea in the late 18th century, but represents an unnecessary and costly burden in the early 21st. Two layers of government — federal and local — offers a cleaner, more sensible and much more affordable system than our current one, a notion not unlike cutting out the middle layer of an overly bureaucratic, inefficient company. Eliminating this middle layer would save the American people billions of dollars a year, the kind of money that could go a long way toward paying down our national debt or preparing for our looming crises in Social Security and health care.

Would abandoning the “United States of America” for something different present challenges? Absolutely. The dismantling of anything more than two centuries old would naturally require considerable effort, a step almost as radical as the uniting of colonies to form states. Not just the political system, but the legal system would have to be overhauled. (Probably a good thing in itself given the vast inconsistencies in laws across state lines.) It might well take time to get used to things such as national driver’s licenses and license plates, though some kind of tracking system is likely to arrive soon for other reasons related to homeland security.

State affinities will likely never completely disappear, and there is no reason that the University of Florida or the New York Jets could not keep their names (even if the latter plays their games in New Jersey). But it’s time we start thinking of ourselves as one people — Americans — who live in real, local communities rather than as 50 kinds of people living in imaginary regions.

Read more:

Dale M. Coulter: America’s working class has its own culture. And they will fight to keep it.

Shadi Hamid: There’s no good or bad America

Watch: Scott Clement on what the polls missed (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)