Heather K. Gerken’s piece on progressive federalism in the Spring 2012 issue of Democracy [“A New Progressive Federalism,” Issue #24] is one of the most fascinating things I’ve read in a long time.
Rather than keep minorities as junior partners in a national government, Gerken wants progressives to embrace decentralization as a way for minorities to enjoy majority status for themselves. And beyond the community efficacy that comes with it, there’s a practical reason for this strategy; by debating, reaching compromise, and passing policies that benefit their communities, minorities move dissent away from rhetoric and toward action, and can place key issues on the national agenda. This goes for progressive concerns like same-sex marriage—which entered the national debate, in part, because of the actions of states and localities—as well as conservative ones like border control and opposition to abortion rights.
Two thoughts come to mind. The first is that this is a powerful argument: Giving minorities a chance to demonstrate the substance of their arguments through local rule is a powerful tool in the fight to change policy on a national level. Black unemployment is persistently higher than unemployment for any other group; are there policy solutions that are impossible to pass in Congress, but could be tried on a local level? You can ask these same questions for everything from climate change to educational reform.
But there are obvious concerns. Would national majorities use empowered local communities as an excuse to shy away from broader problems? And would this renewed federalism become, again, a tool for oppression?
I can imagine a world where a majority-Latino community creates school districts that specifically cater to Latinos, but such a move would carry with it uncomfortable echoes of “separate but equal.” Of course, quasi-segregation for the sake of empowerment is different than outright segregation for the sake of oppression. But it’s something to consider.
One last thing. In an era where there’s a real chance of conservative entrenchment in the federal government, a framework that allows for progressivism to thrive on the state and local levels is incredibly powerful and, in addition to its own value, can lay the groundwork for a revitalization of liberalism at the federal level. In a lot of ways, it’s a version of the strategy used by conservatives in the 1970s and 1980s to rebuild their power after decades of liberal hegemony: Start local, find success, and use the states as a testing ground for ideas and approaches.
If the problem of political liberalism in the current era is the lack of a strong and pervasive infrastructure at every level of government, then progressive federalism could become a tool in improving the situation.
The Mass in the Middle
I thought Eric Liu’s “Sworn-Again Americans” [Issue #24] was a fine essay. I could find nothing to disagree with. (Indeed, my father taught at the old Highlander Folk School that Mr. Liu references, back when it was still in Monteagle.)
However, there is something I think the essay leaves out. I’m not sure exactly how to say it, but it has to do with that phrase near the end of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address—the one about a government “for the people.”
Somehow average people are no longer provided for in terms of their opportunities in the pursuit of happiness. This is not about success in the usual sense. Nor is it about caring for the least fortunate among us.
It is the big average mass in the middle that is being forgotten. Politicians talk about an opportunity for “everyone to go to college.” That exposes the problem right there. We refuse to recognize the needs of, or to provide an appropriate education for, the majority who maybe should not or might not be able to go to college—to give them the skills and the training to earn a living with their hands and their feet. They do that in Germany, so it is not impossible. Germany is a prosperous country.
But the problem goes beyond that. Not only do we not provide appropriate educations for average Americans—we also don’t care much about giving them an opportunity to lead a good life.
That used to be possible, back when the American dream still meant a house in the suburbs and a full-time mom who stayed at home with the kids. Even blue-collar workers could shoot for that. They can’t now, and nothing has taken its place.