This era might change how the left feels about federalism

Federalism – the idea that states retain powers not granted to the federal government and they should exercise them – has long been more popular on the right. With President Trump in the White House and Republican majorities in Congress, the left is discovering, hey, maybe federalism isn’t so bad after all.

If federalism gains traction on the left, it will represent a pivot for them. As Charles Lane notes in the Washington Post:

“Heretofore, federalism has been a right-wing cause, whose malignant forms trace their pedigree to John C. Calhoun and Secessionism 1.0. Now, a left-right convergence might sustain benign forms of federalism — based on the understanding that policy should, whenever appropriate, be made close to the people who will actually live under it.”

If a pivot is taking place, it is clearly spurred by being shut out of power in the national government. The left’s error is in seeing the virtues of federalism only when they don’t control the levers of the federal government. The right’s is in preaching federalism more than they practice it.

There certainly are virtues to federalism, and I hope thinkers on the left are willing to consider the long-term upsides to devolved powers, regardless of who is in the White House.

  • State governments are closer to the people they serve and are in a better position to craft policies that work for their residents.
  • Concerned citizens have more opportunities to give state officials direct input.
  • Federalism allows for more policy-based discussions. We see that in Olympia, which is a partisan place but far less so than Congress (and far better functioning).
  • When 50 states work toward solutions to thorny problems, rather than one national government, more experimentation happens. The states can be laboratories. We would learn far more about rational health care policies, for instance, without states all fitting into the narrow confines of Obamacare. A Medicaid expansion without Obamacare’s nationwide upheaval of health insurance would have been a better outcome. States could have then made their own adjustments (on their own timelines) to insurance regulations.
  • The Constitution makes clear that the states retain important powers. We may not agree on precisely what those powers are, but we can all agree that there’s an important, constitutionally-delineated distinction.

More than just outcomes
The renewed discussion about federalism isn’t just about policy outcomes or good government. It’s also a reaction, I suspect, to a growing unease with political homogenization. Alabama, California, New Hampshire, and Montana are pretty different places with unique cultures. We need a common national defense, but do we need national bathroom access rules? A national minimum wage, higher or lower?

There’s also a sense that the national political scene is not the best place to tackle tough issues these days, and not just because Congress is a mess. Every big political issue today feels like a moral struggle. David Brooks has an interesting theory on why that seems to be the case, in a column that is well worth your time.

A new focus on state-driven solutions has much to recommend it. It would also turn down the heat on our boiling national political drama. That’s something people of all political stripes could get behind.
-Rob McKenna

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.