Conservatives sometimes like to console themselves with the notion that the massive Republican dominance of state governments shows the enduring popularity of conservative principles, even though national elections have been more up and down. The consolation is minimal at best.
The theory of federalism is fairly straightforward. At the most practical level, the notion that government should be local, responsive to different conditions, and reflect regionally diverse values makes sense and accords with common sense and justice. Local government is closer to the people and more easily influenced. People can “vote with their feet,” states can experiment, and the relative impact of any bad policy is limited to a particular state.
At a level of greater abstraction, federalism reflects the founders’ notion of the United States being a federation of real states with real sovereignty, which was only partially and jealously given over to the federal government. As pleasant as that all sounds, it is about as relevant today as it was in 1865, when federal armies had piled up a half a million American bodies and encamped large armies of occupation to remind states where they fit in this scheme of things.
Federalism is of even less relevance today. The most important reason is that the federal government has become so expansive and intrusive, no state can do anything at all without a federal imprimatur. School policy, prison policy, environmental policy, labor and employment policy, the creation of state legislative districts, whether and how to provide services to aliens, and gun control policy are all directed from the federal government, which creates ever more constrictive boundaries in which states can act, if they’re permitted at all. Decisions contrary to the will of the federal government are undone, whether through lawsuits under federal laws like Title VII and Title IX, or through direct federal action, as when federal prosecutors routinely threaten double jeopardy on folks like George Zimmerman. What began as a narrow campaign to undo the vestiges of slavery and discrimination today threatens intrusion into the most quintessentially local matter: the bathroom. In the name of a distinctly uniform and sometimes judicially defined notion of equality, no state’s policy on any of its traditional prerogatives is safe. Anti-slavery and anti-racism were the camel’s nose peering under the tent; states can literally do nothing today without federal permission.
In addition, the federal government simply takes so much money from the people directly, that the relative impact of their state and local taxes (and state and local spending) is comparatively small. States build some roads, fund and operate local schools under federal supervision, and engage in a number of other workaday tasks like funding libraries and parks, but everything they might otherwise want to regulate, from abortion and gay marriage to housing policy and criminal punishment, all face a series of hurdles, court challenges, and direct federal intervention reminding the states who’s boss.
One would think this would be less popular than it is, but abstract questions of state sovereignty matter less to people in a time of great mobility. A mobile people likes a certain amount of uniformity, just as they are conditioned by chain restaurants and national advertising campaigns to eat at the same places whether in Iowa or Idaho or Indiana. Robert E. Lee may have been a Virginian first, but today Virginia looks like the Tyson’s Corner Mall.
More so than ordinary people, large businesses both demand uniformity and, with their armies of human resources drones and make-work “C level” diversity officers, now presume to strong-arm states and their backwards people to follow the mores of Wall Street and California on matters like rights for gays. Less intrusively, without prodding by the federal government, states have enacted uniform laws on contracts, secured transactions, corporate organizations, and much else. Multistate–indeed, multinational–businesses prefer not to have to navigate the complexities of 50 widely varying legal regimes.
In addition to the desire for uniformity, states as entities command less allegiance precisely because there is so little they can now do. Anything states may decide to do that is popular locally (but less popular with national elites) quickly becomes undone, such as the various states’ constitutional amendments banning gay marriage or attempts to mollify the federal government’s manifest failure to police the border.
One should thus not get too exciting by Republican triumph at the state level. Whatever conservative leaders make it through the party’s filters find that there is little they can do that cannot be quickly undone by the clique at the DOJ or the one that sits on the federal appellate courts.
Moreover, even in the best of times, their job is simply less ideological. State and local government are like a large homeowners’ association dealing with practical issues of health and welfare. Much of these officials’ mandate has less to do with traditional conservative politics, because states, even in conservative theory, have a greater scope of authorized action than the federal governments. That is, a Tea Partier that stands up for a rigorous constitutionalism at the federal level, where the federal government is one of strictly defined powers, recognizes that states have a general “police power.” While all that is not permitted to the federal government is supposed to be prohibited, it is supposed to be the exact opposite at the state level.
Speaking as someone of a conservative bent, it’s not so clear why conservatives at the state level would not favor strict environmental laws, for example, to prevent every ounce of open space to be paved over by greedy developers and to resist dread homogenization. Nor is it clear at the local level why one would oppose as a matter of principal more spending for police, roads, teachers, prisons, parks, subsidized universities, and much else that makes life more pleasant.
Outside of the culture wars’ fights that define much of national politics, the politics at the state level is pragmatic and less ideological on the whole. One should not assume because the citizens of a place like Florida or Michigan want a “tough on crime” governor, that they may not also want civil union for gays or a higher minimum wage, or that the Republican may not want more spending to make the state more livable and competitive.
State politics is also overshadowed by the biggest threats to our well being from without: international terrorists and the third world immigrant invasion. All the zoning variances on earth do not equal the impact of a 9/11 attack or a mass invasion of tubercular Salvadorans in one’s hospitals, schools, and neighborhoods.
States theoretically should have much more power, but they do not. And they do not and cannot because of actions taken at the federal level. These national decisions have an enormous impact, because they constrain states and even their people acting directly in plebiscites, directly impose on our lives by changing the character of our people and neighborhoods, and aim to change us, because the lion’s share of federal policies reflect an elite view that reflects certain regions of the country–the coasts mostly–that is directly hostile to the way of life sought by and increasingly hard-to-find in the country’s interior.
Rather than tinkering with the minutia of government among the federal government’s de facto administrative units, the only real hope for a conservative revival is to secure the border, kick out the people we are being replaced by, and push back against the aggressive and single minded agenda of Washington DC and its ruling class.