I’ve never been a big fan of federalism–I’ve seen too much in the way of retrograde parochialism defended in the name of “states’ rights”–but as the song goes, I’m beginning to see the light. As Heather Gerken writes,
These days it’s an extraordinarily powerful weapon in politics for the left and the right, and it doesn’t have to be your father’s (or grandfather’s) federalism. It can be a source of progressive resistance and, far more importantly, a source for compromise and change between the left and the right.
As Gerken points out, the federal government is heavily dependent upon state and local officials to implement its policies. Immigration is a good example; even though immigration law comes unambiguously under federal jurisdiction, the federal government relies to a significant extent upon the co-operation of local police officers. Recently,
Lack of co-operation can be passive or active.
Sometimes states engaged in uncooperative federalism simply refuse to participate in federal programs, or they do so begrudgingly. Some states have refused to carry out the Patriot Act and federal immigration law. States didn’t just denounce the Patriot Act’s broad surveillance and detention rules as an attack on civil liberties. Blue and red states instructed their own officials not to collect or share information with the federal government unless there was a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, or they forbade state officials to engage in activities inconsistent with the states’ constitutions.
Politico reports that at least 37 cities are resolute in their commitments to undocumented immigrants, even in the face of Trump’s threat to “cancel all federal funding to sanctuary cities.” None have moderated their resistance to cooperation with federal immigration officials.
States resisted the No Child Left Behind Act by manipulating testing standards and by slow-walking reforms. State recalcitrance was so great that eventually the Bush Administration threw in the towel and granted states so many waivers that the federal program was basically gutted.
Of course, that strategy won’t work when the federal action is “deregulatory;” uncooperative federalism is irrelevant when there isn’t a program to resist, and Trump’s choice of cabinet nominees signals his intent to gut much of the federal regulatory structure.
But that’s where spillovers come in. When one state regulates, it often affects its neighbors. When Texas insisted that its textbooks question evolution, its market power ensured that textbooks used in blue states did the same. When Virginia made it easy to buy a gun, guns flooded into New York City despite its rigorous firearms prohibitions. When West Virginia failed to regulate pollution, toxic clouds floated over Ohio.
But spillovers, like federalism, don’t have a particular political valence. Just as there are spillovers conservatives cheer, there are spillovers progressives celebrate. Want to know who really sets emissions standards in this country? It’s not the EPA. It’s California, which sets higher emissions standards than the federal government. Because no company can afford to give up on the California market, our cars all meet the state’s high standards.
Gerken reminds us that “states’ rights” can be deployed for progressive ends, despite regressive deployment of the tactic in the past. (According to Vox, Colorado, for example, is investigating the possibility of keeping its Obamacare marketplace even if the ACA is repealed.)
Progressives have long thought of federalism as a tool for entrenching the worst in our politics. But it’s also a tool for changing our politics. Social movements have long used state and local policymaking as an organizing tool, a rallying cry, a testing ground for their ideas.
The most remarkable example in recent years has been the same-sex marriage movement, which depended heavily on state and local sites as staging grounds for organizing and debate. That process may explain why those equality norms now run deep enough that the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage in Obergefell — a decision that would surely have caused intense controversy not so long ago — was greeted with enormous enthusiasm in many quarters and opposed in precious few.
All of these strategies require a change in focus from progressives’ reflexive preference for top-down, uniform national policies to bottom-up activism. Those of us in (mostly blue) cities are in the best position to generate opposition to Trump’s edicts, to throw sand in the gears of his federal apparatus. In red states like Indiana, non-cooperation will require us to identify those aspects of Trump’s agenda that are most at odds with the interests of the state, and to focus our disruptive forces there.
There’s a satisfying irony to using a states’ rights mantra to protect human rights, rather than deny them. Call it karma.