Like Europe of the early 20th century, we are emerging from a process of deep social transformation with ominous political consequences.
Many people worry about our democracy today because our political parties have become more purely ideological. But federalism harnesses such partisanship and puts it to good use. Because of greater partisanship, we are seeing more states with a unified government in which Democrats or Republicans control the governorship and both houses of the legislature. They are then able to enact a relatively pure version of their parties’ very disparate political positions. With the support of a Republican legislature, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has reduced the power of public sector unions. Kansas Governor Sam Brownback has very substantially cut personal and business taxes. In contrast, Connecticut Governor Dan Malloy was reelected after raising taxes and making no substantial changes to union power. In California, Jerry Brown was victorious with much the same policies.
Such partisan federalism now gives us the chance to observe the results of such policies over the longer term. At its best, democracy is a system where people vote on the basis of consequences as well as values. On many issues there is substantial consensus as to the goals but substantial differences as to how to achieve them. Republicans believe that a smaller government generally leads to better results in economic growth and broad-based prosperity. Democrats disagree. But both must pay attention to results, which can move independent voters and indeed weaker partisans.
For instance, partisans of both parties agree on the importance of government in education. Education helps make people more productive and less likely to be charges on the public fisc. Education enables us to participate more fully and intelligently in democratic decisionmaking.
Exactly how government should contribute to education is a matter of intense contemporary debate. Will vouchers or charter schools improve preparation for college? Will merit pay or smaller classes raise test scores? These important questions concern the means, not the ends. Thus education is what political scientists call a valence issue, in which most people largely agree on the objective, even if they disagree on the policy instruments to reach it.
The 2014 elections sustained state governments that sharply differ on these policy instruments. Scott Walker and Sam Brownback are pushing various forms of school choice. Dan Malloy and the Democratic Education Commissioner in California (an independently elected office) are not. Everyone in the United States can potentially benefit from the information to be gained from these differences. The feedback will be imperfect and take time, as experts study the results. But democracy is always and necessarily a matter of trial and error. A more partisan federalism can help accelerate the learning process by providing a greater range of coherent policies to be tested.