It’s time for a new emphasis on localism in American politics.
Across the political spectrum, Americans are realizing that they have less and less in common with their geographically distant countrymen, and this is playing out in political disputes: Supporters of the Trump administration want to crack down on “sanctuary cities,” while residents of those cities view it as imperative to resist aggressive anti-illegal-immigration policies they voted against. Democrats in Washington view Medicaid expansion as a crucial initiative, while some red-state politicians want no part of it.
The disagreements about how to be governed are growing. As long as this polarization persists, we can either ratchet up an increasingly irreconcilable debate about how to govern ourselves together, or we can simply do fewer things as one nation, and devolve power to local levels.
As we pursue this goal, a crucial thinker to consult is G.K. Chesterton, the British Catholic novelist, poet, and polemicist from the early 20th century. Aside from being an enormously entertaining writer, Chesterton was also an innovative political figure, deeply committed to the defense of liberalism — but also, as far as American politics would be concerned, an ideological conservative. Indeed, he’s a hero to many American conservatives, who have long had an Anglophilic strain.
Along with his friend Hillaire Belloc, Chesterton articulated an economic and political philosophy called “distributism” which argued for the distribution of economic and political decision-making to very local levels. To Chesterton and Belloc, this meant local control of government, opposition to imperialism, fierce criticism of big business and the monopolies of the day, and a ferocious patriotism (which, disappointingly, drifted into anti-Semitism at several points in Chesterton’s life, although he died an early, ardent critic of Nazism).
This is a confusing time for localism in the United States, as President Donald Trump’s rise has blurred the traditional lines of division. Devolution of powers in America is usually associated with conservatives, who tend to champion the rights of states. Progressives look on these arguments with some disdain, seeing “states’ rights” as code for white supremacy.
Never mind that the Confederacy proved to have an even lower regard for states’ rights than the Union (for example, implementing the first national draft in American history), and never mind that the Southern states actually demanded an unprecedented Federal veto of states’ rights regarding fugitive slaves (whom Northern states were forbidden to protect). In general, however, it has nonetheless been widely believed that devolution of powers will mean a rollback of progressive aims.
The left rediscovers the benefits of devolving power to states and cities
But today, some on the left have begun to make common cause with conservatives and argue for devolution: not as much to states as to cities, where progressives hold most political power. But conservatives have balked: As blue cities have responded to Federal gridlock by experimenting with progressive policies at the municipal level, red states have intervened, passing laws to interdict local efforts on topics like the minimum wage, on allowing transgender people to choose the bathroom they want to use, and other subjects.
The result is a confusing hodgepodge, and probably a recipe for getting nothing done. But the crucial insight of distributism, as Chesterton described it, is that decentralization of power requires more than just devolution of a few powers here or there, but a society-wide commitment to transferring power, authority, and responsibility back down the totem pole. A diverse society can sustain itself peacefully when its members are committed to solving problems as locally as possible, involving higher levels of government only when absolutely necessary.
A few examples may help to clarify what distributism might mean for America. Some kinds of local control seem intuitively appealing across the political spectrum. Rhode Island is very politically unlike Texas, and also economically, culturally, demographically, and geographically different. Given those differences, most people grasp that there’s no reason why those states should have identical laws regarding hunting or land use, or infrastructure strategies.
Where things get much trickier is where a more fundamental issue like abortion is concerned. On this issue in particular, many progressives and conservatives alike hope to achieve a victory that is far more total — more sweeping and national — than I think likely or desirable. That is, conservatives and progressives both seem to think that we need a federal rule about abortion. But we don’t, and indeed such a rule poisons the well of national politics. The reason is blindingly obvious: There is no federal agreement about abortion.
Forcing local majorities to live under laws they cannot change and which they abhor as contrary to all morality is a recipe for political disaster — a disaster we’ve seen play out since Roe v. Wade. Legalized abortion in red states has poisoned the entire political discourse. Millions of voters, myself included, condition their entire vote on whom a candidate will appoint to the Supreme Court; not much else matters. No matter my opposition to President Trump, my vote would never in a million years have gone to Clinton; I’ll cast a futile vote for Evan McMullin even if it leads indirectly to Trump’s victory and the death of the republic before signing my name to genocide, and I am far from alone in this kind of thinking.
And of course, if abortion had been prohibited by the court in blue states, we’d have seen the same effect in reverse. Progressives who see themselves as defending the most basic right of all, the right to bodily security and self-determination, would find their entire political discourse dominated by this one toxic debate.
Letting some states be “wrong” on important moral questions can be the correct political decision
Ideologues on both sides will assert that, where highly charged moral issues are concerned, federalism is terrible: If abortion is wrong, it’s wrong everywhere. If same-sex marriage is right, it’s right everywhere. This is true in abstract moral terms, but it is not true in political terms, and the two are not the same, because it is immoral to compel a people to accept a set of laws with which they do not agree and which they cannot readily change.
Provided that state-level policies do not usurp roles designated as exclusively federal either by congressional statute or the Constitution, what California does is no skin off my back. I am not morally responsible for California’s policies in the same sense in which I am morally responsible for the United States’ policies or for my home state’s policies. And because I’m not responsible for them, my anger over what California does need be no more extreme or politically actionable than my anger over what Saudi Arabia or the Netherlands does. How these places govern themselves may sadden me, I may abhor it, I may sometimes argue with locals about it, but I do not need to vote for candidates running on a platform of forcing them to be more like me.
To arrive at my preferred model, where far more political questions are solved locally, would require a large-scale reworking of many federal laws, and a reconsideration of many time-honored Supreme Court cases. You can’t get state- or local-level management of abortion, immigration, same-sex marriage, or Social Security without radical changes to federal statutes and, in many cases, to constitutional jurisprudence. There is plenty of precedent for such an approach, and it didn’t always result in “conservative” local results: states were beginning to legalize abortion before Roe, and in the absence of a federal rule, it’s likely that the majority of Americans would continue to reside in states where abortion was legal in most cases. Until 1906, immigration and naturalization was largely governed by the states.
Even if I haven’t convinced you that a more distributed political economy sounds like a wonderful future, it may still be the best possible future, given other options.
The basic rules about how we allocate federal power are not going to change soon. The Electoral College is not going away, and the asymmetry in state populations is likely, if anything, to increase. Despite the wishes of some reformers, there will be no major shift to proportional representation anytime soon, there will be no redrawing of state lines. Barring violent upheaval, the current system is likely to persist for a long time, complete with its baked-in bias toward gridlock, presidential empowerment, and polarization.
So I am willing to make a trade. I will give California vastly greater fiscal capacity to implement socialized medicine by hacking off a portion of Federal income tax rates and programmatic spending and designating it for states to use as they see fit. I will give Vermont far greater constitutional liberty to implement whatever pro-diversity policies they think are useful; I won’t object. And in exchange, Kentucky is allowed to ban abortion, and Texas can use its reallocated federal fiscal capacity to lower its tax burden (and its portion of federal program generosity) still further.
Progressives may worry that this would lead to red states instituting the very most extreme versions of their policies. Say we hand over 25 percent of most Federal domestic programs to the states. Perhaps Florida will cut Social Security and Medicare by 25 percent, abolish controls on pollution, forbid abortion, ban affirmative action, and refuse to recognize same sex marriage. What do you suppose will happen next?
When local politicians are freed to do what they want, they have to face the practical — and electoral — consequences
Well, there’d be local pushback. Florida’s many retirees would probably object on the Social Security and Medicare front. Indeed, older people make up a large share of conservatives: Will they cut their own benefits? Draconian changes seem implausible. Suppose pollution problems grow more severe: Will Florida’s many businesses that depend on clean beaches and Everglades tourism not complain? Florida might relax its environmental standards some; but surely the result will be that the Republican Party suffers electoral losses soon after?
And if, extremely implausibly, there’s no effective political blowback and suddenly women can’t get abortions, African-American people can’t get as many jobs, air quality declines, and same-sex marriages aren’t recognized — well, women, African Americans, families with kids, and LGBTQ people will leave Florida.
They’ll move to places with, in their view, better governance, and those places will acquire more political and economic power. Allowing both parties the power to pursue a more complete vision of their platform at the state and local level will make everybody happier, but also, after a few elections, devolution would compel both parties to articulate more disciplined and realistic platforms. Gridlock and powerlessness are the mother’s milk of extremism. To get sane politics, we need to let some extreme policies be tested and experience the consequences.
In this vision, we conservatives cannot forget the cities. The philosophical and practical rationale for devolved power is that problems are best solved by people who have local information and who understand and support local political priorities, with a minimum of hierarchy and intermediation. That’s conservativism, and distributism, at its best. Any grand bargain to devolve power would have to involve federal devolution to states and localities as well as red states taking a more hands-off approach to their blue cities.
And that’s a key problem with conservative opposition to sanctuary cities, and similar local liberal redoubts: As long as conservatives support state preemption of localities whenever localities embrace liberal causes, they will have no credibility in advocating for devolution of powers on other matters. Sure, states are constitutionally protected entities while cities are not, but that’s fairly thin ice to stand on given that the 10th Amendment reserves powers to “the States respectively, or to the people.” The intention was not to specially empower states at the expense of localities, but to specifically empower everybody at the expense of Washington.
True federalism is painful. It requires that we allow our neighbors the right of self-government, even when they do things we believe to be horrible.
In arguing that there must be limits to federalism, advocates on both sides often refer to the example of slavery. And yes, there absolutely must always be some guardrails around our 50 republics, ensuring they do not descend into barbarism; in particular, we must ensure a republican form of government, as the Constitution requires but as the Supreme Court historically refused to enforce.
However, we must also remember that we did not end slavery simply by legislation. We ended slavery at the cost of the Civil War, a war that killed as many as one out of every nine American men alive in 1860, and injured or maimed another one of those nine.
Ending slavery was worth the cost, of course. So if you’re willing to pay such a price of blood to win today’s political debates, if you think that bill’s not too high, then, by all means, carry on solving problems through centralization. But for those of us who prefer domestic tranquility, federalism is the answer.
Lyman Stone, a Vox columnist, is a regional population economics researcher who blogs at In a State of Migration. He is also an agricultural economist at USDA. Find him on Twitter @lymanstoneky
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