What if America Ends With a Whimper?

I just spent several days in Pittsburgh with Bill Steigerwald, fellow journalist and author of the wonderful book Dogging Steinbeck. Something Bill said to me last year, when I sought him out during my American road trip for my book Home Free, has been on my mind in recent days, as the government shutdown has so unedifyingly dragged on. "The national media tries to make every problem a national problem," he told me a year ago. "It ain't."

Bill is emphatically a man of the provinces, and that's very apropos our current historical moment. "New Yorkers often go out into the hinterland," he complained to me, "and they go with all their baggage. They don't know what it's like here. They fly over us."

Since that lunch a year ago at the locally famous DeLuca's Diner, Bill and I have become friends and collaborators. We don't necessarily agree about all issues of public concern -- he's a libertarian, I'm not -- but one thing we have in common is provincial origins and perspectives: we both look at the elite, "policymaking" East Coast crowd from the point of view of the interior of the country, rather than vice versa. We both know that how you see things has everything to do with where you're looking from.

So, as an American who's at least as provincial as I am liberal, I've found myself mischievously wondering of late: if the federal government shuts down and stays that way, so what? Obviously, if the shutdown does continue and/or the U.S. government defaults on its debts, many bad things will happen to many people. I very much hope those bad things don't happen. But it's interesting and, in fact, at least potentially encouraging to wonder: what if the United States of America as we've known it, as an ostensibly and, frankly, forcibly unified continental nation, were to end not with a bang but a whimper? What if Americans, all around America, were to say, well, we'll do for ourselves what the government can't or won't do for us?

Someone else I met along the road last year was Sherron Watkins, the former Enron vice president who blew the whistle on that corporation's enormous scandal in August 2001. Sherron turned out to be a great reader, and she recommended the Hunger Games series of young-adult novels as cautionary tales. "The districts are always starving, just barely makin' it," she related to me over breakfast in Houston. "So you're following two people to these games. And they're just shocked: 'Do they not know we're starving?' And in the capital they've got, you know, orange and yellow eyelashes, and it's all the latest fashion. ... So eventually the books evolve to where some of the folks in the capital are trying to help these district folks. But it's got some parallels that are kinda scary."

The question millions of Americans must be asking themselves by now is, "What has the federal government done for me lately, anyway?" Of course, they may be in the process of finding out. But I suspect that this wondering cuts across the spectrum: that the more meaningful opposition is not left-right but provincial-metropolitan. By the end of my 18,000-mile driving trip last year, I had seen for myself that while the United States, plural, might be in some sense a single country, they are also an archipelago of disparate communities, and that whether the center will hold is an open question.

Nowhere was this brought home to me more vividly than during the memorable afternoon that my father and I spent on the Hopi Reservation in Arizona, near the end of my trip. "The thing that's interesting to me," my dad reflected, "is that these people have been here for I don't know how long. They weren't put here for our benefit. I wonder what Romney had to offer these folks."

If you want a truly long-term perspective on the United States past and present, ask a Hopi. "We Hopi, we just do what we do," a woman in Old Oraibi, the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in North America, told me. "And if people don't know us, we like it. The world can just go by, and we're here, and we live our life." 

Ethan Casey is the author of Home Free: An American Road Trip (2013). About Home Free, Paul Rogat Loeb, author of Soul of a Citizen, says, "Ethan Casey listened hard and well in his books on Haiti and Pakistan. Now he's listening to America." Ethan Casey's other books include Bearing the Bruise: A Life Graced by Haiti ("Heartfelt" - Paul Farmer) and Alive and Well in Pakistan ("Magnificent" - Ahmed Rashid). Web: www.ethancasey.com. Facebook: www.facebook.com/ethancasey.author.