In my last post, I argued that the Seventeenth Amendment should be repealed. Once upon a time, Americans from across the political spectrum could agree on at least one principle of good governance: federalism, or more generally, localized decision-making.
To put a fine point on it:
- Your state knows its own values and interests better than the national government does.
- Your county knows its own values and interests better than the state government does.
- Your city knows its own values and interests better than the county government does.
- Your neighborhood knows its own values and interests better than the city government does.
- Your household knows its own values and interests better than the neighborhood does.
- And you arguably know your own particular values and interests better than other members of your household do.
Depending on who’s won lately, the people in power at higher levels of organization may approximately reflect your values and interests, but the further away they get, the less likely this is to be the case. Simply put, the more people you have to represent, and the further they are away from you, the harder it is to faithfully represent them all.
Even if your Congressman is a tremendously intelligent and virtuous man, what he doesn’t know about his constituents’ beliefs and circumstances could fill libraries.
So as a general rule, it makes sense that we should want matters to be decided at the most local level possible. If you have a personal problem, you have the greatest incentive to fix the problem, your values will determine what trade-offs you’re comfortable with, and the matter probably shouldn’t leave your household — or at worst, your peer groups. If it doesn’t naturally spill over into other people’s lives, they don’t want you to make it their problem.
Largely because so much power has accrued at higher levels of government, people increasingly turn to the impersonal and ignorant forces of those higher levels to handle their problems. Today, the federal government has so much power, reaching down to the most local possible decisions, that people focus an inordinate amount of their attention and aspirations on who controls it and what they do with it. Everyone’s fate is determined by whose collective hand controls the Biggest Lever.
I cannot stress enough how dangerous a development this is. Let’s leave aside, for the moment, how centralized control and planning tend to double down on mistakes rather than correct them. They have much more insidious effects.
Making everything a national issue has poisoned the national debate. It is a significant cause of the Culture War (see Roe v Wade, or Defense of Marriage Act). It has contributed to making politics personal, and it’s why so many people have become emotionally invested in the person of the President. Think about how much more common it has become for both parties to use the language and imagery of dictators to describe the president — usually when we disagree with him.
Bottom line: it is difficult to tolerate your neighbor’s difference of opinion if his opinion controls your life. It has become too difficult to mind one’s own business.
Let that marinate for a minute, and I’ll move on to my suggestion for one solution. Continue reading
George Will argues we should repeal the Seventeenth Amendment. I doubt it will happen–too many people are convinced of the Populist notion that the more direct the democracy, the better. But I’ve been arguing for years that this measure would restore a great measure of federalism to the US, and that we would generally benefit from such a change.
Doug Mataconis of Below the Beltway isn’t so sure. He writes,
As I’ve noted before, it’s a provocative argument, but I think there’s something missing:
My take on the subject is this — from a procedural point of view the 17th Amendment is certainly one of the factors that has made the expansion of Federal power, and the erosion of Federalism, more easy to accomplish. Returning to direct election of Senators *might* have a positive impact, but that will only happen if the Senators elected have a proper understanding of their role under the Constitution.
And if the state legislators appointing them have that same understanding.
Given the political climate in America today, having Senators who are beholden to the whims and wishes of state legislators is unlikely to produce a better breed in the Upper House than having Senators who are beholden to the whims and wishes of voters.
In some sense, repealing the 17th Amendment involves turning back the clock in more ways than one. We can return to the procedural methods that the Framers first put in place, but that doesn’t mean that the philosophy that will guide the Senate will change in any significant respect.
I can’t comment on whether we’d get a “better breed”, but the procedural change would change the practice, if not the philosophy, of senators. As I argue in the comments, the purpose of many of the checks and balances in the Constitution of the early republic was to have people in power answer to those who were jealous of their own power. Repealing the Seventeenth wouldn’t cure all ills, but it would help.
For example, the federal government has extended its power over state and local matters by using its superior funding power to provide goodies, and attaching strings to that money.
If we posit that state legislators want to arrogate more power to themselves, then–given the power–they will resist those strings. US Senators, realizing that their appointment to the Senate (and all the attendant benefits) requires pleasing the state legislators, will avoid attaching those strings. They don’t need to understand anything except who’s buttering their bread.
Let’s say that state legislators still like the idea of getting federal money without having to levy their own taxes. Well, if the Senate tries to appropriate no-strings-attached money for the states, naturally the House and President will resist. They don’t want to levy taxes and receive no controlling benefit in return.
A smaller number might be ideologically committed to using the superior federal power of taxation to fund these goodies, but not having strings attached to federal money would dull the incentive.
Damon Linker at The New Republic has a thoughtful post about how President Obama can win and end the culture war. It goes against the intuitions of most of the Left, but I think he’s figured out something that has eluded almost all of them — a way to unravel some of the most significant bonds that have held the Republican coalition together for the last several decades.
While I think he’s right about same-sex marriage (social conservatives are losing ground steadily), I find his thoughts on abortion particularly cogent.
How could Obama — how could liberals, how could supporters of abortion rights — both win and end the culture war, once and for all? By supporting the reversal or significant narrowing of Roe, allowing abortion policy to once again be set primarily by the states — a development that would decisively divide and demoralize the conservative side of the culture war by robbing it of the identity politics that holds it together as a national movement.
If that sounds strange to you, read the whole thing.
I have said for years that overturning Roe v Wade, and thereby sending the issue back to the states, would effect a political realignment in this country.
Conservatives can’t enact a federal ban on abortion through Congress, RvW or not; whatever Republican politicians may say to win primaries, that would be mass political suicide and they know it. For social conservatives, there is one reachable goal — overturning RvW through the slow process of controlling Supreme Court appointments — meaning conservatives need to control the White House and the Senate for long, preferably unbroken stretches of time. That means that social conservatives expend a disproportionate amount of energy on the very top levels of national politics, allowing them to leverage their energy through GOTV efforts.
But like a dog chasing a car, they don’t have a clear idea of what they would do with it if they got it. If RvW were overturned or significantly narrowed, suddenly abortion would be a state-by-state fight.
It’s much easier to direct their energy into Senate races and presidential elections to win the broad-brush fight against RvW than to convince the state-level electorate on the nitty-gritty details of pro-life policy.
In the vast majority of states, social conservatives wouldn’t be able to put any but the most basic restrictions on the practice – perhaps limiting partial-birth abortions in some, third-trimester abortions in fewer. The options of limiting state funding for abortions, and requiring minors to obtain parental consent or at least knowledge, are both available under current constitutional law.
Virtually no one opposes abortions when the mother’s life is at stake, and while I haven’t looked at the state-by-state poll data, I doubt there’s a state in the union that would ban abortions even in cases of rape and incest. Finally, let’s put something simply: whether principled pro-lifers like it or not, there’s just not enough voter support to really punish women who undergo abortions. Practical pro-life politics would target doctors and institutions, not customers/patients.
And then? Then the fire would die down. Unlike taxes and spending or environmental issues, there are only a few ways to move the ball in either direction on abortion. Once elections make clear the basic outlines of what is achievable on such a narrow issue as abortion, the issue’s potency as a politically unifying force will diminish.
See, when there’s no way to compromise, the radicals control the conversation. So we have two starkly divided camps, each internally united by the near-fiat Supreme Court decision. If specific policy decisions were made by the people and representatives of each state, the camps would begin breaking down visibly based on actual policy preferences, roughly based on gradients of moderation.
At that point, those outside the mainstream have little choice but to begin the hard work of changing hearts and minds, and working through regulation and appropriations. That’s the moderating force of democracy.
The full effects on the national political scene are hard to predict, but they would be wide-ranging.
- A powerful wedge issue would lose a great deal of potency, allowing people who are otherwise uncomfortable fits in their political coalitions to move between parties, or become less reliable partisan allies of politicians who take a hard line.
- We would see moderation at both the federal and state levels, although evangelicals and Catholic groups would probably become more energetic for a while at the state level at the expense of federal efforts.
- And finally, we would do the good work of returning policy and political focus to more local levels of government, and convert a great deal of energy spent on politics into energy spent on private education and outreach.
Whether the parties to this culture war want it to end is another matter.