How Democrats Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Federalism
In today’s polarized political environment, I’m often asked how I think America can come back together. My answer is pretty simple: we learn to leave each other alone. I didn’t like President Obama much; folks on the left don’t like President Trump. I wanted President Obama and Democrats interfering as little as possible in my life; Democrats presumably feel the same about President Trump and the Republicans. So, here’s a solution: the founders’ solution. It’s called checks and balances, federalism and localism.
For too long, the Democratic Party has operated under a certain assumption: The tides of history are in its favor. Aggregation of power to the federal government, usurpation of power by the judiciary, centralization of power in the executive branch — all of that would redound to their political benefit. And for decades, they were largely correct: Not only did the federal government continue to grow but federal policymaking also shifted consistently leftward, with brief points of stagnation during eras of Republican rule.
But President Trump’s ascension to power has shocked the Democrats awake. Suddenly, some Democrats have realized that they are not fated to rule forever — and that powers handed to the federal government by Democrats can be turned against Democrats, too.
This shock has resulted in two Democratic responses. The first: a determination to change the system of government itself to forestall any future Republican victory. Thus, we’ve heard calls to abolish the Electoral College (not happening), to pack the Supreme Court (not happening), to apportion the Senate based on population (not happening). The second response, however, is more tenable and far more appealing across the political aisle: a restoration of the founding promise to devolve authority to local authorities.
This week, Hillary Clinton hit upon this unique strategy — a strategy some centuries old but fought tooth and nail by the left — seemingly by accident. She tweeted, “A reality of a Supreme Court with a right-wing majority is that the states are a new important front in protecting civil rights — especially the rights of the most vulnerable among us.”
The states aren’t that new. They’ve been around for a couple of centuries, and they’ve always been designed to protect the interests of local populations. Sometimes those interests have been brutal and terrible — see, for example, slavery and Jim Crow — but sometimes those interests have been positive and welcome. In designing a system determined to please the greatest number of human beings, localism is usually, but not invariably, the solution. As James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 39, our government is “neither wholly national nor wholly federal.” There’s a reason for that.
It’s good to see members of the left finally discovering some founding philosophy. But there is one problem with the left’s view of federalism and devolution of power: That view seems temporary. The minute Democrats seize power once more, the glories of federalism will surely recede into the background in favor of the club of federal power. That’s just one more reason that Democrats shouldn’t be handed that power anytime soon.
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