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Ross Douthat wrote a column arguing that liberals are not as committed to democracy as they claim and that conservatives are more committed than they are accused of being. Eric Levitz wrote a response saying Douthat was “wrong to posit a coherent, right-left disagreement about the proper balance between democracy and expert rule.” I think Douthat correctly identifies an anti-democratic strain in elite liberal thought, but he fails to note it’s one that also leads liberals to believe that they should defend conservative institutions like the Senate and the Supreme Court, or that it’s the same impulse that leads ostensibly liberal institutions to hire people like Ross Douthat. I also agree with most of what Levitz wrote. But while these thoughts were inspired by those pieces, this is not really a response to them, so reading them is not required for the rest of this letter (blog?).
We of the commentariat are all running out of novel ways to say that the right considers only certain Americans to be legitimate participants in democratic politics, and that this consideration makes it futile to try to persuade or shame them into rejecting their antidemocratic tendencies or even admitting that that is the game they are playing. People who wish, for example, to give malapportioned state legislatures the power to appoint that state’s presidential electors also believe that malapportioning state legislatures is necessary to “correct” for the fact that too many people live in cities and vote for Democrats. It is not just that conservatives in power are guiding us toward some form of government the political scientists call “managed democracy” or “competitive authoritarianism”; it is that they have basically already implemented it at the state level in various places. The subgovernment form of “state” is, currently, the most effective tool for preventing actual democracy in the United States, and that fact is why conservatives are so dedicated to preserving the power of the states.
Oftentimes, conservatives, especially of the “respectable” columnist variety, will argue that the right has a preference for “smallness” over “bigness,” or something like that, basically saying it is authentically democratic and traditionally American to believe that the state government is closer to The People than the massive federal bureaucracy or out-of-touch Congressional leaders. Federalism is often defended in these small-vs-big terms; surely, they say, the government of Wyoming has a better sense of what is good for Wyoming than some Washington regulator or big-state senator.
Here’s a sort of boilerplate version of that argument I found on the website of the Congressional Western Caucus:
A fundamental principle of our Constitution is the belief that local governments are better suited to deal with local issues than a distant, out-of-touch federal government. State and local governments are closer to the people, more responsive to citizens, and better equipped for representing their constituents on many important issues. The Tenth Amendment explicitly states, "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people. Recently, however, this tradition of constitutionally established local control has been seriously eroded due to usurpation of power by the federal government.
Or this from Ilya Somin in 2019: “This is what the battle over federalism looked like in the United States for many decades: Conservatives sought to limit federal power over state and local governments, and liberals tried to expand it.”
Everyone knows (and Somin does say) that liberals were hostile to federalism because they understood “states’ rights” to be a fig leaf for Jim Crow and “massive resistance,” but there’s another sleight-of-hand practiced by nearly everyone writing about democracy and federalism. Somin writes about “giving more power to states and localities,” and says “state and local governments can serve as an important check on a president,” and invokes “states and municipalities.” Even good-faith arguments about the potential for a sort of “progressive federalism” often use similar language, describing the possibility of exercising power through “local governments.” But of course, federalism as practiced in the United States has nothing at all to say about “localities,” “local governments,” and “municipalities.” It is about the powers of states, which, unfortunately, were a mistake.
If you read about what states, and especially Republican-led states actually do, it turns out that a lot of it is subverting the democratically expressed will of those smaller forms of government, imposing the preferences of the state government on large cities, Black cities, even college towns. Here in New York, for example, the people chosen by the city’s voters to run the city are not allowed to set the speed limit, among countless other powers reserved for a state legislature that was, for decades, purposely designed to boost rural and suburban representation. It is far worse in Republican-run states. In Texas, which practically makes a sport out of subverting the desire of its many large cities to rule themselves, San Antonio cannot determine the design of its own streets. Multiple state governments have denied cities the ability to decide to reduce police funding. State preemption of local rules on schools, guns, Covid restrictions, police, taxes, and budgets are an open conservative strategy, pursued with model legislation by the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council. The fact that Austin the city is unable to stop Austin the capital from widening I-35 right through the middle of it certainly makes it seem like we can toss the “small” versus “big” framing right out.
Conservatives have no philosophical commitment to localism, in other words, and it is a mistake to even have the argument on those terms. What conservatives do have is an instrumental attachment to federalism, and to the state form of subgovernment, that they treat as historical and principled, but that is actually just pragmatic and mercenary. The right wants militarized federal police guarding the borders and local state bureaucrats denying welfare benefits, just as in the past they wanted federal enforcement of fugitive slave capture and county authority over New Deal spending.
In the United States as currently constituted, the state is the form best suited to maintain, at the local level, the dominance of the suburban and rural over the urban, and, at the national level, the dominance of geography over people. This attachment may be a result of philosophical clashes about the role and nature of government dating back to the founding of this country, but I don’t think the right’s current attachment to federalism has much to do with those debates anymore, even if rhetoric echoing them is often borrowed to defend the status quo. That is, while conservative attachment to state government supremacy might be justified with appeals to “federalism,” and while modern arguments about federalism might broadly map onto a clash of supposedly high-minded philosophies dating back to the founding, today the right’s commitment to the principle is plainly just a pragmatic recognition that the state accidentally became, over many decades, the form best suited to conservative rule.
The state is cheaper and easier for the local American gentry to influence (even control) than the federal government. In many places with decimated local media it is easier to get away with quite blatant bribery and graft and corruption at the state capitol than it is in Washington. The way the federal government carries out much of its domestic agenda is by dispensing a lot of money to states and saying, “Here’s what to do with it, but you can get creative and we won’t really look into it that carefully.” And many decades of federally directed investment in particular housing and transportation patterns led to many (but not all) states having a geographically distributed white non-urban population that is able, even before gerrymandering, to politically dominate the urban population in state legislatures, thanks to the at this point very well-understood effects of single-member districts and first-past-the-post voting.
Because most state boundaries are basically arbitrary, with no logical connection to actual settlement patterns and urban development, we developed a system that, in much of the country, effectively freezes out urban citizens from having their interests represented in the subgovernmental form that most directly impacts their lives. There’s no logical reason Philadelphia should share a subgovernment with Pittsburgh but not Camden. But because they do, they are represented in the U.S. Senate by Pat Toomey.
Last year in The Nation, Nathan Newman (who also wrote this week on a similar subject for The American Prospect) made a pretty persuasive case for using the federal government to devolve the power of states and build up metropolitan governments (not strictly city governments, but regional ones—as he notes, “the average metropolitan area has 114 local governments, spread between municipalities, counties, and special districts like school systems,” which is too many governments). As he wrote, instead of any sort of “federalism” that encourages the “small” and “local” outcomes its proponents claim to support, “we now have state governments regularly diverting much of the federal funding they receive away from racially diverse cities in favor of largely white suburbs and exurbs, while increasingly blocking any innovative policy by blue cities, from local minimum wages to innovative housing policies through preemption of local laws.”
Any political movement that thinks of itself as pro-democracy should be working not just to make sure that U.S. Senate elections are fair, and not just about how to win power in places like Wisconsin and Georgia, but also about whether and how we can devolve the U.S. Senate, and make “Wisconsin” itself a historic region instead of a powerful government.
A formerly bipartisan but now partisan Republican group that includes members from famously “Western” states like Ohio, Kentucky, and Louisiana. There are even multiple members from states that are literally on the East Coast, including one representing Georgia’s Sea Islands, which are literally in the Atlantic Ocean. What does all of this have to do with “western”-ness in the context of the United States, I wonder?