Bret Stephens, the New York Times’ faux WASP, faux conservative columnist, just got in a lot of trouble for suggesting that, in its response to Covid-19, America Shouldn’t Have to Play by New York Rules [April 24, 2020]. But he’s right. The U.S. is 33 times the size of Italy, the next worst-hit country, and One Size just doesn’t Fit All. Moreover, the pandemic is also providing yet another indication that many U.S. states are too big, too diverse yet too centralized—and that they need to split up.
I wrote recently about secession/subdivision movements in Illinois (which all by itself is almost half the size of Italy). Illinois is demographically dominated by Cook County, a majority-minority community that contains Chicago and voted for Hillary Clinton, while the rest of the state, which is whiter than the national average, favored Donald Trump. That means Chicago gets to impose its policy preferences on very different people and communities several hours and hundreds of miles away. This didn’t used to happen, but U.S. Supreme Court rulings like Reynolds v. Sims (1964) and Baker v. Carr (1962) destroyed internal federalism in American states by asserting a one man-one vote dogma and removing the check that less densely populated suburban and rural hinterlands exerted on their megalopolises through various constitutional arrangements, just as the U.S. Senate does at the federal level.
Michigan is a prime example of how coronavirus is exposing this disparity. Wayne County, which includes Detroit, has a coronavirus problem. As of April 22, there had been a 0.85 percent confirmed infection rate and 1396 deaths as a result [Infection2020.com, April 22, 2020]. Conversely, in the northern half of the state, including the upper Michigan peninsula, not one county had an infection rate exceeding 0.1 percent.
However, since Wayne County went overwhelmingly for Democrat Gretchen Whitmer in the 2018 gubernatorial election [Michigan Election Results 2018, Politico], people in the northern half of the state are now thrown out of work, cannot attend church or see family members, even though the disease is a minimal threat in their areas.
It also means they have a governor who extended their state’s stay-at-home order from May 4 to May 15—further bludgeoning their economy [Report: Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to Extend Michigan Lockdown Until May 15, by Kyle Olson, Breitbart, April 23, 2020].
The same goes for other large states dominated by megalopolises. New York City, an internationalist city, has a 1.8 percent infection rate and at least 16,400 coronavirus deaths—about a third of the U.S. total. As Bret Stephens pointed out, New York City has more fatalities than 41 states combined.
But anyone who has driven through upstate New York knows how rural it can be. There are many farms alongside Interstate 90. It is also overwhelmingly white.
As of April 25, 2020, counties like Franklin, Lewis, Fulton, Schoharie and Seneca have zero reported deaths. Coincidentally, as of 2019, Seneca County was 88.8 percent non-Hispanic white and 0.8 percent Asian [Seneca County, New York, United States Census Bureau].
Although New York is one of the bluest states in the country, removing New York City and Westchester county would result in it leaning Republican. Trump would have won it in 2016 with 2,193,747 votes to Hillary Clinton’s 2,118,623 [2016 New York Presidential Election Results, Politico].
Yet Governor Andrew Cuomo restricts the daily lives of people in upstate New York essentially because the state’s largest urban areas are, in Bret Stephen’s words, “urban sardine cans” where a cosmopolitan population travels using public transportation.
There have been many calls over the years to split New York into multiple states. In 2009, state senate Republicans Joseph Robach, Dale Volker, and Michael Ranzenhofer proposed a referendum to divide the state in two with upstate New York becoming a separate state from the Hudson Valley, New York City, and Long Island [Split New York State? Robach Wants to Know What Counties Think, by Jill Terreri, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, November 28, 2009].
Stephen Hawley, a Republican member of the state assembly proposed such a referendum again in 2013 and 2015. In 2015, 15 towns in New York's Southern Tier also proposed seceding into Pennsylvania [15 New York Towns, Desperate to Frack, Ponder Secession, by Zoe Schlanger, Newsweek, February 22, 2015].
California is similarly dominated by the megalopolises of San Francisco and Los Angeles. But California is even bigger than Italy and there are still areas where coronavirus is not a factor.
One initiative proposed six Californias:
‘Six Californias’ backers say it’s heading for the ballot, by Carla Marinucci, San Francisco Chronicle, July 14, 2014
In contrast, the situation in Georgia is the reverse of states like New York and Michigan.
Georgia Republican Gov. Brian Kemp declared that some businesses like salons, gyms, and bowling alleys could reopen on April 24, and restaurants could resume dine-in service on April 27 [Trump approved of Georgia’s plan to reopen before bashing it, by Jonathan Lemire and Ben Nadler, The Associated Press, April 24, 2020]. Leftist government officials in Atlanta do not like the move and see it as a threat to their community’s public health. They have the authority to keep those businesses closed. But rural and suburban counties in Georgia still have enough votes that their preferences prevail.
Other states with a hinterland-megalopolis conflict like New York when it comes to coronavirus issues include Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Nevada, Minnesota—and Washington State.
Unsurprisingly, a proposal in the Washington state legislature exists that would break the state in two [House Joint Memorial 4003]. It aims to create a state called Liberty using all counties east of Okanogan, Chelan, Kittitas, Yakima, and Klickitat, so that the border between the states would be the western boundaries of those counties:
The vitriol directed at Stephens may be because some New Yorkers are affronted by the idea that they are not America, or because many Democrats clearly want to keep the economy closed in the hope that it will flush out the Presidency of Donald J. Trump. Nevertheless, the logic behind the redrawing state boundaries grows inexorably stronger.
Hank Johnson [Email him] is a student of New England politics and popular culture.