Federalism is one of the most important elements of America’s constitutional architecture (although my students’ lack of acquaintance with that term might suggest otherwise).
Federalism refers to the division of authority between federal, state and local levels of government; it rests on the premise (sometimes called subsidiarity) that problems are best addressed by the smallest unit of government able to deal with them. Americans have long had a strong bias toward “local control.”
In a phrase that has resonated, former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis referred to the states as “laboratories of democracy.” The idea is that states would initiate experiments with new programs, new ways of doing things, and if those new ideas were successful, other states would replicate those “pilot programs.”
It’s a nice theory, and it works in some contexts. But it assumes the ability of other states to learn from the successes and especially from the failures of others. And that hasn’t been happening.
I’ve written before about the very different policies being applied in Wisconsin and Minnesota–but more states are following Wisconsin, which is in a world of hurt, than are following Minnesota, which is thriving. Kansas and Louisiana are economic disasters, yet Republican governors (including, of course, Indiana’s Mike Pence) are blindly following the policies that led them down that road.
Speaking of Mike Pence, his photograph recently “graced” a blistering article detailing the growth of right-wing radicalism at the state level. The article asserts that while Americans are transfixed by a federal presidential campaign that sometimes seems to have been copied from a grade B movie, state-level lawmakers are busily rolling back hard-won advances in equality and freedom of choice.
While the nation’s eyes are riveted to the national stage, Republicans continue the multi-decade project of turning our nation into a right-wing wasteland by focusing their efforts where they can have the most impact with the least attention: state legislatures.
The article lists–among other travesties–bills in Indiana and Florida intended to cut off access to abortion and even birth control; Oklahoma’s efforts to strip any doctor who performs an abortion of his license to practice medicine, and an Iowa state senator’s proposal to make abortion a hate crime.
A whole raft of GOP-led states–including “moderate” John Kasich’s Ohio– is busily defunding Planned Parenthood.
But it isn’t just the war on women. Wisconsin (!) is proposing to fine so-called “sanctuary cities.” Iowa wants to authorize handgun possession and use for children under 14, while Arizona is moving a bill that would forbid state and local officials from enforcing federal firearms laws. Arizona is also loosening the already-weak regulation of “dark money” in politics.
Several states are prohibiting the use of “sharia law.” (It’s a safe bet that none of the wackos pushing this particular bit of nonsense have the faintest idea what sharia law is. They just don’t like Muslims.)
And of course, the frantic effort to push LGBT citizens back into the closet–and thus mollify the homophobes and theocrats who form such a prominent part of their base–is going full-steam ahead.
Thanks to gerrymandering, voting out these state-level legislative embarrassments ranges from difficult to virtually impossible. But you can’t gerrymandering a statewide office, and here in Indiana, getting rid of Mike Pence would be a very good place to start.