The downfall of the United States.
July 7, 2010 3:14 PM   Subscribe

In what way(s) might the United States cease to be, how likely are those scenarios, and what would happen as a result?

I'm looking for fact-based conjecture or realistic fiction, primarily, but I'd like to hear the opinions of various MeFites as well. The more in-depth, the better.

I expect that there are many, many ways the U.S. might collapse, and many more things that might happen afterwards. How likely is each scenario? I'm interested in what could happen now; please, no alternate WWII or Cold War scenarios.

Thanks as always, MeFi!
posted by reductiondesign to Law & Government (34 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
By "cease to be," do you mean become a lawless wasteland, or break into two more new countries?

Despite all the doomsaying, it's pretty hard to imagine either. I suppose a severe economic collapse, coupled with rising sea levels, could lead to huge humanitarian crises along the coasts, and then the secession of some of the southern and western states.

But honestly, I think the number one threat is still what it was from the 50s onward- all-out nuclear war with Russia. They still have all those weapons, and we're still more "peaceful rivals" then "best friends."
posted by drjimmy11 at 3:19 PM on July 7, 2010

"two OR more new countries"
posted by drjimmy11 at 3:19 PM on July 7, 2010

I suppose there's always things like a catastrophic meteor strike, in which case most human life on Earth would cease to be. But maybe that's not what you were thinking of?
posted by drjimmy11 at 3:22 PM on July 7, 2010

Response by poster: I'm talking about a country other than the U.S. existing in North America between Canada and Mexico. (Yeah, the borders might change.) Whether it's the U.S. splitting apart, being taken over by a foreign state, or somehow falling into anarchy...

The question is about politics. Sorry if that was unclear.
posted by reductiondesign at 3:25 PM on July 7, 2010

Much like the infamous Holy Roman Empire (which wasn't any of holy, Roman nor empire), there will probably be some political entity claiming to be the United States of America or one of its constituent states in perpetuity.
posted by GuyZero at 3:26 PM on July 7, 2010 [4 favorites]

Things would have to get incredibly bad in all kinds of ways well before the nation would cease to exist. Whether that's a really impressive North Korean bomb or extreme political differences (something more polarizing than slavery and sectionalism put together), it's not like it can happen anywhere near soon enough for us to make reasonable predictions.

If I had to pick something, I'd say a US of reduce size (losing the Southwest or the Intermountain West or Texas due to cultural divisions) is the most likely non-apocalyptic scenario. And it's not that realistic in anything approaching the near term. I expect us to outlast the European Union, basically.
posted by SMPA at 3:32 PM on July 7, 2010

You might want to examine the possible long term results of an extreme food or energy(supply, distribution, or power grid) shortage, or with a worldwide pandemic, or combination of those three. In an extreme case, the government(s) may have only regional control, abc the solution to the problems (whether technological or pharmceutical, for example) may require heavy corporate involvement, that may give those companies a huge amount of influence. If different companies assist different regions, schisms may form, resulting in regional, corporate supported government areas, that may not agree with one another.

There's a ton of if's in this, but you may be able to create a reasonable thread from these senarios.
posted by chambers at 3:32 PM on July 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think it also depends on your vantage point and whether you are talking about the 50 States and their governments constitutionally or the idea of what it means to be a US citizen and how one interacts politically.

In a lot of ways, the US of the Reconstruction era has ceased to be. From my own perspective, the US as it was in the late 70's rurally has certainly ceased to be.

Unless you have some significant military/industrial/environmental/constitutional catastrophe, I think you are looking at degrees of change relative to your position in the system rather than full-out endings.

Rome is a good example, I think. When did it end? Depends on the person you ask.
posted by Tchad at 3:34 PM on July 7, 2010 [3 favorites]

The Passage by Justin Cronin had some relevant stuff


So, there's a virus that turns people into horrible vampire zombies. The virus is spreading across the U.S. Seems unstoppable. So California sez, we're breaking off and forming our own republic and protecting our borders.

And some nukes fly and yeah it's pretty much the end of the U.S. of A. So, one answer: deadly virus.
posted by angrycat at 3:46 PM on July 7, 2010

Not gonna happen, period. The question is somewhat ridiculous as it seems to show a lack of...something, I'm not sure what. America is one the most powerful countries on the planet and often touted as the most powerful. It's not going anywhere. It may decline in power and influence, but actually cease to be? You're talkin' crazy talk, son.
posted by new brand day at 3:55 PM on July 7, 2010

Any number of ways, of course. But if we're going back to Rome, keep in mind that the Roman Senate existed for quite a while after the Roman empire had crumbled (at least in the West).

Rome itself, in fact, never really collapsed (though it was sacked a few times). What happened in that the senate went from a powerful governing body to a self-serving bunch of aristocrats who nobody took seriously (I know, sound familiar?). Eventually the most powerful families aligned themselves with the Catholic Church, which was clearly on the way up.

Once the Senate became a joke, the constituent parts of the empire began following whatever rulers exerted more local power -- Frankish kings being among the most prominent. Though the Church had its revenge for a while, becoming a state within a state for much of the Middle Ages (and beyond in non-Reformation zones).

So, in the case of the U.S., it could very well be that the states just start ignoring D.C. and going off on their own. Since we're already seeing anti-D.C. agitation, this is entirely plausible (though I don't think it's going to happen next week or anything).
posted by hiteleven at 4:02 PM on July 7, 2010 [5 favorites]

In our lifetime, what has made a state cease to exist? War or revolution, but both seem unlikely. The USSR ceased to exist mainly because the central government weakened and there were strong separatist movements among the contingent states. Canada almost broke apart in 1992 while the French separatist movement was at its strongest.

The US doesn't really have ethnic enclave states the way these countries did/do; most people self-identify as American rather than as a resident of a particular state, as far as I know. However, there are certainly anti-federalist murmurs in the air right now and I can imagine a scenario in which those grow strong enough to threaten the union over time. But that's just speculation and I can't really say how it would play out.
posted by PercussivePaul at 4:08 PM on July 7, 2010

Not gonna happen, period.

'Cause that's never been said by a smug citizen of an empire.

I think it would come down to isolationist policies of the states and the central government not having the strength or desire to enforce the constitution.

Take whats happening in Arizona with immigration law; a state is enacting a law the fed's consider to be unconstitutional, right now the government has a million other fires to put out (Oil Spill, Healthcare, Russian Spies, Lindsey Lohan, Afghanistan, etc, etc...) so its a bit more low priority. Could things escalate to an arms standoff with the state of AZ on one side and federal troops on another? It might if you had enough pissed off citizens. The US might not cease to exist as we know it but it could fracture (Republic of Texas anyone?) A state and it's citizens might feel it is being neglected or underrepresented by the federal government and being to enact its own policies, its difficult to comprehend if you're landlocked in Nebraska, but if you're a costal or border state with ports and highways giving import/export abilities, it doesn't seem that far fetched; especially if the state is facing major budget shortfalls as most states currently are.
posted by Scientifik at 4:08 PM on July 7, 2010

Best answer: Dmitry Orlov
posted by notned at 4:16 PM on July 7, 2010 [3 favorites]

Seconding Dmitry Orlov. That is some good reading about the US's weaknesses in case of countrywide collapse. Good details and an interesting viewpoint; I think you'd be well-served by reading it.
posted by malapropist at 4:30 PM on July 7, 2010

Best answer: Not gonna happen, period.

Of course it will happen sooner or later - the Second Law of Thermodynamics demands that one day there will no longer be a United States, much as one day homo sapiens will be extinct, and one day there won't be a sun. My money is on the US going under much sooner than either of those things happening, if not actually in the short-to-medium term.

As for the specific mechanism, I'm partial to the theory that Joseph Tainter lays out in The Collapse of Complex Societies, which is that societies collapse due to diminishing marginal returns on additional levels of social complexity. As societies confront new problems or administer more powers, the mechanisms they develop to cope with grow more and more complicated - new layers of bureaucracy, new social classes, more occupational specialization, more infrastructure (whether physical or administrative) - at some point these layers of complexity and specialization grow overwhelming and the marginal return of investing in more complexity gets lower and lower, until eventually it hits breakeven, and at that point the society "collapses", often very rapidly, to a much simpler level of organization, typically fragmenting into much smaller administrative units, and the cycle begins again.

This is sometimes presented as a "libertarian" critique of "big government", but I've spent enough time around large transnational corporations to see it as equally applicable to them or any other method of organizing large groups of people to accomplish specific goals.

For my money, this is the eventual fate of all industrialized societies, including the US, though not necessarily in any of our lifetimes (and always assuming there's not a meteor strike or accidental nuclear war or something).
posted by strangely stunted trees at 4:34 PM on July 7, 2010 [3 favorites]

Of course the US will cease to be at some point. All political entities fade and fracture. Guaranteed.
posted by A189Nut at 4:40 PM on July 7, 2010

Best answer: In 200 or 300 years will the US still effectively exist?

I can imagine one scenario where corporations take over more and more government functions, such that there is say a region around S.F. that is run and administered by Apple Computer.

As global corporations become the norm there will be less and less rational for war between countries integrated as players in the global economy. This was one point of Fukuyama's "The End of History" that there have been no wars between liberal democracies.

A large part of the rational for today's nations is in terms of military protection. If wars stop being fought, then the notion and shape of political entities could easily change.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 4:41 PM on July 7, 2010

I once read something about the decline and fall of the Ottoman empire and couldn't help but think, "Hey, that's us in a few years!"

There are a lot of people out there (the Teabaggers, et al.) who are willfully ignorant or just plain in denial about all the perks that come with being a first rate nation and plenty of people who encourage them to think that way because they expect to be a big fish in their new small pond.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 5:04 PM on July 7, 2010

You might be interested in the Joint Operating Environment 2010 report, which talks about the future operating environment of the United States military.

It talks about famine, water, future energy, economic climate, increasing US debt, climate change, and pandemics.
posted by Comrade_robot at 5:11 PM on July 7, 2010

Best answer: You might be interested in The Turner Diaries by William Luther Pierce who was a physicist and an American Nazi. It lays out a terrifying but plausible picture of how a small using guerilla tactics could overtake the US government, break the US apart, and create a brutal, self-sufficient, all-white state. Nuclear weapons and terror are involved. The book is methodical and precise in its vision.

I must stress that this is the bible of white supremacists and white separatists. It has inspired at least a few acts of terrorism over the past decades. It is a very offensive book.

It does however lay out a vision of a future without a US, and very precisely shows how that happens.

You can read it for free on Project Gutenberg.

I in no way advocate any kind of white supremacy, white nationalism, or anything of the kind. My interest lies in understanding where the hate of people who live in this subculture comes from.
posted by vincele at 5:48 PM on July 7, 2010

I'd be most worried about a high-altitude ElectroMagnetic Pulse wiping us back into the stone age.

Iran's government has a satellite capability, almost a nuclear capability, and an absolute hatred of us. Ditto North Korea. I'm sure both of them, among others would love to see us without cars, gas pumps, radios, bank data, city water & sewer, even electric lighting. Maybe even enough to risk a psychotically genocidal response from any of our overseas nuclear components. One ship-launched high altitude nuke with evidence erased immediately afterword by a second nuke onboard and no-one might ever know who did it. If Allah or the Dear Leader is on your side...

It'd be the sort of thing we just wouldn't recover from. The United States would be irrevocably gone along with tens of millions of former Americans who'd starve in the dark or die in the chaos of the ensuing months.

Time to go hug my daughter.
posted by codswallop at 6:36 PM on July 7, 2010

I'm going to go with economics; if the Federal government has no money-- can't borrow anymore and doesn't have the funds to pay its bureaucracy or its soldiers then individual states might just find themselves abandoned. Without Federal services, the states may have to rely more on local services and soon come to the conclusion that they don't need a Federal Government at all. If the treasury was printing worthless paper, perhaps bigger, more self-supporting states like California and Texas may decide they were better off pulling out of the Union-- and if there is no money to pay the soldiers who is going to fight them?
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 6:40 PM on July 7, 2010

Well, if you're taking opinions:

If you're talking about total collapse of US society, as in some sort of nuclear catastrophe or disaster, then it's easy to imagine that entire chunks of the nation could gradually break away and form their own nations, especially if the DC area was hit first, which would seem likely.

To my mind, a slow economic collapse is far more likely, and it'd go like this:

The nation would effectively cut its losses and focus remaining assets on maintaining power and services to a few key cities with ports, commercial infrastructure and so on that would keep money and goods flowing. In some places. With the exception of states like Montana and Vermont (tiny cities, and maple syrup is a luxury item), it's unlikely that an entire state will be bereft of access to/ influence from the government, because there are trains and air ports that can quickly and relatively cheaply move goods from place to place.

But within a state, the isolated small towns, the suburbs, and similar areas would be cut out and largely left to fend for themselves, because they don't produce anything that is useful to the larger nation or the remains of the federal government. Goods in those areas would slowly become less plentiful and more expensive, and people would either move away or become self sufficient. Larger urban areas would also likely be left to their own devices if they weren't particularly useful or had social/structural/other issues that made further investment a losing proposition.

You would have a sudden and (even more) significant concentration of all national wealth in very few places. Depending how long the situation continued, this could spark civil unrest. But because a large part of the population would remain contained within cities and would presumably be willing to lend government action some shade of legitimacy, and I would think that the federal government would be smart enough to maintain some sort of military force, I doubt any sort of protest would be effective. On the state level, you also have national guards and so on that could be tapped into to maintain order.

In the end, you would have a few islands of civilization and a lot of deserted space in between, a lot of poor people living in the country side and begging in the larger cities, and a vacant suburban sprawl.

But an economic collapse is a local as well as a national phenomenon, and you would probably see a different extent of damage in different parts of the country. Unless you were there, in one of the areas that was slowly shriveling up and going away, you would probably not be aware that it was happening.

Not to sound too paranoid, but I think that this is already starting to happen in some places in the US, to be honest. When I lived further away from DC, there were a lot of vacant houses and businesses closing down in the suburbs, and road maintenance was not a priority in a lot of the less populated counties. I don't think that it's irreversible, but it's easy to see how it could escalate.
posted by _cave at 6:51 PM on July 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Year of the Flood.
posted by ovvl at 7:48 PM on July 7, 2010

One could imagine a situation in which radical libertarian anti-government activists are elected to a majority in Congress, starving all social programs while maintaining defense spending to turn the United States into a collection of independent republics competing for resources on the same anarchic (but very well defended) continent.

Others argue that this has already happened.
posted by miyabo at 7:49 PM on July 7, 2010

Best answer: How about the US losing parts a little bit at a time?

There are various scenarios that could lead to major American metropolitan areas to become feral cities:
Imagine a great metropolis covering hundreds of square miles. Once a vital component in a national economy, this sprawling urban environment is now a vast collection of blighted buildings, an immense petri dish of both ancient and new diseases, a territory where the rule of law has long been replaced by near anarchy in which the only security available is that which is attained through brute power. (1) Such cities have been routinely imagined in apocalyptic movies and in certain science-fiction genres, where they are often portrayed as gigantic versions of T. S. Eliot's Rat's Alley. (2) Yet this city would still be globally connected. It would possess at least a modicum of commercial linkages, and some of its inhabitants would have access to the world's most modern communication and computing technologies. It would, in effect, be a feral city.
I live in Oakland, and have for sometime thought that when The Big One hits Oaktown could end up like this. We've got fault lines like "WHOA!", hospitals built on top of them. I'm seeing Blackwater mercs using live ammo on the starving Oaklanders trying to rush the port (gotta keep all that cargo moving through one of the nation's biggest ports), while inland we're living a live-action game Grand Theft Auto meets Counterstrike.

What the gas pocket beneath the ongoing oil gusher in the gulf explodes and a mega tsunami destroys Florida and parts of Southern Georgia? What's the parts of the Gulf Coast that survive going to look like? What if the post-Katrina breakdown in law-&-order comes back and stays?

I'm imagining megadisasters that the government just can't respond to. The econopocalypse has raged too hard, there's no money in the piggy bank, the military is a wreck in two ongoing wars, and when bad shit happens... it just doesn't get fixed.

Could happen after the collapse in the value of the dollar. Could happen after a more general Collapse
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 10:07 PM on July 7, 2010

This already happened. There was substantial debate about what political system would be best for the U.S., if there was to be a union at all. This debate produced a constitution that is far more a result of compromise than it is a reflection of one political philosophy.

Those who favored a strong central government used the Civil War as an opportunity to implement their views by force; then, through a long succession of court rulings, Federal powers became more and more broad. The commerce clause stands out as the most abused power of the Federal government, being applied to achieve exactly the opposite of what it was intended to prevent: interference in commerce by powers outside the state governments. This way of 'interpreting' the law has created an oligarchy out of the courts, and was used to justify torture.

What you call the U.S. is not the U.S. of the founders, or of the Constitution.
posted by silvicolous at 10:25 PM on July 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Seconding the Collapse of Complex Societies, by Joseph Tainter. There's more illumination in that book on the topic of collapse than anywhere else. And yes, its about diminishing returns. Eventually, the only "solutions" that complex societies can come up with are more expensive than the problems themselves, which leads to sometimes shocking collapse.

"Live by the sword, die by the sword." I predict that America will break up over money and debt, probably this century.
posted by General Tonic at 7:50 AM on July 8, 2010

Everybody is forgetting the old, tried-and-tested, historically common way of decline - military defeat, in this case by China (in the future when it's the main superpower). Mao Tse Tung said 'We must rule the World'. His giant portrait still hangs over Tiananmen sq. Hey, I'm not making a prediction, just suggesting a possibility. The Chinese are more pragmatic, determined and ruthless than westerners. Defeat by China would by made easier by economic imbalances, something that greatly hampered Germany in WWII when they had to fight both the well organised command economy of the USSR and the great American surplus. These imbalances are already happening. Read Niall Ferguson's 'War of The World'. The Asians are taking over.
posted by Deor at 9:00 AM on July 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Deflation is already upon us, as everyone is scrambling to pay off their debts in the face of job uncertainty. M3 is already at -10% year over year. Inertia is keeping it from showing up at the retail level.

SOME Republicans want to repeat history and go all Hoover on us, causing massive unemployment and deflation. The Democrats and the rest of the Republicans are so addicted to bribing us with our own money that they'll inflate things the rest of the way so that 1913 dollar goes the rest of the way from it's current 5 cents to zero.

It looks like the Hoovers are going to be allowed (for political reasons) to stop the perpetual renewal of unemployment benefits which were helping to stave off the effects of globalization on our workforce.

This will cause a wave of massive defaults on personal debt and mortgages. Further reducing the availability of credit to those who are still above water. This will feed on itself resulting in massive deflation. Why lend out money, if you know it will be more valuable next year? Hording money is actually effectively earning interest on it in such an environment.

Once this goes on long enough... there will be a new consensus that "relief" helps more than just the person receiving it. A wave of spending on relief will result in inflation... and may lead to hyperinflation because of an overshoot.

The dollar has collapsed before in history.... it's going to do it again. This is one possible way to get there.
posted by MikeWarot at 9:06 AM on July 8, 2010

Best answer: Here's a well thought out (but scary and sad) recent novel about what would happen if an EMP knocked out electrical systems in the United States: One Second After by William R. Forstchen. Short answer: the US doesn't really recover.
posted by Asparagirl at 10:14 AM on July 8, 2010

Recently there was a MeFi story about exploding a nuke in space which happened in 1962.

If that amount of EMP didn't fry everything in Hawaii at the time... I really doubt we have to worry about EMP taking out anything. Computers are pretty well shielded to keep noise in (and thus EMP out)... everything is designed not to wimp out at the first lightning strike a mile away... we really should be ok.

I've decided to scratch EMP off my list of worries, to make room for the methane burp.
posted by MikeWarot at 2:45 PM on July 9, 2010

Best answer: DMZ, a comic book about a near-future civil war in America:
In the near future, America's worst nightmare has come true. With military adventurism overseas bogging down the Army and National Guard, the U.S. government mistakenly neglects the very real threat of anti-establishment militias scattered across the 50 states. Like a sleeping giant, Middle America rises up and violently pushes its way to the shining seas, coming to a standstill at the line in the sand — Manhattan or, as the world now knows it, the DMZ.

Matty Roth, a naïve young man and aspiring photojournalist, lands a dream gig following a veteran war journalist into the heart of the DMZ. Things soon go terribly wrong, and Matty finds himself lost and alone in a world he's only seen on television. There, he is faced with a choice: try to find a way off the island, or make his career with an assignment most journalists would kill for. But can he survive in a war zone long enough to report the truth?
I've picked it up at the library 3 times. It's great. but I can't finish the first volume. I grew up in New York and it's... Kind of Escape From New York meets George Bush's Baghdad. I keep wanting to read it and feeling weired reading it. But yeah, this might be very much what you're looking for.

Similarly, they recently re-issued Scout, about an America that just... dried up and blew away and nobody else in the world much cared. Personal favorite from back in my college years. Just because a heavily-armed guy is on peyote doesn't mean his ancestral war spirit isn't guiding him to kill real monsters out of Apache myth. Although... it could just be the peyote too.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 3:30 PM on July 9, 2010

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