A SUMMER road trip is an enduring American tradition. Despite today’s high gas prices, it remains an inexpensive way to travel and experience the country beyond the narrow confines of one’s own city.
The changes in scenery that unfolded during my 3,000-mile drive from Seattle to Washington, D.C., were wondrous. Even before I left Washington state, I passed through several climate zones, from the wet west to the dry middle to the alpine east.
Much as I was awe-struck by the spectacular contrasts, both natural and man-made, what impressed me more was the commonality of the people. We Americans are indeed disparate people, united by our common language, popular culture and liberty.
Everywhere, our peculiar American English was spoken, and all road signs were posted in English.
What’s more, the clutches of our shared popular culture were inescapable. All the motels featured HBO (why miss “Six Feet Under” or “Entourage” during a trip?). At one Montana hotel, my sleep was disturbed by fans of a 50 Cent concert — yes, a black, urban hip-hop musician, drawing a crowd of white children from Montana ranches and farms. As if in response, the hotel at the following stop hosted a Christian music festival, which thankfully ended quietly by 10 p.m.
More seriously, the journey made me appreciate the vision of our Founding Fathers, a republic of sovereign states.
When discussing the military, political, economic and cultural dominance of the United States, many foreigners attribute America’s success to its size and natural resources. But what of Russia, China, India or Brazil? With equally vast, populous and abundantly endowed lands, why aren’t they so dominant?
China, for example, was once the most advanced maritime power in the world. The 15th-century admiral, Zheng He, led seven epic voyages and brought back tribute, exotic goods and ambassadors, confirming China’s supremacy.
Yet, within a century, China retreated into a self-imposed isolation. An imperial bureaucracy of agrarians came to power, forbade ocean-going and destroyed China’s fleet. A mistake made by an all-powerful central government reverberated throughout the whole empire, dealing a fatal blow just as Europeans ventured into its waters.
Therein lies the flaw of centralization, the disease of empires. While centralization brings unity of purpose and economy of scale, it stifles competition and risk-taking. It is a path to stasis and stagnation, to which all empires inevitably succumb.
Europe, on the other hand, was highly fragmented. This meant intense competition for national survival, necessitating innovations in science, finance and political organization. But the price for this progress was high. Competition engendered violent conflicts — Europe experienced the most destructive wars in history, culminating in the bloodbath of two world wars.
The genius of our Founding Fathers, then, was forging a nation that combined the best of both worlds — guaranteeing unity of the whole while preserving autonomy and peaceful competition among the constituent parts. Thus, America became not only an arsenal of democracy, but also its laboratory, drawing an unending stream of test subjects from without.
To outsiders, America is one country, but internally, localities compete for population and economic activity through varying regulations, incentives and conditions. Inefficiencies in policies of one state are exposed by successes of other policies elsewhere. People and businesses vote with their feet. To this day, the United States remains the greatest success in the nation-building experiment.
Although alarmists cite foreign competitors — Russia during the Cold War, Japan in the ’80s and China today — or global terrorists or climate changes as existential threats to America, the only thing that can destroy that success is from within.
Even as others attempt to mimic the openness and dynamism of the United States, we seem bent on centralizing our society by expanding the federal government far beyond what the Founding Fathers ever intended.
Meanwhile, forces of fragmentation and tribalization stir, as exemplified by the recent attempt to introduce separate sovereignty in Hawaii and the continuing assaults on our common language of American English.
In other words, while the rest of the world seeks to become more American, America seems insistent on becoming like the rest of the world. But America is not the rest of the world — it is our uniqueness, our “exceptionalism,” that has made us the greatest nation.
While reflecting on the majestic vistas of our country during the journey, I recalled Benjamin Franklin’s famous retort: “A Republic if you can keep it.”
Indeed, can we?James J. Na, senior fellow in foreign policy at Discovery Institute (www.discovery.org), runs “Guns and Butter Blog” (gunsandbutter.blogspot.com) and “The Asianist” (www.asianist.org). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org