Polarization and Federalism

Today’s (Sunday’s) Washington Post has a long, interesting, data-filled article documenting the astounding polarization of American politics at all levels—in Congress, between states, across electoral districts, at the county level, and among population groups that live in different universes, functionally and opinion-wise. There’s been a long-running debate among political scientists over whether political polarization is mostly a matter of elite opinion and of institutional dynamics (such as political gerrymandering) that exacerbate differences of opinion within an electorate that, by and large, remains middle-of-the-roadish; or whether the sharp divisions that threaten to immobilize our politics have deeper roots in public attitudes. By and large, the Post piece supports the latter view. The Post quotes Bill Galston to the effect that Americans now disagree very fundamentally about the role of government—and it shows.

I’ve suggested on earlier occasions that such divisions, very often running along state lines, are a potent argument for federalism. (States are much more governable, and a great deal could be gained by way of civic harmony and sensible government if, instead of trying to find a national compromise on everything, we could just agree to disagree.) Needless to say, not everyone shares that view. In an intriguing recent book called The Fallacies of States’ Rights, Notre Dame professor Sotirios Barber argues that

Greve is whistling “Dixie” here. His promise of diversity cannot be serious. The communities of his [competitive federalism] system will not differ significantly from each other in terms of the issues that have historically divided Americans.

I think Barber is both wrong and partially right here. Communities will differ significantly in terms of the issues that divide us now—provided we let them. But we have to agree to let them; and that presupposes some national debate and rough consensus.

The difficulty in that debate isn’t that the “promise of diversity cannot be serious.” The difficulty is that it is serious—and that one side (Professor Barber’s) cannot accept it for that very reason. The entire Democratic Party and its constituents depend on federal transfer payments, regulatory cartels, and intergovernmental bureaucracies that provide jobs and benefits. For all of them, competitive federalism’s promise spells suicide.

For mid-November, Boston University Law Sc hool has arranged a debate between Professor Barber and yours truly: he’ll critique The Upside-Down Constitution, and I’ll critique his Fallacies. The essays will appear in a later issue of the Boston University Law Review. It’s a terrific format, and it’ll be fun. I’ll keep y’all posted.