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Sunday, January 08, 2017

One more round with Heather Gerken: Why federalism can still promote pluralism in our polarized times

Heather Gerken has written a typically smart and pithy response to my response to her response to my argument that federalism makes a great insurance policy against political defeat at the national level. I argued that, by limiting national power with formal rules, the Constitution can reassure Red and Blue voters that the other side will not impose their policies nationally. This allows Blue and Red states to go their separate ways on issues where disagreement is intractable.

Heather responds that federalism cannot promote pluralism in hyper-polarized times, because hyper-polarized politicians and/or voters just cannot stomach the idea of their opponents' imposing their views even subnationally. According to Heather,"[i]f you really think that what the other side is doing is monstrous, you aren’t going to allow for an exception to the national norm – which is precisely what is necessary for federalism to get up and running -- no matter what tradition or institutional practice holds." With her usual gift for a phrase, she declares that you cannot play cards in a hurricane.

In principle, I do not disagree: It might be that federalism could never contain fundamental moral disagreements like the fight in the 1850s over slavery. That was indeed a hurricane force wind that blew away any constitutional accommodation. After the jump, however, I will suggest that the sort of polarization afflicting us Americans today is more a tropical storm than a hurricane. It is nothing like the fight over slavery. Following Morris Fiorina's lead, I will suggest that the views of Red and Blue voters actually have not change that much over the last thirty years. We the People actually are not really that intensely polarized over issues. We are just intensely distrustful of each other. I suggest that firm, formal constitutional rules of federalism are actually ideal for containing this sort of polarization.

1. How polarized are we, really?

If one looks at politicians' speeches or roll call votes, we Americans are intensely polarized. Neither the speeches nor the votes overlap as much as they did in the past, making our times look hyper-polarized.

There are, however, good reasons not to measure polarization by politicians' observed behavior. After all, they represent us the people: If we are not so intensely polarized, then the polarization of elites might be more of a tempest in a teapot than a hurricane of mutual hate.

Morris Fiorina has famously argued that citizens' views really have not diverged very much over the last few decades. Instead, citizens have simply sorted themselves more cleanly into intensely polarized political parties. (The Fiorina Thesis parallels a similar argument by Matthew Levendusky). Voters have not moved further apart on issues like abortion, gun control, taxes, and so forth: They just identify more intensely with parties that now take cleanly distinct positions on these issues.

2. Why federalism can contain our disagreements if they are not policy disagreements

The significance of the Fiorina Thesis is hotly contested, but I want to bracket that fight for now and instead focus on a different question: If Fiorina is correct, and Trump voters actually do not differ in their policy views more from Clinton voters than the views of voters in the past have differed from each other, then what does such a fact suggest about the efficacy of federalism as an antidote for polarization?

Here's a hypothesis: Unlike citizens who regard the other side's policy positions as loathsome, citizens today are actually quite prepared to allow the other side to impose their views subnationally. Alabama voters actually are not intensely horrified that New Yorkers force insurers to pay for employees' contraception, recognize same-sex marriage, or prohibit open carry. They just do not want those New York values enforced in Alabama. Give them assurance that liberalism will be not be nationalized, and they will be willing to give similar assurance about conservativism. Unlike disagreements over slavery in the 1850s, disagreements over Obamacare and the like are not hyper-intense moral disagreements. (If they were, the congressional Republicans would not be facing so many difficulties in repealing the ACA). Instead, we simply have hyper-intense distrust of our opponents' motives: Each side thinks that the other is a culturally alien force that seeks omnipotence rather than cooperation.

If policy disagreement is not the crux of our polarization, then federalism should work pretty well to contain our animosity. Just give each side credible assurance that laws contradicting their strongest policy positions will not be nationalized. Create lots of local opt-outs in inevitably national statutes. (It is not obvious to me why we need a uniform national rule on contraception coverage in the ACA, given that contraception coverage does not affect business costs and, therefore, will not ;likely lead to a race to the bottom).

If one looks outside Washington to subnational political cooperation between cities and suburbs, one sees confirmation of the idea that, once fear of being dominated is taken off the table, Red and Blue voters are perfectly happy to cut a deal. Take, for example, Bruce Katz's and Jennifer Bradley's account of the Denver Metropolitan area's voting to create a massive new light rail system, build a new airport, and fund cultural centers in Denver. In these votes, intensely conservative Coloradans in the Denver suburbs agreed to tax themselves for the greater good that included intensely liberal Denverites. Why could they cooperate so well subnationally but not in Congress? One might hypothesize that, at the state level, neither side feared domination by the alien Other. The Poundstone Amendment (a state constitutional amendment barring unilateral annexation by Denver) gave assurance to the suburbs that Denver would never impose liberal policies on them without their consent. Home rule assured Denverites that conservatives could not strip them of internal autonomy. The result? A non-ideological vote marshaled by non-ideological leaders like then-Denver Mayor, now-Colorado Governor John Hickenklooper.

So do not count federalism out because partisan polarization is intense. If issue polarization is not intense, then federalism might be the perfect windbreak to stop polarization's storm.

Posted by Rick Hills on January 8, 2017 at 05:03 PM | Permalink

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