Core Education

What holds a nation together — and for how long?

You’ve probably already seen the lead story on Drudge this morning, but despite the Drudge-size hype, this story of a small diplomatic maneuver has far-reaching implications.

Mexico is mounting an unprecedented effort to turn its permanent residents in the U.S. into citizens, a status that would enable them to vote — presumably against Donald Trump.

Officially, Mexico says it respects U.S. sovereignty and has no strategy to influence the result of the presidential race. Yet Mexican diplomats are mobilizing for the first time to assist immigrants in gaining U.S. citizenship, hosting free workshops on naturalization.

Curious, yes — but this might not be about a single election, even though Mexico almost certainly doesn’t have anything more daring in mind than that.

To explain why, I need to go on one of those odd detours I used to call “Late Night Rambling,” back when I had no children and would stay up through the wee dark hours with a brandy and my keyboard. So please come along with me as we take a detour through the strange world(s) of historical computer gaming.

Probably the most difficult path for real-world strategy game developers to tread is the one between playability and realism. That is, players’ actions still need to matter, they need to be able to change the map, to fight their own wars. But there have to be game mechanisms to keep things from getting too far away from the historical mean.

One game which accomplishes this tricky balance quite well is Paradox Interactive’s Europa Universalis IV. Players can choose to lead any nation on the earth, during the three-and-a-half centuries between the fall of Constantinople, through the end of the Napoleonic Era. EUIV is well enough balanced that it should be possible for a skilled and patient player to do “better” than history, but not too much better. For example, I finished a game as France, in which Paris owned all the historically French provinces, plus Catalonia and all the German & Dutch territories west of the Rhine.

In a well-balanced game like EUIV, it should not be possible, say, for even the most skilled player to take Luxembourg and conquer all of Europe, colonize the New World, and convert the Middle East to Christianity. Sure, it might be fun to do all that (and you can if you have the cheats enabled!) — but that result wouldn’t pass muster in a comic book, much less for serious players of difficult strategy games.

One of those mechanics is the key concept from the real world which we need to talk about today: Core provinces.

A core province is one which rightfully belongs to a country — whether or not that country actually holds it. An example. Let’s say a French-speaking province, a core of France, is conquered by one of the German states. In an “unbalanced” strategy game, that’s the end of it — players own, a la Risk, whatever provinces they conquer. But in EUIV, as a core province, the simulated people in the conquered province will look continue to think of themselves as Frenchmen, and will agitate for independence or for reunion with France.

The game makes it possible to add a core to a conquered province, but the process is expensive and time-consuming. And unless you go through the additional time and expense of teaching all those nasty Frenchmen to speak proper German, France will never lose their core on that conquered province, even after you add your core to it. And whenever your country holds another country’s core, they have a cassus belli on you so strong that the rest of the world will shrug — or even ally with them — when they go to war to take back their core.

And so French provinces tend to stay French, and German provinces tend to stay German, and the Supreme and High Holy Global Empire of Luxembourg never comes into being.

In the real world, the United States has enjoyed an ingenious method for gaining cores.

Remember that this nation started out as a few million farmers and merchants hugging the Atlantic coast, and yet not much more than a century later, the United States stretched from “sea to shining sea.” And the key point here is that nobody seriously questioned our ownership of all those new lands — we had “cored” a continent.

Our coring process is almost certainly unique in human history. Congress might organize a Territory, or the Army might conquer new lands, but that’s not what earned us our cores. American people would move into a new Territory, the people there would establish their own government, and the people there would eventually petition Congress for statehood. Once accepted into the Union, each new state earned the same powers and responsibilities as all the others. At every step of the way, legitimacy was conferred upon a core province — er, upon a state — by the express will of the people.

Through this process, California very quickly went from “Of course it’s part of Mexico!” to “Of course it’s part of the United States!”

Thanks to two other key concepts, language and legitimacy, Mexico lost a core and we gained one — practically overnight.

“But is he a patriot for me?”
-Emperor Francis II


A short story from the Austrian Empire:

It was the Emperor Francis II who first used the term “A Patriot For Me”. One day, when a distinguished servant of the Empire was recommended to him for special notice, his sponsor remarked that he was a staunch and loyal patriot. The old Emperor looked up sharply: “Ah! But is he a patriot for me?” the Habsburgs had created, largely through marriage and treaty, rarely through conquest, this vast amalgam of areas in Europe torn by hereditary jealousies and rivalries.

The Habsburg system worked just fine — right up until Czechs stopped thinking of themselves as loyal members of the Empire, and started thinking of themselves as Czechs. The story repeated throughout the Imperial realms among the Hungarians, the Croatians, the Poles, the Ukrainians, the Slovenians, and most especially the Serbs. It was a Serbian nationalist who assassinated Austria-Hungary’s heir apparent, inadvertently starting the war which would destroy the Habsburg Empire.*

Contrast old Austria’s troubles with our particularly American genius for making Americans out of, well, pretty much anybody and everybody. Come here from wherever, and if you couldn’t speak English we’d make damn sure your kids did. And we eventually brought everybody into the political system, too, extending our (mostly) free and fair elections to anybody willing to make the modest effort to register and show up on election day.

Language and legitimacy are powerful forces, perhaps the only two which can hold together a polyglot nation like our own.

A few years ago, my PJM colleague Victor Davis Hanson wrote Mexifornia: A State of Becoming. In his book, VDH argued that

a loss of confidence in the old melting pot model of transforming newcomers into Americans, is changing the very nature of state. Yet we Californians have been inadequate in meeting this challenge, both failing to control our borders with Mexico and to integrate the new alien population into our mainstream.

The “state of becoming” reaches even further than it did when Hanson wrote those words a decade ago. California’s government can no longer be said to legitimately represent the interests of the people. When semi-clownish geriatrics like Jerry Brown can ignore his state’s real needs — water, jobs, safety — while wasting billions enriching single-party insiders building high-speed trains to nowhere, then it’s safe to say that the polyglot peoples of California no longer live under a legitimate government.

And now if that Bloomberg story I quoted at the top of this article is correct, it would seem that a foreign government may be using citizenship as a weapon to further its own interests via our election.

Under these conditions, how long will the people of California, or at least the southern half of it, continue to look to Washington? How long will they continue to think, “Of course we’re a part of the United States!”

How long can they remain a core?

*It is one of history’s sublime ironies that the war which destroyed Austria-Hungary’s doomed polyglot empire gave Serbia a doomed polyglot empire of its own.