Over the weekend, the New York Times published a thought-provoking op-ed by Colby University sociology professor Neil Gross. Responding to collapsing public trust in American democracy and governmental institutions, he asks:
What if trust in American democracy is eroding because the nation has become too big to be effectively governed through traditional means? With a population of more than 325 million and an enormously complex society, perhaps this country has passed a point where — no matter whom we elect — it risks becoming permanently dissatisfied with legislative and governmental performance.
It depends on how one defines “traditional means.” If we’re speaking about the post-FDR form of American government, with power increasingly centralized in Washington, then Gross is on to something: American political dysfunction will only increase so long as our leaders remain committed to that kind of government. But if one goes further back and defines “traditional means” as government ordered according to the vision of the Founders, then there’s hope for us yet. True federalism (and only true federalism) can match American government to the larger religious, cultural, and political trends that are pulling Americans apart.
In other words — to pick up on the theme of a book I’m writing — it’s time to get busy decentralizing or get busy dividing.
Simply put, our current national government isn’t fit for the times in which we live. What we stitched together in response to an unusual one-two-three punch of American history (the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War) during a period of extraordinary Democratic political dominance is now straining under its own colossal weight. It’s not responsive to a nation that lacks a mortal threat to its existence, and it’s incompatible with a population that is using the combination of geographic mobility and technological flexibility to wall itself off in increasingly cocooned and polarized communities.
Consider this: In all of American society, there is only one significant institution that is stubbornly failing to yield to the “Big Sort” — the clustering of Americans into like-minded communities — and that’s the federal government. Choose your cultural measure, and the sorting is obvious.
Politics? The proportion of Americans living in “landslide counties” where one party’s presidential candidate wins by 20 points or more has increased from 38 percent in 1992 to 60 percent in 2016. The number of Republican landslide counties almost quadrupled over the same period, going from 592 to 2,232.
Faith? America faces obvious geographic and political divisions over religion: Religious practice is hardly spread evenly over the United States, and the most religious states vote Republican while the least religious states vote Democratic. What’s more, it appears that America is somehow becoming simultaneously more and less religious. While it’s true that the percentage of Americans who claim no religious affiliation has been growing, so has the Evangelical church:
[Evangelicals are] better at holding on to the people born into their tradition (65 percent retention compared to 59 percent for Catholics and 45 percent for Mainline Protestants), and they’re a stronger attractor for people leaving other faiths. According to Pew’s data on conversion rates, 10 percent of people raised Catholic wind up as evangelicals. Just 2 percent of people born as evangelicals wind up Catholic. The flow between mainline and evangelical Protestants is also tilted in evangelicals’ favor. Twelve percent of those raised evangelical wind up in mainline congregations, but 19 percent of mainline Protestants wind up becoming evangelical.
The truly massive attrition is in the once-domination Protestant Mainline. Now, a growing Evangelical church is confronting a growing secular population, and the American religious divide will only increase.
But if geography and religion divide us, then surely pop culture can unite us, right? Wrong. If you review ratings maps of America’s most popular shows, the red–blue cultural divide is just as obvious as on Election Day. As I’ve noted before, if you’re watching Game of Thrones, you’re likely living in America’s blue cities. If you’re watching The Walking Dead, you’re more likely living in rural Trump country. The days of the universal water-cooler show are over.
How is the continued consolidation of governmental power remotely compatible with this geographic, cultural, and religious fragmentation? Indeed, doesn’t it inevitably increase alienation and bitterness?
And do we even have to discuss technology? While it’s certainly true that Americans red and blue use Google, buy Apple products, have Facebook and Instagram pages, and troll each other on Twitter, each of these platforms is immensely popular precisely because they help us sort into our micro-communities and enable us to customize our entertainment. They’re universally available vehicles of fragmentation and decentralization.
How is the continued consolidation of governmental power remotely compatible with this geographic, cultural, and religious fragmentation? Indeed, doesn’t it inevitably increase alienation and bitterness? After all, the consolidation of American power isn’t just in the hands of the federal government, it’s in the hands of one man: the American president.
Consider the “pen and phone” Obama presidency. Individual Americans had but one vote out of 120 million, and that was the entirety of their substantive political input to a presidency that bypassed their elected representatives to change everything from national immigration policy to disciplinary policies in their local public schools. All other levels of county, state, and city government were helpless in the face of Obama’s immense accumulated power.
And then, much to the fury of his millions of supporters, many of those changes disappeared before their very eyes — all because a few thousand voters in cities and towns hundreds of miles from their own either stayed home or switched their votes in 2016.
There is nothing healthy about this. And even leaving aside the presidency, there is nothing healthy about the idea that Nancy Pelosi can loom large in Tennessee or that Ted Cruz can loom large in California. The very idea of Cruz’s potential power in San Francisco or Pelosi’s power in Franklin can cause politically engaged Americans to live in a state of near-constant agitation and misery.
The solution is staring us in the face. Ironically enough, 18th-century federalism is more compatible with the Information Age than 20th-century centralization. It is not, however, compatible with the will to power that darkens all too many political hearts.
There are an immense number of partisans who look at the facts of American decentralization and polarization — who examine the reality of our religious, cultural, and political diversity — and decide that the answer to American division is, quite simply, to win, to crush the opposition.
Each side has its theory of ascendancy. For Democrats, demography is destiny. As the nation looks more like California, it will be more like California. For Republicans, geography is destiny. As Democrats cluster in the coasts and pile on top of each other in progressive enclaves, the inexorable power of the Electoral College and the United States Senate will make it increasingly difficult for the Left to dominate American political life. Let them win California by millions of votes. Let them get 99 percent of the Brooklyn vote. Until it can once again win in flyover country, the #Resistance can knit all the caps it wants — but it won’t defeat Donald Trump.
Both of these theories are barely plausible enough to give the permanent partisans hope for permanent triumph. But their will to power conflicts with everyone else’s pursuit of happiness. How much more polarization must we endure before competing factions understand that ultimate victory is elusive, and that far more modest ambitions can secure the prosperity and unity of their own communities?
America is indeed too big (and far too divided) to govern — at least according to the 20th-century model. To go forward, we must go back. Federalism’s time has come again.