Speaking of communication, as I did yesterday–Sometimes, it’s a good idea to define your terms.
I’m as guilty as anyone–I sometimes use terms without stopping to specify what I mean. In the interests of clarity, today I’m defining three structural labels that I use frequently–terms that identify aspects of America’s political environment that it’s past time to revisit and revise.
Federalism is the name given to America’s division of authority among local, state and federal levels of government. That division recognizes realities of governance: state and federal governments have no interest in handing out zoning permits or policing domestic violence disputes, to cite just two examples. Increasingly, however, many original assignments of responsibility are no longer workable. State-level management of elections, for example, was necessary in the age of snail-mail registration and index cards identifying voters; in the computer age, it’s an invitation to chaos and misconduct.
Federalism also facilitates assertions of state sovereignty where there really is none. Federal highway dollars are conditioned on state compliance with federally mandated speed limits, and similar “strings” are attached to almost all of the federal funding that cities and states rely upon. There are also an increasing number of issues, including climate change and pandemics, that must be addressed globally.
Businesses need uniformity in state laws in order to operate efficiently across state lines. Problems with acid rain can’t be solved by municipal ordinance. The internet cannot be controlled by a state legislature–or even by Congress. Even in law enforcement, generally considered the most local of issues, multistate criminal enterprises justify an increased federal presence.
The world has changed since the Constitution was drafted. Today, where should authority for governmental responsibilities reside? What should federalism mean in the age of technological connectivity and globalism?
Despite the existence of an Indiana statute labeled “Home Rule,” efforts at self-government by Indiana municipalities are routinely pre-empted by the Indiana Legislature. Just in the past few years, lawmakers have prevented local governments from restricting the use of disposable plastic bags and dictated what modes of public transit cities are permitted to use and tax themselves for. In a particularly ironic ruling, a Judge found that the state’s Home Rule statute itself blocked Ft. Wayne’s enforcement of a “good government” ordinance intended to restrict “pay for play” politics. The ordinance would have limited the amount of money owners of a company could give elected officials and still bid on city contracts.
In Indiana, the absence of genuine home rule means that decisions affecting residents of urban areas are routinely made by representatives of suburban and especially rural populations (see gerrymandering), whose grasp of the challenges and realities faced by elected officials in metropolitan areas is limited, at best.
Indiana is not unique. The Brookings Institution has described the extent to which state laws preempt local control over public health, economic, environmental, and social justice policy solutions. In 2019, state lawmakers made it illegal for locally-elected officials to enact a plastic bag ban in Tennessee, raise revenues in Oregon, regulate e-cigarettes in Arkansas, establish minimum wages in North Dakota, protect county residents from water and air pollution produced by animal feedlots in Missouri, or protect immigrants from unjust incarceration in Florida.
There are clearly issues that should be decided at the state or federal level. (See Federalism) Policy debates should center on what those issues are, and state-level lawmakers should to allow local governments to make the decisions that are properly local. Right now, they can’t.
Every ten years, the Constitution requires that a census be taken and the results used to remedy population discrepancies in the succeeding year’s congressional redistricting.
In our federalist system, redistricting is the responsibility of state legislatures. Gerrymandering, or partisan redistricting, occurs when the party that controls a statehouse manipulates district lines to be as favorable as possible to its own electoral prospects. “Packing” creates districts with supermajorities of the opposing party; “cracking” distributes members of the opposing party among several districts to ensure that it doesn’t have a majority in any of them; and “tacking” expands the boundaries of a district to include a desirable group from a neighboring district.
Partisan redistricting takes its name from then-governor of Massachusetts Elbridge Gerry.
Studies have tied gerrymandering to the advantages of incumbency and to partisan rigidity, but by far its most pernicious effect has been the creation of hundreds of Congressional seats that are safe for one party. The resulting lack of competitiveness reduces the incentive to vote or otherwise participate in the political process, because the winner of the district’s dominant party primary is guaranteed to win the general election. Primary voters tend to be more ideologically rigid, and as a result, candidates in safe districts are significantly more likely to run toward the extremes of their respective parties. Gerrymandering is thus a major contributor to partisan polarization.
Thanks to the way gerrymandered districts have been drawn in Indiana, a majority of policymakers in the Statehouse represent predominantly rural areas. As a consequence, state distribution formulas that allocate funding for roads and education significantly favor rural areas over urban ones, and members of Indiana’s General Assembly are more responsive to rural than urban concerns.
When I use these words, this is what I mean.