No, the United States won’t break up because of the pandemic

A meme spreading in my corner of the Internet is that the United States could be on the cusp of breaking apart because governors have filled the leadership vacuum left by the muddled federal pandemic response and because Americans seem more polarized on political lines than ever. The idea is bolstered by news that states on either coast are forming groups to coordinate lifting quarantine restrictions, and anecdotes like Gavin Newsome smugly referring to California as a “nation-state.” Also cited is the very real scenario that the EU will fall apart.

I think this idea is wishcasting.

The EU is a completely different beast. First, unlike the United States, the EU has no fiscal union. That is at the heart of the euro’s structural problems, but it’s also the root of the fissures the pandemic is exposing. Germany is balking at the idea of issuing coronabonds to help bail out hard-hit countries like Italy and Spain, which is what’s making those countries ask themselves, what’s the point of union?

Compare that to the U.S., where the federal government borrowed $3 trillion to send to all Americans. Let’s put a finer point on it, though. As much as fair-weather “California nationalists” may like to flatter themselves about the state being the world’s fifth largest economy and the country’s engine of growth, it also happens to have a debt of over $1.5 trillion, making its debt-to-GDP comparable to peripheral eurozone countries like Italy. If (and when) California goes bankrupt, it knows the federal government will bail it out, so it’s not facing the same incentives as Italy or Spain.

Then there’s the blindingly obvious fact that EU countries have national identities, which makes a breakup easier; states don’t. To the contrary. It was just last week that Gov. Newsome was taking a victory lap for sharing 500 ventilators with fellow Americans in other states and territories. Contrast that with EU countries who have been restricting medical exports to each other. Californians and New Yorkers, for all their regional peculiarities, think of themselves as Americans. And while the EU has an explicit provision in its “constitution” for countries exiting, the United States fought a civil war to settle the question of whether exit was an option. While the Median EU citizen remembers a time before the Treaty of Rome, there are no Americans whose grandparents lived before the Union.

What we’re witnessing with the governors is actually pretty predictable, and it’s in fact our federalist Constitution working essentially as designed. Indeed, it’s not the first time we’ve seen the President being defied by governors of the opposite party. Some pre-2016 headlines from the New York Times:

Gavin Newsome’s ambition, I hazard to guess, is not to be president of the California Republic, but to be President of the United States. Ditto for Andrew Cuomo. What they’re doing now is exercising legitimate state authority within a federalist framework, which is healthy especially in the absence of competent federal leadership. And hey, it aligns with their constituents’ interests and their political ambitions to boot.

Not only will there be no break up of the Union, if this all leads to greater subsidiarity, it may indeed make the Union stronger.