Republicans, led by House Speaker Paul Ryan and the incoming president (as signaled by his Billionaire’s Club Cabinet picks), are set to unleash long-stored plans to gut and privatize Medicare, repeal 20 million Americans’ health insurance through Obamacare, flush what’s left of the Voting Rights Act and push for the privatization of public schools. That means congressional Democrats now have clear marching orders: beat back the coming GOP push to repeal of the 20th century.
But there’s something else Democrats ought to be focused on as they prepare for the long, dark years ahead. It involves trading in a bit of the beloved Hamilton for a dash more of the less morally appealing Thomas Jefferson and embracing what the Yale scholar Heather Gerken has called “progressive federalism.”
For decades, conservatives have argued against the heavy hand of Washington on the states; embracing the idea of each state as a kind of mini-country, only loosely overseen by the federal government. Liberals have argued the opposite—that without a strong central governing hand, the states would devolve into a disaggregated mess whereAmericans’ rights, opportunities and even their health and life expectancy vary wildly from New York to Mississippi, with the results heavily freighted by race.
But after the disaster election of 2016, in which the majority (2.5 million more votes for Hillary Clinton than Donald Trump and counting) will not get the president they chose, and will instead be stuck with an erratic, narcissistic, Twitter-beef-starting Russian handmaiden in the White House and a Dickensian novel full of plutocrats running his administration; with potentially disastrous results for voting rights, healthcare, public schools and more; it may be time for Democrats to embrace their inner federalist.
We are not, in some fundamental ways, a single country. The map of that vast red swatch of states and rural counties that voted for Trump, and the blue coastal edges and scattered urban centers where Clinton won, are a pictograph of mutual contempt. The sharp differences between the way city dwellers and rural, suburban and exurban residents vote, think and live cannot be papered over by federal laws, federal rules or, clearly, by a president. (Even within blue or red states and cities, sharp differences in voting preferences split the country down a glaring racial and educational divide.)
Whether on guns, race, culture or feminism, there really are two Americas. We are Beyoncé, hip-hop and “safe spaces.” They are Duck Dynasty, Ted Nugent and Negan from The Walking Dead.
Take Obamacare: loathed by Red America even when their families use it. Just the concept of a federal mandate rankles their spirits so thoroughly they’d risk losing their insurance, their health and even Medicare and Medicaid just to be rid of it. The mythical idea of “selling insurance across state lines” is a nonsensical answer to the lack of healthcare, as is the exhortation for people to simply rely on the emergency room. But for nearly half the country, those indignities are preferable to submitting to federal authority of any kind.
Or unions; which built the American middle class but were stripped down to their socks in states like Wisconsin, Ohio and even Michigan by Republican governors and legislatures, only to have the knee-cappers promptly reelected, including by union households. Those same households have put their faith in the man from the golden Manhattan penthouse, who built his monogrammed empire by stiffing Polish workers and American small business contractors, and who along with his daughter has his goods made in China. Democrats may want working-class white Rust Belters to have good jobs at high wages with pensions and health benefits, but they can’t make them vote that way.
The patchwork of marriage laws that existed before the Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges decision meant that a gay couple married in Massachusetts could be treated as mere acquaintances in Indiana. When the Court ruled that marriage equality was a matter for the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause, it was cheered by Blue America as a civilizing burst of compassionate modernity. But the decision by five black-robed “usurpers” to override local mores in dozens of states produced howls of outrage and cries of anti-Christian “bias” among many in Red America, who rushed to enshrine “religious liberty” laws in their states and beat back the next Big Federal Invasion: trans women in the public loo.
African-Americans have long cringed at the phrase “states’ rights,” which has consistently meant stripping the voting, civil and human rights of black people by brutal, racist state and local governments and by law enforcement. Even more than a half-century after the civil rights movement, it’s clear that the zeal for disenfranchising minorities through voter roll purges, ID laws and other forms of suppression remains a full-time preoccupation for those determined to cling to power against the tide of demographic change. And Latinos have become primary targets of people like Kansas secretary of state Kris Kobach, whose “Crosscheck” system may have scrubbed tens of thousands of eligible voters off the rolls.
But those waiting for the Republican-dominated Congress to restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act will wait in vain. Better to get cracking on the 36 governor’s races, in states like Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Nevada and Florida; even Arizona and Texas; plus the two contests in 2017, in Virginia and New Jersey, plus the many secretaries of state up for election too. Because the party that holds the governor’s mansion and the office of secretary of state holds the key to elections—to whether provisional ballots are counted or tossed; whether and how voter ID laws are enacted and enforced; and whether polling places and working machines will be fairly distributed or doled out on the basis of partisan advantage.
Republicans have made it clear that wherever they hold the reigns of state power, they will do almost anything to limit the right of Democratic-leaning populations to vote. After January 20, who’s to stop them? Certainly not a Justice Department headed by Jefferson Beauregard Sessions.
Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP, and fellow activists in the state have shown progressives the meaning of hope. They succeeded in 2016 where the Clinton campaign failed—tossing out the governor (though Republican Pat McCrory is still refusing to concede), flipping the attorney generals’ office and putting a black justice on the state’s Supreme Court. This may yet enable Democrats to rescue healthcare and voting rights in the state.
Defeating McCrory also opens to the door to vetoing ugly legislation like HB-2, which not only assaulted the dignity of trans citizens, it cost the state billions of dollars in revenue from the NBA and other businesses and organizations who shunned the state, while also eviscerating the right of municipalities to raise their minimum wage.
Governors and state legislators hold the power to protect and defend public schools from Betsy De Vos-style privatization; state colleges and teachers unions from Scott Walker-style defunding and attacks on their pensions and healthcare; and public and sacred Native American land from the federal, taxpayer-funded giveaways to drillers, frackers and developers that are surely coming under Trump. They will be the first line of defense in fighting climate change and are the decision-makers on whether their state will accept or reject federal funds for building high-speed rail and green energy production, and the jobs that come with them.
If Paul Ryan succeeds in dismantling Medicare by turning it into a fistful of coupons, and Trump manages to repeal Obamacare, it will be state governments that decide how Ryan’s vaunted Medicaid block grants are spent. Will the money go to plugging holes in state budgets, or safeguarding the health of the elderly and the urban and rural poor?
It will be mayors who shield DREAMers from the reach of Trump’s mass deportations, and Muslim citizens from the harassment of Trump’s FBI.
And with effectively no civil rights division of the Justice Department for the next four years, Black Lives Matter activists had better get really interested in who their local sheriffs and district attorneys are.
Democrats need to make that case, forcefully, to voters in their states. They need to recruit strong candidates who can advocate for strong state and local governments that will defend working men and women of every racial, ethnic and religious group—their healthcare, their civil rights, their right to vote, their air, water and land—from the gang of billionaires about to take over Washington.
Focusing on the states would also finally force the Democratic Party to put real resources and muscle into statewide and midterm elections, massive voter registration, and defense against disenfranchisement and voter ID. By the 2020 Census, they may finally regain enough power to draw the federal districts that determine congressional outcomes.
A federalist approach—balancing defense of beloved New Deal and Great Society programs with a sharp focus on the states—would at long last allow Democrats to build a bench of qualified and tested candidates—including those drawn from the strongest and most loyal voter base of the party: people of color, and specifically women of color. By the time 2020 rolls around, many of these political leaders will have shown that they can deliver real results for people in their states. That’s a much more organic way of choosing a presidential nominee than throwing names of sitting senators at The Washington Post and seeing if they stick.