The Principle of Localization: Bringing National Politics Back Home
In an age where we are always told to think bigger, the United States is losing sight of one of its founding governmental principles: thinking small.
From the origins of this nation, the Founding Fathers were faced with a pressing problem—how could a stable democracy take shape over such an expansive, culturally and economically diverse country, as large and as different as the 13 colonies? Delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 grappled with this question, especially as it relates to representation for large and small states, and disagreement over the proposed solution almost sunk negotiations entirely.
Fortunately, the Founders settled on a compromise—one that enshrined the notion of local governance, cooperative federalism, and the importance of the state autonomy over many social issues, cementing the long term stability and survival of the American experiment.
The Constitution is littered with clauses consecrating this notion, but the Tenth Amendment stands out amongst them all, reserving “the powers not delegated to the United States [federal government]…to the States respectively.” As a practical matter, this meant the states could legislate on all matters related to education, elections, healthcare, marriage, and criminal issues. Each state, with diverse religious, racial, and ethnic groups could decide for itself, within the general scope of federally preserved liberties, how to govern its own state. Should a citizen find a state's laws too burdensome or liberal for their sensitivities, they could easily move elsewhere while retaining their rights as a citizen of the United States.
And for around 150 years, this happy marriage between federal and state law ensured stability between the states and the overall survival of the nation as a whole. Yet, beginning with FDR’s New Deal and spiraling with successive presidencies expanding the executive umbrella to include more powers, while Congress and the Supreme Court legislated and ruled more issues into the federal framework, the country has lost much of its deference for local governance and state rule. Cultural issues have been hijacked by the federal government. Our politics have been nationalized.
To see this, one has to look no further than the past year’s special Congressional elections to fill seats vacated by the Trump administration.
The race in the Georgia’s 6th district quickly became the most expensive special election in U.S. history when national interests groups associated with the Democratic Party poured money into the race hoping to flip a seat previously held by a Republican to demonstrate a backlash against the election of Trump. Together, candidates Jon Ossoff (D) and Karen Handel (R) raised $28.3 million, the bulk of which ($23.6 million) went to the relatively obscure, 30-year old Ossoff. In total, 96.5% of Ossoff’s record fundraising haul came from out-of-state. That colossal out-of-state percentage was a record too. What should have been a small-time race became a bigtime national focus.
And this is despite the fact that Representatives to Congress are supposed to represent the interests of their districts first and foremost. How could the citizens of Georgia possibly evaluate the candidates on those merits when national, out-of-state actors flooded the airwaves with their own special interests on behalf of their preferred candidate as a means to stick it to the president?
Special elections in Kansas, Montana, and South Carolina weren’t much better in terms of remaining local when factoring in an inordinate amount of national media coverage for elections that didn’t stand to change the makeup of Congress in any substantial way, other than to give the opposition party a chance to repudiate the president.
But worse than the recent explosion in national attention paid to local races is the significant trend in correlation between state legislative races and presidential elections. According to research performed by Harvard scholar Carl Klarner, since 1980, deviation between state elections and presidential elections have plummeted, meaning more and more voters are voting down the ballot for local officials based on who they think the president should be. This flies in the face of the intent of the cooperative federalist system of government laid out by the Founders, since presidential candidates have vastly different concerns than that of local and state candidates.
These issues should have never become federal issues in the first place, and the one-size-fits-all pressure from Washington is sowing greater rifts between states with competing agendas. The more this occurs, and the more voters are trained to focus on the national implications of their votes as opposed to the local ones, the greater the risk for destabilization and the more America loses its foundational character.
If we are to return to a greater state of political normalcy, we’ll have to remember to think small once again.