Live-and-let-live Federalism

By Harrison Searles

More Americans are disgruntled today with the state of the American system of government, according to an ABC/Yahoo opinion poll, than they have been in 36 years. This should be of little surprise to anyone who has been paying attention to the state of American politics recently. It has become a cliché truism to state that the United States is divided on long ideological grounds and that opposing sides have promulgated diametrically contradictory ideas of what the role of government is. It is easy to write off this increasingly fundamental fact of the political landscape of the United States as being a reaction against the policies of those in control of the Federal government, and that the solution lies in bipartisan compromise.

However, though the growing displeasure with the system of government may be influenced by unpopular decisions in Washington and politicians’ attitude that “history will vindicate us”, but this is too simple of an analysis because much of the reason why Americans are fractured politically is that many of the political opinions held by the opposing factions are simply irreconcilable.

Indeed, the periods of American history in which the country seemed the most united from a hindsight influenced by both myth and history are the times at which citizens have united towards a single end. Many have looked back upon the so-called “Greatest Generation” nostalgically as a time in which Americans were united behind Franklin Deleno Roosevelt’s New Deal and then together in WWII against the Nazis and Japanese. Another time at which the United States seemed to be united is during the Kennedy administration behind both the Cold War and the space program. In both of these examples, so vivid in the mythology of American politics, it was not a random occurrence that America was politically unified. American politics were centered on issues in which there were not radical disagreements regarding the policies that the government ought to pursue.

This is not the case in contemporary politics, debate today is not about what a policy should entail, but about the political paradigm that motivates the suggestion of a program in the first place. In the upcoming elections, the issues at stake are not merely opinions about the policies that the Federal government ought to pursue, but what is the role that it ought to play in society.

Members of the American right are not angered that the Democrats’ healthcare bill had X and Y in it while lacking A and B, but they are vexed by the fact that it was passed in the first place. Despite how attractive President Obama’s campaign message of bipartisanship might have been, its naïveté has been revealed in full during the last two years because it is simply impossible for him, along with the Democrats, to take a bipartisan stance since the policies they hold dear are necessarily partisan and the same is true for Republican stances. There is no unifying paradigm for the role of the government in American politics to provide the foundation for political compromises; instead, each side justly realizes that any such action would result in policies contradicting their political worldview. America is now host to political ideologies that are simply contradictory in application and that is a simple fact driving the polarization of politics.

It thus follows that any notion of bipartisan politics is rendered vain in today’s political circumstances and that either there must be either an ascendant unifying view or a rethinking of how American politics will be done. The former option may very well be the more realistic of the two and a new thought may very well emerge in the next two years, but it could be argued that such a solution simply pushes the fundamental issue further into the future. A fact is that the modernization of society is multiplying the amount of problems in society and increasing the amount of knowledge in society in terms of orders of magnitude.

Whether it is the challenge posed by globalization, or that supplied by the shift in demographics the way American government operates will eventually need to evolve in order to be able to provide solutions to these. Furthermore, it is wishful thinking that all of a sudden radical groups like the Tea Party would be able to meet in the middle regarding questions of government policy. Instead, the American system of government must evolve to face the challenges of not only a vastly more complicated world, but also an environment in which citizens agree less and less.

Perhaps the problem is found in the fact that contemporary America places compromise in such high regard without realizing that perhaps rational disagreement, synthesized with federalism, may very well be a more fruitful avenue. As discussed above, Americans are in disagreement about fundamental issues of political paradigm that are irreconcilable, so perhaps what is needed for American politics is an increased emphasis on the political nature of the States.

Rather than being considered as little more than administrative regions, as they are all too often, it is time that they are considered true political communities in which political dialogue can occur. It is simply unnecessary to have political debates regarding issues like abortion, same-sex marriage and drug legalization at the Federal level, they can be handled at the state level and instead of having debates at the Federal level that go nowhere and obscure other issues like taking care of the out-of-control deficit.

If citizens who cannot live without a fully-automatic assault rifle decided to opt for no gun control in Texas, then why worry? Similarly, if citizens in a socially-liberal state like Massachusetts decide to legalize gay-marriage. If the issue can be handled by debates within smaller communities that not only allow for a greater role of the individual citizen, but also occur within more culturally homogenous communities, then why must that issue be centralized to a higher branch of government?

If one is really abhorred by the fact one’s next door neighbor owns a small armory, then vote with one’s feet and move to a state with tougher gun regulations. Such a scheme would also have the advantage of putting to the test many different sorts of policies in which States pass different laws, and the ones that are more effective than others at achieving the desired end will be mimicked by other states in a process of social evolution much like Karl Popper’s suggestion of piecemeal social engineering. Furthermore, since States are smaller than the Federal government, they would be able to tailor policies according to the circumstances facing them.

Instead of expecting compromise on fundamental issues at the Federal-level, a system of live-and-let-live federalism would allow the States to disagree on those issues, and in doing so would be better suited for a political environment in which it is simply impossible to expect compromise on certain issues. Such a system would allow for key issues to be discussed and legislated at the state level, and would allow for individual States to embrace programs that would best fit the views of its political community.

Harrison Searles is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]