The US: A tale of three states

Empire delves deep into the future of the US, and asks in which state’s image will the country be cast.

The venerated US Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis once declared that the country’s 50 states should best be understood as “laboratories” for the laws and customs, the mores and procedures, that will ultimately spread across the land and shape the body politic.

The United States is many things, but more than anything else, it is an idea. As Brandeis noted, these ideas shift and evolve. Sometimes they disappear, while other times they develop into grand nation-building schemes. For the past 200 years, this model has kept the US moving steadily forward, shaping the future and, as Empire discovers, it is a process that continues.

With the country still reeling from years of economic recession, a crippled housing market, record levels of unemployment and a bitterly divided – some might say broken – political process, it is to individual states that people are turning.

But do the states have the answers Americans want? To answer this, and to examine how this process works, we take an in-depth look at three of the most powerful, dynamic and politically relevant states in the union: New York, California and Texas. Each, in its own unique way, offering a vision for the rest of the country to follow.

Texas Governor Rick Perry is aggressively promoting his state as a low-tax, high-energy, high-job growth haven for the crippled middle class, selling Texas through a series of controversial television ads.

Evolving ideas

To unravel the appeal of the Lone Star State, Empire travels to Texas to speak with the Mayor of Houston, Annise Parker; musician, comedian and prospective politician, Kinky Friedman; Texas Public Policy Foundation vice-president, Chuck DeVore; Craig McDonald from the political watchdog group Texans for Public Justice and former Republican candidate for governor of Texas, Debra Medina.

In California, we discover a more laid-back approach. Blessed with two of the world’s most dynamic global industries – Hollywood and Silicon Valley – California politicians are banking that the US buys into its philosophy: higher taxes, more social services, more regulation, stricter control over environmentally sensitive energy extraction and an emphasis on technology as a tool to solve some of the world’s biggest problems.

We talk to the founder of social networking phenomenon Storify, Burt Herman; author, political activist and former state senator, Tom Hayden; venture capitalist Charles Hudson; political analyst Sherry Jeffe and historian Jon Christensen to get some informed perspective.

In New York, the recent election of Bill de Blasio as New York City mayor awakened many Americans to the idea that whatever future the US takes, it is going to look increasingly like de Blasio’s multiracial family. Helping us examine New York’s blueprint for the US is Joshua Freeman, professor at the Graduate Center at City University New York, and state senator Phil Boyle.

Travelling to each of these states, Empire finds that Americans’ ideas about themselves are evolving, just as Brandeis said they should, and would.

We delve further into the issues in Washington DC, with experts with very divergent, but equally compelling, views on where the country is heading. We hear from Erica Grieder, author of a lively book on the merits of Texas; Michael Lind, co-founder of the New America Foundation, and Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson.

In a journey across a changing nation, The US: A tale of three states, uncovers the best, and worst, possibilities for the future of the US.