“Our national system is notoriously sclerotic. There are issues that matter quite a lot to people on the ground but never make it onto the national agenda because elites have no interest in debating them. Some issues are highly salient to everyday people, which is precisely why those in power don’t want to go anywhere near them. Gay rights is one of those issues. Immigration is another. Note, for instance, that both sides of the debate on immigration have struggled to get the federal government to act on this question. But Arizona’s recently enacted immigration law has galvanized national debate and forced elites to engage. […]
It would be useful for progressives to recognize that fostering dissent involves not just the First Amendment, but federalism; not just minority rights, but minority rule.”
-Heather K. Gerken, “A New Progressive Federalism,” Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.
Heather Gerken published an article in Democracy: A Journal of Ideas titled “A New Progressive Federalism.” Gerken puts forth some interesting ideas and backs them with compelling arguments. She argues that progressives should embrace federalism and state power for the potential it has to empower minorities (racial and political). She argues that federalism can empower national minorities to rule in areas where they are the majority and thus prevent then from becoming marginalized in the central government. Having a strong central government that is becoming increasingly pervasive in American society, even legislating down to the level of school districts, ensures that policy is enacted by a political body that, at best, mirrors the United States as a whole thereby ensuring the minorities are marginalized at the state or local levels where the may actually be a majority.
Decentralization could potentially make the US more democratic by allowing minorities to govern themselves in polities where they constitute the majority.
In addition to making the US more democratic decentralization could have two other positive effects.
By ceding (domestic) power to the states, states will once again become relevant in our national political system. As the power of the federal government has grown, its seems (at least in my state of Missouri) progressives have paid less and less attention to state politics and as a result the legislature has become dominated by people from the political fringe who, even at the local level, are not representative of the people. Most serious aspiring politician tend to focus on winning seats in the national government such as the House of Representatives. Even moderate Republicans don’t really get involved in the General Assembly. Many people who run for the state legislature often run unopposed. The only state office that is really contested in the governorship.
Missouri tends to be a Republican state nationally, but it is still usually competitive. However, an observer, by simply looking at the General Assembly, would never suspect that there are enough progressive minded voters in Missouri for it to be a “swing” state nationally. This is because progressives have disengaged at the state level and turned to the federal government to pursue their agenda, thus creating a legislature that is distorted and does not truly represent the people of Missouri (there are other factors that also work to distort the legislature such as geographically based representation, however that is for another post).
Secondly, decentralization could possibly make the federal government more functional. By ceding to the states, many aspects of domestic policy that now fall under the aegis of the federal government, the federal government could reduce the amount of gridlock that has turned it into a place where ideas and inspiration go to die.
Most of the gridlock experienced at the federal level is directly the result intense partisan fighting. And most of this partisan fighting is the result of conservative and liberal states using the federal government as a forum to skirmish over social issues. Having a strong central government that legislates nationally creates a high stakes political system where one decision can rule them all. This in turn increases the intensity of the political strife that plagues Washington D.C. If many domestic issues were dealt with at the state level, with each state pursuing its own path, then much of the tension that exists within national politics would be dissipated.
Decentralization could go a long way toward defusing many of our countries problems, empowering minorities, and making both states and the federal government more functional. I am not arguing for states rights as they had existed in the past or for a return to an era where states were dominant over the federal government. What I am arguing is that for a federal system to be democratic and functional there must be balance. There must be a balance between the rights of the majority and the minority as well as a balance between federal and state power. Currently, the balance of power is shifted too far in favor of the federal government. Decentralization could rectify this and return balance and sanity to our political system. There is no guarantee that such a strategy would work, as there are many other factors that come into play (such as the dominance of special interest groups and the wealthy), but decentralization at least merits a serious debate.