The "Revolution is Devolution" Edition
We can't have more stable national politics without better local politics
The Big Idea
One of the biggest drivers of instability and conflict is a governing system that no longer manages to meet its citizens’ expectations. Very often, the path to conflict comes from politicians in the existing system trying to make incremental changes while not recognizing, or accepting, that incremental change won’t do. I’m not saying America needs to go back to a whole new constitutional convention—though it’s a thought—but if there is one thing that’s pretty clear to me, it’s that we’ve come to expect way more from the Federal government than is reasonable or feasible for a country of our size.
I know that’s a crazy-counterintuitive thing to say at a moment when we’re facing a national crisis where the Federal government is practically AWOL. I’m not on the Grover Norquist “government small enough to drown in a bathtub” batshit express. We need a strong Federal government for all sorts of things related to our national and “homeland” (I detest that word) security and general prosperity. The problem is, we’re also relying on that government to address political issues it shouldn’t or can’t take on effectively, and a lot of those are the issues that are driving instability, like demographic change and poor citizen engagement. The stable way to address these challenges is through a more devolved approach.
There are a couple of different strands of over-centralization that need to get pulled on to understand the problem, including:
1. Over-focus by citizens on national political issues that crowd out consideration of local ones;
2. Over-reliance on the least-democratic and most-centralized elements of our system—the Judiciary and the Executive Branch bureaucracy—to achieve policy goals; and
3. Mistakenly assuming that “devolved” powers would mean simply more power to the states—I avoid the term “states’ rights” because that’s not a political philosophy, but code for preserving state-sanctioned racism.
All Politics Is No Longer Local—and That’s a Problem
That old chestnut went by the board some time ago. A lot of that shift is connected to changes in the media landscape—increasing reach of national cable news and the internet, matched by a collapse in local journalism keeping people informed of events around them.
People who follow only national politics and come to care more about national issues lead to either a) caring about local politicians’ opinions on national issues more than on what they’re actually doing on the job; and/or b) straight party-line voting which doesn’t necessarily give us the best candidate or the most open political system—no polity benefits from one-party dominance.
This nationalizing trend has its own impacts within government as well. The decision by the Republicans to end “earmarks” in congressional appropriations in 2011, for example, may have been a well-intended anti-corruption effort, but with legislators less able to impact their communities with actual governing, politics becomes more and more about expression, which grows more polarizing over time.
But What About the Issues We Care About?
There is no doubt that pushing more policy questions to local levels will leave people behind, in those parts of the country that don’t think people should have access to health care, or the right to marry the one they love, or even full bodily autonomy. Promoting more local autonomy carries the deep risk of returning to the “states’ rights” philosophy that maintained slavery and segregation.
I’m not saying we should abandon the causes that matter to us, or abandon the people we care about in other localities. What I’m saying is that we—both parties—have gotten lazy in how we pursue our domestic policy goals, defaulting to gaining them through executive bureaucratic measures or the courts. This isn’t how you win policy fights in ways that keep a stable system. Policy fights won via the least-democratic parts of our government are ones that keep open wounds festering, and are most vulnerable to reversal—which raises the stakes for holding those positions, which increases the polarization, etc.
The way to win not just policy battles, but policy wars, is through legislation and, failing (or pending) that, mass mobilization and advocacy. Progressives also have the vast advantage of cultural dominance, something that strongly drives conservative grievance but is a structural reality. The path to changing state and local policies we don’t like isn’t through Federal supremacy, it’s through winning politics in those locales through long and arduous politicking and activism.
It’s easiest, and hardest, to think of the people who live in Red localities whom we will view as “suffering” in the absence of stronger Federal intervention—though by the way, a lot of them take umbrage at the idea they’re “suffering,” or disagree strongly about what they’re suffering from. But we risk forgetting the opportunities we could create for advancement in the Blue localities. We could improve life for millions of Americans all over the country if progressive state and local governments had more authority. If we think Denmark is a good social model, there are a lot of states and localities that could be Denmark for their citizens if permitted to. This is especially true of local governments, which brings me to…
Think Smaller Than States
The pandemic is showing us how impressive decisive and capable governors of both parties can be, in New York, Washington, Massachusetts, Ohio, and California, to name a few. I won’t bother naming and shaming the governors who aren’t stepping up to this crisis. But it’s important to see what mayors and counties can do as well.
One problem with devolving more power to states is that many states are just as polarized as the country writ large. Huge chunks of California are red on a political map; they just don’t have enough people to outvote the coastal cities. Before any southern state would consider secession again, it would first have to subdue their deep-blue urban centers, including most state capitals and college towns. Many states would be, or indeed are, as polarized, dysfunctional or undemocratic as our current Federal government.
State sovereignty and supremacy laws, meanwhile, give state governors and legislatures vastly more control over county or municipal governments than even the Federal government has over the states. As progressives, cities are our greatest strength, and we should value measures that give them greater autonomy. As in many countries, American cities’ political power is considerably less than their social, economic, and cultural power.
This needs to change. Citizenship starts locally. You cannot shape, serve, or benefit from your national or state governments effectively when you’re not engaged with a dynamic and responsive local government. We can’t stabilize anyplace from the top down: trust me, I’ve tried it.
As I put the finishing touches on this, it appears the President is more concerned about the stock market (and I'm guessing his hotels) than the survival of American citizens. I, for one, am tired of all the winning.
Meanwhile, his Attorney General wants to be able to imprison people without trial. Move along, people, nothing to see here. No, really, move along, or the AG will arrest you and hold you indefinitely. And keep social distancing!
A number of folk on the right—I won’t link to them, you can look them up—are arguing that social distancing and lockdowns are doing more long-term harm than coronavirus will, and that we’d be better off with much more targeted responses, as worked well in South Korea. These people are either stupid or sociopathic, and in either case they’re being disingenuous. A mass virus sickening all of us and killing 1-4 percent of the population would do far more damage over a far longer period than a summer-long lockdown would. A South Korean strategy requires mass aggressive testing, which would be great, but right now we can’t do because of government errors. My suspicion is the people pushing this approach need a little more time to move some of their own assets around, and can’t imagine getting sick themselves as a consequence.
Ezra Klein agrees with me on the need to start with local politics. This is a great 3-minute video.
David Meyer from UC-Irvine has some good thoughts—though no solutions yet—for how to maintain activism under quarantine. I’ll let you know if I come up with anything, but I’m still noodling this myself. He touches on something at the end that merits developing: we tend to detach our “community service”-oriented volunteer work from our political advocacy. If you’re a non-profit, that’s the law. But if you’re just a group of individuals, or even members of a political party, those rules are different. Let’s think of ways to better combine service and advocacy.
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