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To preserve unity, Beaver State border could be shifted

: Is the Greater Idaho movement a solution to polarization or merely a middle finger to America? (

It’s redistricting season. State legislatures, as stipulated by Article One of the U.S. Constitution, are drawing the district lines that will determine election to their bodies, Congress and the Electoral College for the next decade. That’s regularly scheduled programming, though. The more interesting news comes out of Oregon, whose eastern counties are agitating to join adjacent Idaho.

The “Greater Idaho” movement relies on a clause in Article Four of The Constitution that allows states’ lines to be redrawn with the assent of the affected states as well as Congress. Because the State of Oregon, under the control of Democrats, “refuses to protect citizens from,” among other things, “the homeless,” Oregon’s eastern counties want to join with adjacent Idaho, one of the most conservative states in the nation, as well as the conservative regions of Northern California.

We aren’t alone in wanting to tie borders to culture. From the famous two-state solution between Israel and Palestine, to lesser-known proposals such as a new state for the Karen people in Myanmar, people have wanted to change borders as long as borders have existed. The biggest difference between the many are whether they propose to shift state/provincial borders within a nation-state, as Greater Idaho does, or if they propose to create an entire new nation-state, a much thornier proposition that requires recognition by other nations.

Historical border changes are often justified on ethnic or cultural grounds. India was divided into Pakistan and what is now Bangladesh. Israel and Palestine were meant to house Jews and Arabs, respectively. There are dozens of ongoing secessionist movements and efforts to reshuffle provincial borders within nations, particularly federal ones such as India. Greater Idaho, despite its neutral language and focus on taxes and other financial reasons, isn’t much different. It argues that rural Oregonians (though its logic applies to rural Americans in general) are increasingly isolated from urban and suburban Oregonians culturally.

Granted, the movement isn’t above stereotyping of city dwellers, who often diverge racially as well as culturally from rural Americans. One page alone of “Greater Idaho’s” manifesto argues that “the philosophy of the Left has unmoored itself from Biblical morality” and “Druggies will be attracted to Oregon by the new drug law.” Sponsored by “normal rural Americans,” this movement clearly appeals to more than culture. It’s difficult to take them seriously, but they have a point.

The Democratic majority in the Oregon legislature has just one rural representative. Maybe we would be better off if we drew states lines like we do gerrymandered Congressional districts, except bigger. The difference being that states are themselves governments, whereas Congressmen are not the mayors of their district (though that’s an interesting idea…).

It’s possible we could forestall future unrest if we retreat to homogenous states and leave dealing with the other side to just the federal government. When political belief is so divided and is tied so tightly to geography, it makes sense to think geography should be manipulated to ameliorate that division. One problem, though, this kind of jurisdiction gerrymandering has never happened before — at least, not for this reason.

State borders have rarely been redrawn, and most of those instances were over territorial disputes instead of political planning. Gerrymandering states to decrease political division has not occurred before, and it’s not obvious that Idaho, Oregon and Congress would all agree to the change.

In addition, there’s a concerning history with trying to perfect state borders. The Missouri Compromise and other Civil War era agreements to admit one free state for every new slave state didn’t work as intended, and now that division (free versus slave) is moot. It doesn’t appear this way now, but there will probably be further ideological change, and maybe a few decades from now the political map will make revised state boundaries meaningless.

Looking outside the U.S., redrawing borders often dredges up more problems than it settles. The post-war carving up of the Middle East and Africa is now often blamed for the ethnic conflicts that destroy many nations in those areas. Those borders were drawn for the benefit of other nations; in our case, new American borders would be drawn for the benefit of the affected states.

There’s always been this idea that if we can draw the perfect state borders, we can preempt political division. People as far back as Plato dreamt of a state without division. On the other hand, the pushback to this notion stretches back nearly as far. James Madison echoed Aristotle when he argued that the best way to prevent a majority from dominating a minority — the best way to construct a state — is to “extend the sphere” and thereby decrease the chance of a majority forming at all.

Maybe we can have the best of both worlds. While maintaining Madison’s concept of the extended sphere in the federal government, where Democrats and Republicans stand roughly equal chance of winning power, we can fine-tune states so that there are simply less political minorities to be trampled by a majority within each state.

It’s obvious that geography often determines political leanings. In our case, downstate New York is significantly different than upstate New York, and it would make for a convenient split. Beyond that, we might want to pump the brakes; the furthest extension of this idea would create maybe a dozen superstates. In the Northeast, you could create three: the Philadelphia, New York and Boston metro areas, Rust Belt metro areas and the rural areas in between.

There’s no end to the manipulation, and that’s dangerous. There’s something to be said for working within the current system. Once we redraw Idaho’s line for ideological reasons, we open up a Pandora’s box we might not want open.

However, state borders are largely artificial in the first place, particularly out west. They aren’t quite arbitrary, as they often align with latitudes, longitudes or rivers, but they aren’t as rigid as borders of — for example — European Union member states. They could be drawn more efficiently.

Unlike in Europe, where national borders encompass different peoples with unique languages, American borders did not have such obvious dividing lines when first formed. The earliest boundaries were based on colonial claims and later hinged on slavery or a desire to make states equal by area. Those causes no longer exist. Now that we know where cultural differences lay, we can change borders to reflect them.

There would be many logistical issues with changing centuries-long borders, including moving capitals and other state institutions such as prisons and courthouses. These could be taken over by the new government, though, and it’d be a one-time cost for a hopefully long-term solution. Unfortunately, the U.S. has plenty of experience building entire new governments in foreign countries. We can handle it domestically. Perhaps it would even be invigorating.

We have lots of practice with gerrymandering, so maybe it could be put to productive use. If the pundits are right and we’re headed towards a “cold civil war,” this could be a peaceful, if cowardly, resolution. Unlike secessionist struggles in other nation-states, where the purpose is to form separate nations, the purpose of shifting American state borders would be to prevent further dissolution and unrest within the United States as a whole. Go for it, Greater Idaho, and let’s see what happens.

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