It took an election that gave the Republican Party control of the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives, but at long last the American left is starting to discover the virtues of devolving authority to state and local governments.
I mean this not as a “gotcha,” as in, “Ha, ha, those hypocritical Democrats, when they had power they wanted to run everything from Washington, now the minute the Republicans are about to take over they all of a sudden conveniently discover the virtues of states’ rights and local control.”
I mean it more as, “Hey, the way our country is set up, with state and local governments as well as the one in Washington, it is actually a pretty good way of handling the reality that roughly half the country is upset and anxious about the plans of the president-elect.”
“Resistance” is the word that the press is using to describe the stance of some urban Democrats to the Trump agenda, especially on immigration-law enforcement. The mayor of Boston, Martin Walsh, was quoted by the Boston Herald saying, “I am not letting anybody change the policies in the city of Boston … regardless of what the federal government says.”
“Providence Mayor Resists Trump Agenda,” was the headline in the Providence Journal, reporting that the capital of Rhode Island’s mayor, Jorge Elorza, had contacted the mayors of New York and Los Angeles and agreed, “We’re going to stand together … we’re going to continue with the policy we’ve always had.”
If the idea of state and local “resistance” to laws from Washington sounds familiar; it should; the arch-segregationist governor of Alabama, George Wallace, spoke of the “spirit of resistance” when he vowed not to enforce the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. Ever since then, what Newt Gingrich called the “devolution” of federal power to state and local government (“federalism” is another term for it, somewhat confusingly) has had a bad odor among liberals. Democrats have largely opposed Republican efforts to “block grant” welfare or Medicaid funding to the states, seeing these efforts as the starting pistol for a race to the bottom in which states compete over who can have the least generous program.
Now that Republicans are on the ascent in Washington, though, even the liberal New York Times is starting to see the virtues of decentralization.
“Progress may unfold at the state or local level,” Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote recently. “It’s encouraging that voters in four states passed minimum wage measures, and in three states approved gun safety measures, while other states and localities are wrestling with climate change.”
Another Times columnist, Thomas Friedman, wrote, “If you want to be an optimist about America, stand on your head — the country looks so much better from the bottom up. What you see are towns and regions not waiting for Washington, D.C., but coming together themselves to fix infrastructure, education and governance. I see it everywhere I go.”
Republicans tend to like local control of welfare spending, but are less happy about “sanctuary cities” on immigration or about municipalities whose strict gun-control laws infringe on the right to bear arms. Democrats like local freedom to set higher minimum wages, stricter gun control laws, or more lax immigration laws, but object to the idea that abortion rights or anti-discrimination law vary depending on each city or state.
The Constitution — which gives the federal government certain limited and enumerated powers, while reserving the rest of the powers, in the Tenth Amendment, to the states and the people — is a useful guide here.
But in gray areas, where the Constitution is less than explicit, making decisions at the levels of government closest to the people, rather than at a distant national capital, turns out to make a lot of sense. It’s a point worth keeping in mind no matter which party has control in Washington.
Ira Stoll is editor of FutureOfCapitalism.com and author of “JFK: Conservative.” His column appears Sunday.