Take time to consider true state of the union

The president didn’t talk very much about the state of the union last night. Few presidents ever do. Usually, as happened yesterday, the president uses the constitutionally mandated address to describe the condition of the economy, of the people and of his plans for the next year. When President Bill Clinton said “the state of the union is strong,” he meant that the people are prosperous, the nation is at peace and the budget is balanced. But he didn’t say much about the state of the union, the ties that bind our 50 self-governing states into a single nation.
“From many, one,” reads the national motto. But it’s worth discussing whether the United States has more pluribus or greater unum today. Hidden in the president’s remarks last night were some clues. Although American troops listened to last night’s speech from bases in more foreign countries than ever before, our union is at peace with all of its neighbors. We count as allies more nations than at any time in the past. Nuclear annihilation is no longer a half-hour away. The 50 united states lack any serious external threat to their security or common defense. Without such a threat, there is less urgent need for the ties between Minnesota and, say, Mississippi.
Furthermore, the president said, the federal government has removed itself from direct oversight of state welfare programs. Local governments are providing more services, federal authorities less. And federal taxes, as a portion of all taxes paid, declined again last year. All that might very well be good for Americans. Certainly, balancing the federal budget and living within its means are healthy for the country. But maintaining a balanced budget also precludes profligate social or defense spending. When Americans contribute less to and receive less from the central government, it matters less to them.
While the role of central authority in our lives is shrinking, the role of state government is expanding. If it matters more to Minnesotans what their lawmakers do, it matters less to them how Mississippi is governed. Each state today simply has less stake in the affairs of other states. Even if devolution of authority is held to be good for the country, it weakens the union. The president spoke last night about success in the war on drugs. But that masks a trend toward state defiance of federal laws. When California legalized forms of marijuana use still outlawed at the federal level, it severed one of the ties that unite the nation. States are increasingly willing to defy federal authority, leading to innovation and experimentation at the local level.
There is much to praise about decentralized government. It has improved the general welfare and increased domestic tranquility. But 50 states pursuing independent social experiments, whether with drug policies, speed limits or school funding, forms a less perfect union. Buried in the president’s address was the true state of the union. The ties between America’s states are weaker today than last year or the years before. It means less to be an American and more to be a Minnesotan presently than at any time in the recent past. That fact, more than any of Clinton’s new proposals, will shape the kind of nation we secure to ourselves and our posterity.