Is the United States coming apart? The idea of the status quo persisting forever cannot simply be assumed, especially when the national rhetoric is so divisive.
ASPEN, COLO. (FORTUNE) -- Juan Enriquez is very, very smart. He's got a zillion degrees, founded the Life Sciences Project at Harvard's B-School, has started several businesses, and even helped in peace negotiations with Mexico's Zapatista rebellion. One distinguishing feature of his intelligence is that he likes to ask interesting questions.
At FORTUNE's Brainstorm conference in Aspen, Colorado on June 29, he drew a crowd with this one: Is the United States becoming untied? The question is also an ad for his book, The Untied States of America -- a rather curious assembly of statistics, random thoughts, pictures of Ah-nold, old maps and the occasional narrative.
The book is not nearly as definitive as the title - Enriquez states flatly that he is not predicting the disunion of America, and does not desire it, but is merely asking: Why couldn't it happen here?
After all, he notes, boundaries have been changing with unseemly velocity, and even in stable, developed countries - think of the UK, with its Northern Ireland dimension, Canada and Quebec, Spain and the Basques. The idea of the status quo persisting forever cannot simply be assumed.
Turning to the United States, he points to several possible fractures. He notes that bankruptcy is often a feature of national crackup, and right now the U.S. current account imbalance, and the deficits in the federal budget, are seriously big. Then there is the whole red/blue thing. More originally, he notes that the many treaties that the U.S. government wrote, signed (and then, mostly, broke) with various native groups, including hundreds of Indian tribes and Native Hawaiians, could come back to haunt us, as they have in Australia and New Zealand.
The stakes in this are not small - something like a third of Maine, for example, could, under some legal theories, be required to be returned to the original Down Easters. And then there are the intensifying feelings of local pride. Texas's license plate speaks of being a whole different country; there have been odd little efforts in Vermont either to secede from the union, or in the case of the town of Killington, from the state.
He also touches on the pressures of a large Hispanic immigration, and the difficulties many of these residents are having in terms of success in America (as seen, for example, in high school drop-out rates).
There are lots and lots of pressures here: Is it inconceivable, he asks, that some combination of all these stresses could fracture the American polity? In an example of kind of oddball factoid that Enriquez can come up with every other paragraph or so, he notes that not a single American president has been born and died under the exact same flag (because the number of stars on it kept changing).
It's all very interesting, and ideal for a seminar room at Brainstorm, where the various problems of U.S. society are being thoroughly aired. (To be honest, one would despair of the place, but then you walk out of the conference room into gorgeous Aspen and hope aborns anew.) But in some ways, the most interesting responses to the Enriquez question came outside, in other sessions.
There was the time when former Secretary of State Madeline Albright was speaking and a tray of dishes clashed. After the echoes died down, she quipped: "That's what Washington sounds like."
When former Time Inc editor-in-chief Norman Pearlstine asked a question of former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor that was premised on the polarization of U.S. society, she replied that she didn't know about the country, but that Congress was certainly polarized. It's an important distinction.
Because for all the stresses and strains in the U.S., the forces for cohesion are also strong. Or, as the mufti of Bosnia put it (in reference to Muslims, Christians and Jews), "we have to live together with our similarities."
There's a lot of ties that continue to bind in the United States, even when the national political atmosphere is toxic (at local and state levels, it is considerably less so). What are some of these ties? Well, a common language; a common belief in freedom; a strong work ethic; and simple patriotism.
A recent poll found that Americans were the most patriotic of 34 countries surveyed. A Roper survey last year of U.S. attitudes also found a robust national pride - and one that did not differ much by ethnicity (80% of black Americans considered themselves patriotic; 78% of Hispanics and 81% of whites). That's enormously important; America will divide only if most Americans actually want it to. The evidence is that we are not nearly there.
And some of the points of division that Enriquez identifies are just differences, not fractures. The beauty of such a big, sprawling mess of a land is that if you don't like the direction of State X, you can move to State Y. You don't have to leave the country - or split it up - to find what you want.
That said, there is something toxic in the air, with the most strident blues and the harshest reds dominating the debate in Washington, and screeching over the airwaves seemingly everywhere else. Members of Congress, on both sides of the aisle, seem incapable of working and playing with others.
But this is emphatically not where the country is, which is one of the reasons the current Congress has record-low approval ratings. In most of the country, reds and blues are not at each other's throats -- they are working together, coaching Little League, hell, even marrying each other.
Untied States of America? I don't see it. But yes, the country could certainly be more united, in a way that transcends this month's politics (a de-emphasis on group identity, for example, and more thought to how to extend opportunity).
As C.K. Prahalad, a native of India who now lives in the U.S., put it over dinner, "We need to continuously emphasize commonality rather than difference." Those commonalities are still wide and deep - but, frankly, probably narrower and shallower than even a generation ago.