Politics & Policy

Trump: An Opportunity for Federalism

(Reuters photo: Eric Thayer)
His presidency might sell liberals on the idea.

There’s a wonderful exchange in A Man for All Seasons in which Thomas More debates young idealist William Roper about the need for laws and giving the accused the benefit of the doubt. For space considerations, let’s jump to the end:

Roper: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!

More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!

More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast — man’s laws, not God’s — and if you cut them down — and you’re just the man to do it — do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law for my own safety’s sake.

As partisans continue to retreat to their corners to either weep or gloat about the election results and what’s in store from a Trump presidency, this is a helpful little sermon to keep in mind.

“Turnabout is fair play” is a deeply human sentiment. In politics, it’s both tedious and fun, because while reciprocity is satisfying, hypocrisy is annoying. For instance, when Republicans take control of the Senate, Democrats instantly become sticklers for procedure, precedent, and constitutionalism. When Republicans lose the Senate, it’s “Democrats, start your steamrollers.”

While “You did it, so now we can too” is a perfectly natural attitude, it encourages cynicism precisely because it renders principles into arguments of convenience.

When President Obama was testing — and exceeding — the limits of his constitutional powers, liberals grabbed their pom-poms and cheered. Now that Donald Trump is in power, they’re rediscovering that constitutional safeguards are there for everybody. When Obama grew the deficit, Republicans and tea partiers insisted there was a debt crisis. Now, the president-elect says we must “prime the pump” with up to $1 trillion in deficit spending, and the former deficit hawks slumber in their nests.

Regardless, that excerpt from A Man for All Seasons is not intended to imply that Trump is the devil — or that Obama is. Suffice it to say that one partisan’s devil is another partisan’s angel. I’m more interested in breaking the cycle and seizing an opportunity.

One of my most cherished principles is the importance of localism, subsidiarity, or what is most commonly called federalism. The idea is pretty simple: People on the ground in their own communities have a better understanding of how they want to live and what they want from government. Local politicians are easier to hold accountable, and culture-war arguments aren’t abstractions when the combatants have to look each other in the eye.

This is a rare and ripe moment for conservatives and libertarians to convert progressives to a good idea.

Normally, under Democratic presidents, liberals treat any discussion of federalism as code for wanting Jim Crow or even slavery. They mock anyone who invokes the Tenth Amendment, which holds that any powers not constitutionally spelled out for the federal government belong to the states or the people. I could provide countless quotes to demonstrate this, but again, I’m trying not to score partisan points but to seize an opportunity.

You see, under Republican presidents, many liberals suddenly discover the benefits of “progressive federalism” — as some called it under George W. Bush — or “states’ rights for the Left,” as it was called in Jeffrey Rosen’s recent New York Times piece. Under President Obama, virtually any talk of “secession” — even in theory — was deemed the obsession of cranks and weirdos. But days after Trump’s victory, “Calexit” — a movement for California to secede from the United States — took on new life.

And guess what? I don’t care about the hypocrisy. What I want is buy-in.

#related#This is a rare and ripe moment for conservatives and libertarians to convert progressives to a good idea. And why shouldn’t they? Much progressive thought centers on notions of social solidarity and community. Liberal millennials and hipsters are receptive to the idea that the feds shouldn’t regulate their stinky cheeses, raw milk, micobrews, and weed. Personally, I think “sanctuary cities” are legal bunk, but the idea that localities should have the maximum allowable autonomy within the boundaries of the Constitution is perhaps the best way to maximize freedom and happiness.

The trick, however, is not just to convince liberals that local autonomy is good for them in the era of Trump. It is to get them on record that this is also acceptable for conservatives when the winds change direction and it’s their devil in the White House.

Jonah Goldberg, a senior editor of National Review and the author of Suicide of the West, holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute.

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