Today In Bad “Federalist” Arguments

Following up on last year’s discussion of Naomi Wolf’s credulous, implicitly anti-federal power conspiracy theorizing, Corey Robin notes that there remains no evidence that the Occupy crackdown was initiated by the federal government as opposed to our benevolent local overlords.

Meanwhile, this thread contains an absolutely classic example of touting the proactive strategic dynamism that allegedly come from decentralized power. Is there any evidence that the American voting system — which, after all, managed to screw up a presidential election less than 15 years ago due to staggeringly inept and/or malicious policymaking and enforcement by state and local officials — is better than the many liberal democracies that have uniform national rules? Nope. Is there even any citation of any concrete benefits that are supposed to derive in theory from decentralized voting systems, let alone an attempt to balance them against the inevitable inequities that arise from decentralization? Of course not. Local variance is just good!

65 comments on this post.
  1. DocAmazing:

    The effect of the federal government on local law enforcement is a very mixed thing. Ignore the past (like COINTELPRO) for a moment; here in California, we were making great strides in getting police departments to deprioritize marijuana enforcement and rounding up undocumented aliens. The Feds came in and changed that. That’s hurt a lot of people around here.

    Hard for me to see federal law enforcement as a force for good. Maybe local cops are a bigger problem in some areas–Oakland Police are especially questionable–but the DEA and ICE are giving us real headaches.

  2. Scott Lemieux:

    Among other problems, you seem to assume that California is a typical state government. Alas, this is highly erroneous.

  3. R Johnston:

    Bad policy is a bad thing. In some cases federal policy is worse than the policy of some particular state. This has fuck all to do with federalism.

  4. heckblazer:

    OTOH, I’d say that the consent decree allowing the DOJ to monitor the LAPD after the Ramparts scandal was a good thing.

  5. PZ:

    But Barack Obama didn’t give me a pony! I don’t care what you say-Obama cracked down on Occupy! I know this because he hasn’t lived up to what I wanted him to do!

  6. William Burns:

    The Jacobins were right! The states need to be replaced with federally administered departments!

  7. Malaclypse:

    Say what you will about the tenets of the sans-culottes, but at least it’s an ethos.

  8. bradp:

    Past arguments have made me sympathetic to a National Elections Board to oversee elections, but I have a few questions/points:

    When you ask for evidence that the American system is “better than the many liberal democracies that have uniform national rules”, there probably isn’t much. But I wonder if those other democracies deal with the scope, inate corruption, and two-party hegemony that the US has. Do they have the equivalent of a Republican party that routinely has power and would love nothing more than to disenfranchise voters on a national level?

    There was at least one national check to the Florida elections, the SCOTUS, but it had been packed with justices who seem to take partisanship more seriously than legal interpretation. Why wouldn’t a national elections board be succeptable to the same partisan loading, and if it were, what would be the cost?

    It is also important to realize that the problems in local and state elections are just as motivated by the amount of centralized power that falls into the hands of the elected.

  9. Matt:

    This is a favorite example of teahadis being all in favor of “state’s rights”, right up until it became expedient to be against them:

    http://thinkprogress.org/economy/2012/07/18/540441/republican-bill-animal-torture/

    Apparently, the wingnut impulse to wedgie PETA overcomes their innate distaste for federal regulation…

  10. Joni:

    Going without breeches is an ethos?

    (Oh, and a point of some interest to this board–Sans Cullotes = worst name for a battleship ever)

  11. Murc:

    But I wonder if those other democracies deal with the scope, inate corruption, and two-party hegemony that the US has.

    Well, off the top of my head, Britain basically invented the ostensible liberal democracy that is actually a corrupt imperialistic oligarchy, and they dealt with that just fine.

    Do they have the equivalent of a Republican party that routinely has power and would love nothing more than to disenfranchise voters on a national level?

    The thing is, if you accept ‘the Republicans are crazy’ as an argument to not do things, that severely limits the number of things you can do. The current state of the Republican Party is absolutely not tenable long-term.

  12. rea:

    The problem isn’t structural–the problem is evil, crazy people. Sometimes they’re in state government. Soemtimes they’re in federal government.

  13. Cody:

    Also, in national election boards generally the members are non-partisan.

    How we can ensure this with the whole corporate world attempting to pay them off, not sure.

  14. bradp:

    The thing is, if you accept ‘the Republicans are crazy’ as an argument to not do things, that severely limits the number of things you can do. The current state of the Republican Party is absolutely not tenable long-term.

    Its not that Republicans are crazy, its that they are for sale. And the pressure/incentive that causes them to be for sale have been present in the US government since the founding fathers decided that they would make everybody equal by allowing only rich, white, property owners to vote.

  15. bradp:

    I basically agree with your root cause, but unless you can come up with a way of making sure that humanity doesn’t include a few crazy and evil people, then I would call the problem structural.

    Or at least the possible fixes are structural.

  16. firefall:

    You’re invited to consider small-town Arkansas law enforcement as a vehement counter-example, then (hell, any Arkansas law-enforcement, actually)

  17. firefall:

    IDK, I thought Little Ship of Horrors had that title sewn up firmly

  18. firefall:

    It’s not the only thing they were right on

  19. DrDick:

    But they have greater ability to inflict damage at the local and state level, at least in part owing to scale.

  20. DrDick:

    I have to ask if there is a good argument for federalism? From elections procedures to voting rights, to welfare regulations, to workers’ rights, to school systems, the overall outcomes of federalist policies seems inferior to federalized systems. Admittedly, there are some places where state and local initiatives, like DocAmazing’s examples from California, that are superior to the federal policies, but there seem to be far more that are grossly inferior, ;like Mississippi and Arizona.

  21. TT:

    I don’t think Republicans are for sale when it comes to eliminating abortion rights. The party as an institution, as well as its most important leaders, really believes that crap.

  22. NonyNony:

    All politicians in every political system in the world are for sale. That’s been true since modern liberal democracy entered the scene and from my reading of history it was true for the Romans as well (hell for the Romans client/patron relationships were almost constitutional conventions).

    The only thing special about our own US form of corrupt politicians is that our Founders, in their “infinite wisdom” to protect the rights of white, male property holders, decided to put a system of government into place that puts up as many barriers as possible between the people and their elected officials and that makes political reform orders of magnitude slower than other liberal democracies in the world. That system has been chipped away at over the centuries (universal male suffrage, direct election of Senators, universal suffrage) but it still insulates the corruption and slows popular reforms to a snails pace when reformers do manage to get a majority. That’s a problem.

    But the institutional corruption is something that has to be grappled with by everyone, and it is not really an instance of “American Exceptionalism” that our politicians are more bought and paid for than anyone else’s are.

  23. bradp:

    I’m not that sure about the leaders. I think that is more reactionary populism on the part of the leaders, cultural fear-mongering that masks the lack of proper governance.

    Well, I think thats true for the “culture war” angle in general, while abortion specifically may be more of a “true belief”.

  24. rea:

    Well, yeah. Romney was pro-choice while it was convenient

  25. Sev:

    I hear the blue light specials are a real bargain:
    http://www.nytimes.com/1996/02/12/us/arkansas-rapist-threatens-women-and-casts-unwanted-attention-on-someofficers.html

  26. Incontinentia Buttocks:

    This.

  27. Hogan:

    There were probably better arguments for federalism before the communication and transportation revolutions.

  28. Dave:

    That’s easy. Kill them all. Bwahahahahaaaaa!

  29. mpowell:

    Deprioritizing marijuana enforcement was, imop, always a terrible political tactic.

    Full legalization must be the final goal since the vast majority of the damage from drug illegalization is in the activites of the actual trade and I don’t see decriminalizing possession as a path to get there. You need to actually make the use, possession and distribution of the drug legal, and then slowly expand the class of persons for which it’s legal. And you always needed to attack that problem at the federal level anyhow.

    You have a point here, still, though, because if CA actually had the power to fully legalize marijuana consumption, I think that would be a good path to nationwide legalization once people realized legalization is not remotely harmful.

  30. mpowell:

    Well, they’ll either acquire one-party type rule or blow up as a party. To that extent, I agree, the current situation is unstable.

  31. mpowell:

    One argument is legislative experimentalism. Take urban use policy, for example. It’s not clear what the best solution would be. It’s probably easier to allow different municipalities to experiment with different approaches. I’m not sure this is a great argument, because, first, where does it apply? and second, most local municipalities will be pursuing the wrong goals (urban policy being no exception). But it is a coherent argument at least.

  32. Incontinentia Buttocks:

    Wolf’s story seems to have been nonsense (there was no evidence for it when she told it; and there is no evidence for it now). And–as you and Corey Robin have pointed repeatedly out–the “federalist” argument that state and local authorities should be trusted with our liberties more than federal authorities is clearly nonsense.

    But I still don’t think the connection between these two points is as close as you want to make it out to be.

    Wolf’s story was of a conspiracy between evil mayors and an evil federal government. Though the federal authorities, in this story, provided coordination and “incentives” to the mayors, the mayors were bad actors, too. Her story is not an example of naive federalism but of vulgar anarchism (if it was even that coherent).

  33. Dana:

    Yes, this is probably the crux of the issue. The question in 1787 was how to establish effective and democratic (from their perspective) authority over the largest republic the world had ever known. Is this still a concern? Probably not as much, thanks to changes in transportation and communication. Have things changed so much that 300+ million people scattered over nearly 4 million square miles can be governed effectively and democratically (from our perspective) by a central state? It’s a difficult question to answer, and there’s no “evidence” I can point to that would prove decisive since it would necessarily be hypothetical. I can say that I think if I were a Democrat living in central Virginia I wouldn’t feel too good about Eric Cantor representing my interests on every single question of public governance. Would that really matter? Who knows.

  34. Incontinentia Buttocks:

    erp…”repeatedly pointed out”

    (preview please!)

  35. Scott Lemieux:

    And, again, I disagree. The mayors in her story weren’t exactly good guys, but there was a clear implication that they would never have acted on their own — indeed, since there’s no evidence at all the assumption that all evil must ultimately come from the feds is her whole argument.

  36. Mike:

    Uhm, the 2000 presidential election was working its way through the court system in Florida until they were pre-empted by the US Supreme Court.

  37. Dana:

    Experimentalism has some merit as an argument. Regardless of how effective California’s permissive drug policies are, the fact that they exist, that they are the express preferred policy of sovereign entity within the American state system lends legitimacy to those laws, and those laws must eventually in some way be reconciled with federal policy.

  38. R Johnston:

    Have things changed so much that 300+ million people scattered over nearly 4 million square miles can be governed effectively and democratically (from our perspective) by a central state?

    There’s still a useful role for genuinely local democratic government, but so long as the U.S. continues as a single nation, states are completely useless as subdivisions. States tend to be far too large to address small local concerns any better than the federal government can. States representatives don’t get any more of a chance to broadly know their constituents on an individual basis than congressmen do; they have no chance at all. To the extent that someone is going to be setting police and zoning policy for Watertown, the Bronx, and Riverhead, it might just as well be Washington as Albany. And of course there are policy areas such as civil rights and education that aren’t really local concerns where “federalism” serves primarily as an enabler of bigotry and idiocy at the state level.

    Meanwhile, metropolitan areas cross state lines and watersheds crying out to be administered as a single unit are multistate albatrosses. Regional concerns don’t give a damn about state borders and different concerns call for different administrative units. Pollution doesn’t respect state borders. It’s bad enough that concerns like these need to be addressed by international negotiation; states are just an additional layer of extraneous parochial bureaucracy that serve only to get in the way of sensible policy.

    I have a very hard time imagining any area of policy that is better addressed at the state level rather than at a federal, regional, or local level.

  39. Lee:

    Minor net-pick, it would be nationally administrated departments/provinces/whatever rather than federal becuase the word federal implies at least a token amount of decentralization. I think we can get by fine with elected state governments, we just need the understanding that the federal government has jurisdiction over everything and can override the state governments if necessary.

  40. Lee:

    Minor net-pick, it would be nationally administrated departments/provinces/whatever rather than federal becuase the word federal implies at least a token amount of decentralization. I think we can get by fine with elected state governments, we just need the understanding that the federal government has jurisdiction over everything and can override the state governments if necessary.

  41. Lee:

    IMO, the roots of bad federalist arguments that exists in certain American leftists like Naomi Wolf has roots in the romanticism of the local that started in the 1960s among the New Left. This was oppsosed to the more technocratic, centralism favored by the previous generation of liberals and leftists in American politics.

  42. joe from Lowell:

    Arkansas? Small town? Hell, how about Gates-era LAPD?

    Hey, Doc, remind me: which law enforcement agency beat Rodney King, and who convicted his assailants?

  43. joe from Lowell:

    I’m not buying a twisted view of federalism as the prime mover behind Wolf’s delusions.

    Let’s look at what she wrote:

    For the terrible insight to take away from news that the Department of Homeland Security coordinated a violent crackdown is that the DHS does not freelance. The DHS cannot say, on its own initiative, “we are going after these scruffy hippies”. Rather, DHS is answerable up a chain of command: first, to New York Representative Peter King, head of the House homeland security subcommittee, who naturally is influenced by his fellow congressmen and women’s wishes and interests. And the DHS answers directly, above King, to the president (who was conveniently in Australia at the time).

    Starting from her “evidence,” a deluded view of federalism can get you to the DHS. But to take it to Congress and the President requires a sort of “secret men in secret rooms” conspiracy theorizing that, while centralizing everything, is distinct from the old American belief in localism.

  44. wengler:

    Leaving aside the lack of evidence for federal organization of the crackdown, the immense militarization of this country’s police forces has been enabled with federal money(with the fringe benefit of making well-connected donors very rich).

    Those jackbooted thugs don’t even have the local PD pay for their jackboots anymore. Their mission more than ever has been to protect the elite from any consequences of their policies.

  45. Cody:

    I agree completely. However, we all know that it would be nearly impossible to get rid of the State structure. This country is under the illusion that the Constitution is the best way of governing, and no radical changes should be made.

    I think it would be a tall order to find reasoning within the Constitution to allow for getting rid of a whole unit of government.

  46. DrDick:

    I think there is actually much more of that at the local level than at the state level. R. Johnston above makes a good argument there, though I would still like to see a stronger federal role in many areas, especially those I mentioned.

  47. Joe:

    Federalism includes dividing power so that one stupid policy doesn’t hurt 300M, but only a subset of that many, so yeah, it has “fuck all” to do with federalism.

    Saying CA is not “typical” doesn’t help totally either. Many states have more lax medicinal marijuana laws than the federal government. Are they ALL not typical?

  48. Scott Lemieux:

    Yes, but it became a messy court case in part because Florida’s election statutes were horrible and its implementation of those statutes was largely horrible.

  49. joe from Lowell:

    The question in 1787 was how to establish effective and democratic (from their perspective) authority over the largest republic the world had ever known.

    I think arguments like this, sort of like “original intent” arguments, overstate the degree to which the Constitution represents an ideal vision of good governance, as opposed to “whatever we could get a supermajority of delegates to agree to.”

  50. Joe:

    The thread referenced included various people taking potshots at me like “you aren’t thinking like a Republican” when Scott didn’t understand my point (hint: not a Republican) w/o much clarity.

    Or, asking if I was in management instead of actually addressing what I said. Or, confusing my acceptance of states being allowed to set different days for House races with Iowan/NH’s power in setting presidential races.

    Or, talking about my “mantra” when I referenced population, AT TIMES, is ONE (sorry for the caps, but “mantra”?) reason why a nation this size might warrant some local discretion in various cases. Various cases. Set forth some national rules. We have various federal voting rules, such as the date of Election Day, what sorts of discrimination are not allowed & Congress is expressly given power over federal elections.

    But, every single voting matter need not and whatever is ideal will not be set forth by the federal government. What specific hours, number of personnel, training, date of each primary or caucus (or will a primary or caucus be used? is this a problem? must each state use only one method?), specific needs for local communities per age, wealth, language and other needs? All the usual nuances of local government. Is every one of these things going to be nationalized?

    Have SOME national rules. I didn’t deny the logic of that. But, apparently if I’m not absolutist about it, it’s a problem.

  51. Substance McGravitas:

    People were only making fun of you because you because you were using stupid language to express stupid thoughts without evidence to back those thoughts up. No biggie.

    Might wanna look at your first paragraph again.

  52. Joe:

    Sure, but a logical rule would be some “clear intent of the voter” standard and the per curiam five felt that itself was a problem because it gave too much discretion to the counter. But, a reasonable system would entail something like that, just like a jury has an open-ended “beyond a reasonable doubt standard.” If we had some federal rule, I’m not sure how “better” it would be for them.

  53. Joe:

    I don’t know what “stupid” language I was making to express “stupid” thoughts (that is, a limited defense of the system we always had & one a majority of the population seems to want: a system where there is some local discretion) and what sort of “evidence” am I supposed to supply in a blog comment?

    This sort of lame response is sorta embarrassing. Don’t us here in reality land supposed to care about discussion, not cheap shots about how the other side is “stupid”?

  54. Malaclypse:

    “you aren’t thinking like a Republican”

    That was me, and I was snarking on Scott.

    But carry on.

  55. Joe:

    [that needed a bit more editing]

    Anyway, I just provided still more examples (I supplied examples in the previous thread too & the replies didn’t really supply much in way of evidence, such as references to unnamed electoral systems in other countries) of the complexity of local election laws.

    Again, I’m fine with some national election laws. My point was that state and local election laws has a myriad of little nuances, just like state and local government in general, and it doesn’t seem either ideal or likely that they all would be set from above no more than we do so for other important things.

  56. Substance McGravitas:

    I don’t know what “stupid” language I was making to express “stupid” thoughts

    We agree!

  57. Joe:

    As you wish.

    I said something. Scott than wondered why it was true. And, then you said “You are clearly not thinking like a Republican.”

    This was your snarky response to Scott challenging my position. I apologize if this literally isn’t directly against me personally.

  58. Malaclypse:

    Nah, I did my best to tune you out early on.

  59. Joe:

    Not actually trying to make substantive points is easier, yes.

  60. Substance McGravitas:

    Feel free to make one! I will wait right here.

  61. DocAmazing:

    This makes us–what? The correct type of eggs for use in this federal omelet?

  62. jefft452:

    I think arguments like this, sort of like “original intent” arguments, overstate the degree to which the Constitution represents an ideal vision of good governance, as opposed to “whatever we could get a supermajority of delegates to agree to.”

    This!
    We dont have our current system of States plus Federal because “the Founders” looked at every system and thought that this was best

    We have this system because 13 state governments already existed, and had to approve the Constitution for it to take effect

  63. DocAmazing:

    You’re absolutely right. In fact, if i remember correctly, Daryl Gates got his famed LA Ram wall-breaker from…the feds, as a gift. Thanks, Washington.

  64. djw:

    Joe,

    A gently mocking tone seemed appropriate as a response, for two reasons:

    1. You could not or would not come up with a substantive hypothetical example in which federalizing elections would produce a negative outcome for democracy.

    2. Many other countries have federally administered and fairly standardized elections, and they often do a lot better than we do. You either ignored this or hinted at American uniqueness in exceedingly vague terms.

    We’ve read our James Scott. We’re aware that some state standardization projects often have unexpected and unwelcome consequences. But you didn’t produce any reason to think the downsides, should they prove to exist, would be anywhere near as problematic as the obvious and serious downsides of the status quo, especially given the track record of democratic polities that suggest otherwise.

  65. Dana:

    No one’s ever accused me of originalism before. Certainly the framers had a purpose behind their actions. They didn’t just decide to get together and pass some random shit. They were worried about the republic disintegrating, falling prey to the machinations of European empires. Their intentions were entirely practical–how do we establish effective governance? I happen to think that it did establish an effective system of government. That doesn’t presuppose that anything in the Constitution is sacred or immutable. Just the opposite. Does American federalism of 1787 or 1868 or whatever provide effective governance in 2012? Clearly there’s a case to be made that it does not.

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