Is the United States of America a nation-state?

In the course of a GD thread, “Do we really need fifty states?” (, The_Broken_Column made the following assertion:

To which I responded:

This fundamental difference of opinion about the nature and character of the U.S. seems important enough to me to merit its own thread. I know there are still a lot of Americans who, like The_Broken_Column, still adhere to the “Confederate theory of the Constitution” – that the U.S. is a mere association of sovereign countries, like the EU. And there are others who reject this theory but think of the U.S. as a kind of federation of “nationalities” – i.e., the racial categories the U.S. Census has used since the 1960s, or even smaller ethnic entities such as the Irish-American community, etc. And there are still others who still think, deep down, that Old Americans of pre-Revolutionary Anglo-Celtic descent are the only true Americans and the others are here only as guests. (And then, of course, there are the Indians, who might regard all non-Indians on this continent as mere squatters – but they are not powerful enough or numerous enough that anyone else has to care about what they think.)

I say the American people form a true nation, with many races but only one overarching national culture – to which even the reservation Indians have, by this point, been substantially assimilated. The U.S. is not a binational state like Canada; nor is it an arbitrary multinational entity like the Austro-Hungarian Empire or the Soviet Union; nor is it a multinational society where ethnic minorities will retain their separate national identity while living side-by-side with aliens generation after generation, like the Jews in prewar Poland. The American people are one people. Barring some major catastrophe on the scale of a total ecological collapse, or prolonged occupation by a foreign power bent on utterly destroying our national culture, there will still be a single American nation on this continent 500 years from now. Its government and a great many other things about it might be as unrecognizable to us as modern China would be to Confucius, but, like China, it will remain the same country through all the changes.

What do you think? Are the American people a true nation? And is the U.S.A. a true nation-state?

To get our terms straight, Political Science 101 defines a nation-state as something that: 1) has geographical boundaries, 2) has a fixed population, 3) governs itself, and 4) is recognized by other countries. The Master speaks. If someone argues that the U.S. is not a nation-state, they are smoking something.

If the argument is whether the US is a cohesive nation, despite important social problems, I’ll simply note that vast majority of folks stand up when the American flag – not the flag of California, Minnesota, or Georgia – is raised at baseball games. Can’t say that about the EU and its constituent states.

No, Ravenman. Political Science 101 defines a nation-state as something that: 1) has geographical boundaries, 2) has a fixed population, 3) governs itself, 4) is recognized by other countries, and 5) is the government of a single ethnocultural nation. That is why the Austro-Hungarian Empire was never a nation-state even though it met the other four criteria. Same with the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and, arguably, the Swiss Confederation. One could even make a case – not a very strong one, in my opinion – that the United Kingdom is not a true nation-state, because the Scots and the Welsh still regard themselves as separate nations (and let’s not even talk about Northern Ireland).

That is why the status of the U.S. as a nation-state is debatable – not because there is any doubt about the extent of our territory or the authority of our government, but because it is debatable whether a multiethnic society like ours constitutes a “nation” at all. I say it does, despite the ethnic divisions, for reasons given in the OP.

Well on the sense of single ethnoculture then you are wrong BrainGlutton, go to Southern California and it is Mexico, go to New York and it’s something else, the South, totally different.

When I was stating we are a “Union of States” I wasn’t making a political inference in whether or not we are a Nation State.

I was stating tha we were founded not as a single Nation, but as the combination of colonies which became State in a confederacy for a single idea, and then States unified by a Constitution and stronger Federal Government after that. The only thing the States really had in common was a similar history, but after that they differed in history as much as France and England does.

Our common history only begins after 1760s when the Colonies began to realize they were “The Colonies” far more than they were members of Britain.

From this common history the idea of us being The United States became more like “The United State”.

But still we are “the several States” and “These United States” when ever properly addressed, and for good reason.

Fragmented government in part relies upon the need of a Local, State, Federal Governments, without these there would be no political appeals should one government choose to dominate another.

Also…another disproof to your arguement.

There is no single government in America.

There are specifically 87,000 and some odd hundreds (I forget how many hundreds) of governments.

This is spread amongst Federal, State, Local, where local consists of county, city and school districts and such.

Anywhere that is capable of making its own policy without inteference by another governing body.

That is why we are a union.

No one Government in the US opperates as a “whole government”, the Government of Britain, that is Parliment, does all the functions of a Government and delegates down to more local governments.

We as Americans, give power to local governments, which give power to State governments which give power to the Federal Government.

The Federal Government does not handle ALL business, and by the Constitution, it can not handle all business.

If it could, what’s going on in San Francisco right now would be severly punished by the anti-Gay George Bush.

The same with State Governments, they do not perform all functions of a Government, though I would say the should and do perform more functions than the Federal Government.

Does this mean that as a Union we are all joined by agreement?


Obviously we are held together by Force applied when necessary, as shown in the Civil War.

But a Union we still are, because each part has a job to do and without that part the job would not get done, at least as we opperate right now. The job would have to be taken up by another Government.

Just a thought. Could you maybe








sentence, please?

Well, I agree with you, that the United States is a nation. However, I disagree that we are a “a single ethnocultural nation”. We certainly have unique characteristics, but I’m not sure they qualify as an ethnicity or culture.

Meanwhile, The_Broken_Column, you are wrong as well. Southern California is not Mexico. Even though it may be mexican. Having said that, you do have a point about the history of the colonies.

It seems to me that if we have any sort of culture or ethnicity it is more of a melting pot than anything else. The pot does not melt different ethnic groups together homogeneously. But our model of local governements retaining a certain soveriegnty does allow us to accept more diverse populations than other countries historically.

My personal opinion is that the EU is headed in a similar direction. Give them a couple hundred years, and you may just see more people stand for the EU flag than for the flag of any member state.

I don’t see why this proves we are not a nation state, which you seem to have erroneously equated with an all-powerful central government. Just because the constitution preserves the rights of the several states doesn’t mean that we are not ultimately one nation.

My hope for the future of the world rests on the possibility of the “United states of Earth”

Whenever an issue such as whether a decent enough American based coalition is formed that can challenge the legitimacy of a UN position I privately consider that the American government already consists of 50 states. Hence the reference to a 39 state coalition concerning Iraq, is really an 88 state coalition.

Anyone who considers that the culture of Ames ,Iowa is consistant with the culture of Hollywood , California is an alien.

To say that the USA is not a nation because it has more than one government is a fallacy. Every single office, either directly or indirectly, reports to one clear defined group of people in the end: the American citizenry. If you are a citizen under definition of the law then you have the authority to help appoint the people who appoint everyone else… and the authority to help appoint some people who don’t appoint anybody (county coroner, anybody?). So while in the classic concept of government Broken_Column’s argument might hold water, we still remain a centralized government in a more abstract sense.

We are not one nation, I’m not sure where this misconception comes from. If the States abuse your rights, you’d appeal to the Federal Courts. If the Federal Government abused your rights, either you’d “March on Washington DC” like in the '60s…or you’d March on Washington DC like the even earlier '60s.

I didn’t literally mean South California was Mexico but it certainly is far more Mexican than Nevada or Colorado or Maine.

Back to Fear…fear…you think I erroneously equated powerful central government with Nation State.

I did not.

What I equated it with is power-flow structure. America is the only nation on earth where all power derives from the People, then flows to the local-state-national governments independently.

In England for example, the people give their power to the National Government which then filters it down to the local and any regional governments.

This is the difference of why the United States is not a Nation State. Because the United States is not a nation at all, it is a Union of Nations that are limited in autonomy by the people investing ANOTHER Government with certain powers. But that Government is limited in its own autonomy by the State and Local Governments.

You don’t find this with any other nation on earth.

I guess it’s just hard to write about it when I am trying to give you a “picture” of how it is. With all other nations on earth, the central government delegates power to authorities to handle business, or it doesn’t delegate power at all.

Well, easily put, America consists of States that are “united” by the US Constitution. Without this Constitution there is no United States.

The Constitution is an agreement that the States made, they all ratified it, every one nation ratified the Constitution eventually. Not all the amendments necessarily but to have a Constitution bound them into a Union…certainly.

For me it’s hard to see how we are one nation, when it is so obvious that should the Constitution become invalid by the Federal Government breeching its powers, the States are no longer obligated to serve in this Union.

You could strike the colors, stop paying the taxes, print your own money and start foriegn commerce.

And while the Federal Government could force you to submitt by war, it would never be legitimate ever again.

Other nations do not have the uniqueness of States that we do…other nations were not formed by an agreement between autonomous nations called “States” for better protection and safe governance to ensure that their rights were upheld permanently.

Remember, even during the Civil War, it was mostly State Armies that served in combat, (militias), not the Federal Government. It wouldn’t be until WW1 that the Federal Government formulated a real standing Army. And it wouldn’t be until WW2 that it would establish a permanent standing Army. But even today that is receeding…

If there is one thing I like about Bush, it is the fact that a large portion of troops in Iraq are State militias, not Federal soldiers. The impact on Federalism that has is wholly beneficial. Just like the good ol’ days when the States were more powerful than the Feds…not wholly there yet, but we’re at least moving towards that direction.

Europe might become a single state, prvert, but it will never become a single nation. Two hundred years from now, the culture of Sweden will still be recognizably very different from the culture of Italy – in a way that the culture of Massachusetts is not different from the culture of South Carolina or California.

As for the definition of the American people as a nation, Michael Lind (yes, him again!) puts it better than I can, in the introduction to his book The Next American Nation (New York: The Free Press, 1995). The main theme of the book is to propound Lind’s political position of “liberal nationalism”. First he discusses the views of the “multiculturalists” who regard America as a federation of races or ethnicities – rather similar to what you’ve said, pervert; and the “democratic universalists” who regard America as a non-national “idea state” – like the Soviet Union, but based on liberal democracy rather than Marxism-Leninism. (In the view of these democratic universalists, an America where nobody spoke English or knew anything of American history would still be “America” if it still had our political, legal and civic traditions.) He then goes on to attack both points of view:

(whew) Okay, so that’s what I’m proposing for debate: Is the “liberal nationalist” definition of American national identity, as described above, right or wrong?

Now, to put this in perspective, I should add that, whle I agree perfectly with Lind’s approach to defining nationality, unlike him I am not a nationalist in any political sense. I am an internationalist. I am glad and grateful to live in this nation-state, and to be a full legal and cultural member of it; but I would much rather live in a global republic, with open borders everywhere, in which the concept of “nationality” would have an irreducible political importance, but no legal significance whatsoever. (I am even uncomfortable with the current practice of recognizing the surviving Indian nations within our borders as having some “national” or “sovereign” legal status. I would not take their reservations away from them, nor deprive them of tribal self-government, but I see no good reason why those reservations should have extraterritorial rights that allow them to operate casinos in defiance of state law.)

The basic proposition of “nationalism,” as it emerged in the 19th Century, is this: Every ethnocultural nation should be governed by a single, independent state. This idea struck at the roots of the multinational dynastic empires that ruled some parts of Europe, and the fragmented subnational states that ruled in Italy and Germany. Of course, to apply the idea consistently one had to decide how a “nation” was to be defined – were the Sicilians a kind of Italians, or a completely different nationality? And in the event, most of the new nation-states grabbed all the territory they could regardless of ethnic considerations.

Nationalism was a good idea for some purposes, and it still is. I would be very pleased, for instance, to see the Kurds get a chance to secede from Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria, and form their own independent state of Kurdistan. Things would just go much, much better for the Kurds that way, with their status as a “stateless nation” no longer complicating their relationships with their non-Kurdish neighbors. But it would be better still if that Kurdistan were not completely independent, but part of an international federation where all states or provinces or whatever, regardless of whether they were drawn up according to national-cultural boundaries, would have equal status and an equal degree of internal autonomy – just like the 50 American states have now. (Unless you consider the ridiculously disproportionate power of underpopulated states in the Senate and the Electoral College, but that’s another discussion.)

Priam the error in your argument is thus.

There are still many people alive today, who think like those who were alive at the founding of our Nation.

I know for the most part that most Nevadans consider themselves, Nevadans first, Americans second.

Your idea that the “American Citizenry” is what unites us is fallacious for that reason, just because the majority of Americans today are so thick headed as to disregard their State Citizenship and only pay attention to their National Citizenship, does not mean everyone is.

I think Robert E. Lee really drove the concept home.

When he was asked by Lincoln to serve in the US Army, he told him, “I can not take up arms against my country.” And he joined the Army of Virginia.

I do understand Priam that my ways of thinking are fastly losing popularity, or understanding.

But that is why this nation is dying, the more we think of ourselves as Americans first, the less power the States will have, and the more power the Federal Government has the more our rights will be threatened.

Imagine if Congress was the only authority…all their laws determine all our fates. That’s a sad picture for small distant states unable to to get a real voice in the legislature.

Well anyways, Priam, my argument isn’t that as a people we more now define ourselves as “one” nation.

But that as a concept and still as a practice, we are not one nation, we are still a Union.

Will that last? Maybe…maybe not, but we are certainly at a time that would be deemed by future generations “the end of the concept of union” if it doesn’t last. Because with LBJ and Clinton and all, the idea of Statehood is so vauge in some places it probably doesn’t even exist. Such as a large metropolitan area like the Megalopolis from New York to Delaware. Just a thought…

Yes, we are a nation. The Federalists won, the Jeffersonians lost, and it happened long before the Civil War. Each state is a sovereign in itself, and local governments derive their authority from state governements (not the other way around, by the way). Nevertheless, we all share one Constitution, and federal law passed pursuant to that authority trumps any law to the contrary passed by any of the several states. Independant federal courts and policing agencies exist to insure the supremacy of federal law. No state can enter into a treaty, and no state can issue coinage. These are within the sole province of the federal government. Certain legislation and action affecting interstate commerce may not be taken by the several states, again being the sole province of the federal government. Both state and federal governments are dual sovereigns and each has areas of jurisdiction that the other has no legitimate say in, but if you’re traveling abroad don’t try to spend your state’s currency or look for your state’s embassy.

Brain Glutton I’d have to argue with you, the culture of the South is far different than the North. The culture between Nevada (my home state) and California is so vastly different that I no longer consider Coastal Californians Americans and wish they’d all die or seceed or some crud. And I’m sure they’d think the same of Nevada lol…if they aren’t completely apathetic.

I think the problem there is our national medias give us an “impression” of more unity than we really have. We will fight the same wars, we will stand by certain principles but other than that not even our language is quite the same. In certain parts of Boston Queens English is still spoken. In Southern California Spanish is a virtual second language. Many cities have large groups of forieng language speakers, whose only knowledge of what it is to be an American is that they can do what they want, wave the flag, and get whatever job they want or even open a business. But they hardly at least in their first years here, grasp the differences between one State or the other.

I want to hear more information about the Soviet Union being classified as an “Idea-State”. That’s I think a misnomer, yes it had an ideal, but its central government dominated the nation and enacted its own policies as it saw fit.

Well as for the rest of what you say I’ll post that later as I’ve looked at it more, I just want to point out that regardless of how strong it is, the original idea of this nation as a Republic, and a Union of several States still survives in people. (Yes I know I use the term “nation” but it’s just easier to refer to it by its common name, even if it is a misnomer.)

What are you talking about Pravnik? The revolution of 1800 toss all the Federalists on their butts…the only one to survive was a Judge in the Supreme Court whom they tried to impeach later in the early 1800s because they didn’t like his Federalist agenda and the ruling was that they couldn’t impeach him based on such criteria alone.

Only when the law is within the Federal Government’s enumerated powers. Which is why I’m avidly against the 14th Amendment, because that has blurred the line to dangerous extent.

And your last line pravnik is just bunk…we’re not discussing HOW this Union opperates, but the idea that it is a Union not a Nation.

That is, next time you read the Constitution, find me where it says that no State can seceed from this contract.

No, actually, it doesn’t work that way. The states, as political entities, are protected by the Constitution; but all local governments are creatures of their state government, which has the power to reorganize them, redraw their boundaries, or even abolish local self-government entirely and rule everything from the state capital – as Huey Long did in Louisiana for a brief period. Not a nice thing, perhaps, but nothing unconstitutional or illegal about it. In constitutional terms, each state is internally a single unit, just like France or the United Kingdom.

Furthermore, the state governments do not “give power” to the federal government (which would imply a right to take it back). That theory of the Constitution was rejected in the seminal test case of Grant vs. Lee, opinion rendered at Appomatox Courthouse, Virginia, April 9, 1865. And there was never any good theoretical grounding for it in the first place. The Constitution begins with “We the People,” not “We the States.” The whole people are ultimately sovereign.

No I realize I mis-represented that part, no need for chastisement, but else where I gave a proper system map. The problem was I was confusing legitimacy flow which flows to each seperate entity directly. Which isn’t the same as the actual flow of authority.

That is what I agree with fully, which is why I stand by that we are a Union and so the United States as a whole can’t be called a Nation State…technically. The difference compared to city states or empires, is minimal.

I don’t however agree with this, if someone wanted to seceed today and they were to succeed, you would see a “reversal” of the ruling. Which means, unlike the Constitution itself, it is not set in stone.

The only reason that ruling stands is no one currently wants to challenge it, but if George Bush said, “There are not going to be any elections this November, and I’ve just raised the salary of anyone in the military who is loyal to me to 200,000 dollars a year.” You’d see how fast that ruling would probably be reversed.

In that extreme case though, the majority of the states are abused so they’d probably maintain the union and just over throw the abuser.

But if in the case of the South, where it was a minority of the States being infringed upon, you can’t just destroy the rest of the nation in a war, so they seceeded from what they felt was a voided contract.

And it is a contract.

It does begin “We the people” but it was ratified by States, not the people.

??? What century are you living in? Modern America is so mobile that most people will not even die in the same state where they were born. I think most Nevadans today are people who have moved there in the last 50 years, or the children of such immigrants. It is certainly that way here in Florida. I have never met anyone here who would think of himself or herself as a Floridian first, an American second.

??? What on earth makes you think Congress is a worse threat to your individual rights and liberties than your state legislature? Our history shows just the opposite. The most oppressive laws in American history – Jim Crow, just to start with – have been state laws. We can see a contrary trend in the Patriot Act, but I’m confident it won’t last.

And what makes you think this nation is dying? As individuals, we are as free as we ever have been. As a country, we are stronger and richer than ever before in our history. What’s wrong with any of that?

Would you really repeal the 14th Amendment? Consider this: Before the 14th amendment, the Supreme Court held that the Bill of Rights restricted only the federal government, not the states. If a state’s own constitution had allowed for it, it could have quite legally suspended the right of trial by jury, gagged all dissenting press organs, or established an official church. (In some American states, in the early decades after independence, there still was an official church.) The 14th Amendment changed all that; the courts interpreted it as meaning that the Bill of Rights restricts the state governments, too. (Not the whole Bill of Rights, actually – its restrictions have been applied to the states piecemeal, one case at a time. No post-Civil-War court has ever ruled that a state government can’t quarter troops in your house – because the situation has never come up. But that’s a minor detail.)

I suppose Justice Samuel Chase was the only federal judge on the bench to to survive, if one mysteriously completely ignores Justice William Patterson, Justice William Cushing, Justice Bushrod Washington, and especially Chief Justice John Marshall, who at 34 years sereved longer than any Chief Justice in history and who pretty much single-handedly shaped the American system of constitutional law (not to mention the federalist judges who sat in lifetime appointments to lower courts). The decisions that Marshall made concerning the federal system and the primacy of federal law over state law went by and large unchallenged by the future justices of any party, Democrat, Republican, or otherwise.

Ignoring the 14th Amendment thing for a moment…well, yes, to be constitutional a law must be passed pursuant to an enumerated power. What’s your point?

Son we’re discussing the idea that we live in a Union and not a Nation, but we’re doing so without any discussion of how our federal system actually operates?

First, you show me where it says that any state can do so unilaterally, without the acquiescence of Congress. Case law will do.

Eh…Northern Nevada would be more proper to say, a lot of Nevadans from LV are moving north because LV is getting what…10,000 new people a month? Something large in its growth rate. But BrainGlutton your experiences doesn’t disprove what I’m telling you, everyone I’ve ever met that isn’t from California, is in their mind a Nevadan first, and from my friends who’ve been to the Deep South I hear the sentiment isn’t so far off. That isn’t to say “The US? Screw the US”…no it just means were a far more anti-federalist bunch.

It is far more possible for me and a group of friends to raid the local State Assembly than it is to raid Washington DC. This is barring the much easier legal methods too…it is incredibly difficult to get cases up to the Federal Supreme Court.

This has been because each State maintains a military of its own, the Federal Government (one target) is not about to piss people off at leisure. However, the State Governments, which are more responsive to the people, are more apt to abuse the minorities. I think the Feds can play an important part in ensuring minority rights are not threatened within a State, but I believe the Founding Fathers knew what they were talking about when they said that the Federal Government will not abuse your rights because of the State Governments.

And why do I think this nation is dying? Rome…

Roman history BrainGlutton shows us that it doesn’t matter how rich or “free” you are, but if the integrity of your Nation’s “being” is maintained, and ours is not. Too many people can’t name their own State’s Senators let alone Governors or district’s legislators. The idea of the Constitution has become a thing that should be interpreted by the people, which is a concept of direct democracy, something the founding fathers abhorred.

We have gradually been shifting from a Republic to a Democracy and when that transition is done, it is the end of this nation, just as with Athens Greece, or Rome and its collapse to Mob Rule and also, Popularity Rulers (the most popular was given all powers instead of just those assigned to him alone).

Yes, I believe we have overcome the prejudices in this nation long ago.

We don’t need the Feds any longer to tell the States to not abuse the minorities, the people are capable of doing this themselves.

The important difference?

When the People do it, it is usually a majority such as the Civil Right’s movement which involved HUGE numbers of people.

When the Government does it? A few people, maybe a few dozen at most, bring a case to the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court (another few people), makes a ruling that affects everyone.

What’s the difference between the two you ask?

Minority rule. There is a difference from protecting minority rights and from having the minority force legislation or laws upon the majority by abuse of the System. Even if it is a constitutional abuse. What happens when the Supreme Court decides that public display of religion anywhere is Unconstitutional due to the supposed “Separation of Church and State”?

Without the 14th Amendment that would never be a problem. With it it is a large concern that any radical Justices if given a case by even one person…could affect.

Not exactly, the first couple yes but the people of a State, are more responsive to the State since it’s such a closer locality and thus probably wouldn’t allow it. The primary concern would be abuse of the minority but we live in a time where we are “enlightened” enough that we don’t need Judges to determine that. People express it themselves.

But the establishing a religion, I forget when the case was but Massachusetts tried that way back before the 14th Amendment and was shot down by the Federal Government, so obviously in certain aspects the Feds are able to moderate a State’s potential for extremism.

Oh but in a State, rememer you’re directly electing your officials. So if they tried to abuse your rights you could just vote them out directly. The Federal Government, not so much now but especially used to be indirectly elected, the Senate and the President, and so you were not as responsive to them.

That’s the way it should be, as locally made laws affect local people better.

Yes I know…I might go so far as to say I still debate whether or not I agree partially with the 14th or detest it fully…but I’m sure I’m leaning far to the detest.

But I know what you mean, and I realize though that should a State attempt to do something now the Feds can intervene.

The problem is (expanded problem), interpretation.

What if the citizens of one State interpret the constitution differently than the rest of the nation? Should they be denied the right to live as they want because the rest of the nation believes in some crap?

For instance, Gay Marriages.

Because some stupid californians believe in Gay Marriages, Nevada must suffer? We don’t see the Constitution as supporting Gay Marriage at all, we don’t want Gays to Marry, but it’s quite possible if taken to the Federal Courts that the Supreme Court will rule that not allowing Gay Marriage is unconstitutional. Well considering that we as a people, do not see that, I fail to see how that is a just ruling. And we passed it in a 2 part referrendum needing a super majority so it’s not like there’s really much opposition.

Without the 14th Amendment, California or Massachussetts could go and have their Gay Marriages, and anyone in Nevada offended by our laws could go there.