Amid all of the news coming out of the Trump administration in the past couple of weeks, one vision stands out: a disintegrating federal government.
If that happens, what’s next?
If the stakes weren’t so high, we could enjoy the opportunity to debate the limits of federalism all over again. How much power should the federal government have vis-à-vis the states? That debate is as old as the republic. But a series of events is making this an existential question. President Trump’s former adviser Steve Bannon once spelled it out in plain language: Trump sought nothing less than the “deconstruction of the administrative state.”
We’ve seen this play out since Trump took office—hollowing out the diplomatic corps, trying to undermine or privatize entire federal departments (Education, Veterans Affairs), purging the civil service ranks of staff deemed insufficiently loyal to Trump, giving a massive tax cut to the wealthiest people and largest companies, driving future national debt up to $1 trillion to force draconian future budget cuts, radically scaling back environmental oversight, including last week’s renewed attempts to gut the Endangered Species Act.
Part of this is Republican orthodoxy, the GOP strategist Grover Norquist’s long-held goal of reducing government “to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” Congress, now being led by a Republican Party in the thrall of Trump’s right-wing nationalism, is poised to make that dream a reality.
If Democrats don’t take control of Congress after fall’s midterm elections (by no means a sure thing)—or even if they do and treat their win as merely their turn to gorge at the big table—then we’re going to see continued disintegration and dysfunction.
And then it’s on us. By “us,” I mean this: Will the states, the cities, the communities, the people try to rebuild some sort of unified state?
We like to think of cooperative enterprises and networks of affiliated nonprofits as the small beating heart of progressive economics in the U.S. But that’s not enough to run a country, not even 50 separate ones, without a unifying government to lay the ground rules.
For instance, what would happen if Social Security were privatized or eliminated? State public-employee plans and private accounts are intended to help bolster Social Security in retirement. Neither was intended as a replacement, even as an increasing cost of living has meant that most seniors cannot live on Social Security alone.
If it goes away, Americans will be left with a social safety net that’s more holes than support. What would replace it? State retirement plans for all residents? Corporate pension plans? Better investment funds for people with average incomes? Whether old people live in poverty could depend on the creativity and compassion of the people put in power close to home.
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That is why midterm and off-year elections are so important. Down-ballot candidates for state office and, in off-year elections, the county and municipal races are where democracy asserts itself.
True, these local elections might not have influence over Supreme Court picks or whether Congress will stand up to the president. But governors, state legislators, and judges have more power to determine quality of life for the people than a Congress paralyzed by dysfunction.
It may be that a local cooperative enterprise can provide a better quality of life for its employees and customers than a for-profit business, but it’s going to be state legislatures and governors who ensure that laws support those enterprises. In other words, we can work at the grassroots level to provide people with alternatives for improving their situation, but it takes a caring government to provide clean water.
This is the premise and promise of localism.
There are a lot of natural advantages of localism that can appeal to both liberals and conservatives. It is an expression of small government, and it engenders a sense of reciprocity among people that strengthens community ties. Proof of its appeal to conservatives: New York Times columnist David Brooks recently caught wind of localism and became very enthusiastic.
Under the rules of localism, where you live has more to do with what kind of community you’ll have. Washington state, for example, has legalized recreational marijuana and is working toward a $15 minimum wage, but Michigan’s state government has been rather blasé about high levels of lead in the city of Flint’s drinking water. On many major issues, from civil rights to voting, the environment to business, who benefits from local policy varies from state to state. And it depends on who makes up your community, who votes in local elections, and who gets the power.
The glue holding all these systems together has always been the federal government. Without that glue, rampant tribalism can become an unbridgeable chasm. The U.S. Constitution was written by a group of 18th-century men who left it vague in many respects. That’s part of the document’s flaw and genius, both, as the framers knew they couldn’t anticipate everything about the future. Bottom line, an effective government is one with strong checks and balances.
But now the federal government is wavering in its commitment to its people.
If localism is what’s left after big government disappears, we will need to build regional institutions to ensure that our communities are being served. Strong communities can do a lot of things on their own, but they need a state to support them if they’re going to thrive.