The problem with “Make America Great Again” politics is not only the bad things it does but the good things it ruins. For many, patriotism has been transformed from love of country into hatred of outsiders. Religion is less concerned with justice and human dignity than with nostalgia for an era of White dominance.
But no traditional commitment has been more brazenly abused than federalism. For James Madison, federalism recognized the distinction between “local” and “national” matters, while ensuring that states and the federal government would argue incessantly over which is which. This was supposed to be America’s vertical separation of powers. “In the compound republic of America,” Madison wrote, “the power surrendered by the people is first divided between two distinct governments, and then the portion allotted to each subdivided among distinct and separate departments” — i.e., branches. “Hence a double security arises to the rights of the people. The different governments will control each other, at the same time that each will be controlled by itself.”
If this is the model, something has gone terribly wrong.
We have seen federalism at work in the pandemic response. Public health has traditionally been the responsibility of states and localities, backstopped by a strong, respected Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the initial covid-19 response, the CDC stumbled. But that was nothing compared with the epidemiological insanity of Republican governors such as Greg Abbott of Texas and Ron DeSantis of Florida, who actively sabotaged basic public health responses in their states.
This form of federalism has been so disastrous — so costly in human lives — that it requires some reconsideration of basic roles. A serious post-pandemic review, by a country capable of formulating complex policy, might make the federal government entirely responsible for pandemic response, since the spread of an infectious disease is never really a “local” matter.
We have seen federalism at work in recent debates over voting rights. Election procedures have typically been seen as a state responsibility. But now there is a concerted movement among Republicans not merely to undo the electoral innovations of the covid era, but to give Republican state legislatures more control over the way elections are administered and votes are counted — to create disputed elections where none exist.
The main purpose of Republican recounts of the 2020 presidential election results in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Wisconsin and even Texas is not to change a past outcome but to create a miasma of doubt around future Republican losses. The GOP is actively looking for ways to game the electoral system, and even to game the electoral college system, to secure illegitimate victories. And the federal government has been prevented from legislating on voting rights by the prospect of a Republican filibuster in the Senate.
We have also seen federalism recently at work on abortion policy. Republican officials and legislators in Texas have managed to enrage supporters of abortion rights and embarrass many pro-life activists at the same time. Not an easy feat. The state’s open invitation to enforce its antiabortion law through the bringing of private suits against those who enable abortions was designed as a clever ruse to escape Supreme Court scrutiny. In practice, it is a dystopian form of culture war vigilantism that brings discredit to the pro-life cause.
This action by Texas comes at a particularly disturbing time because the country is likely to be headed toward greater abortion policy federalism. Whether the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, it seems inclined to grant states greater legislative leeway than currently exists. Republican, pro-life legislators could easily move past a sustainable public consensus on a highly divisive matter and undermine their ideals through Texas-like foolishness and extremism.
All this has naturally put progressives in a centralizing mood. They generally want to pursue national mandates on covid to counteract self-destructive federalism. They want to pass the For the People Act, which already cleared the House as H.R. 1 and would nationalize and regularize voting rights and campaign finance. They want to pass federal protections of abortion rights as the Roe legal regime weakens. And much of their agenda depends on finally removing or changing the filibuster as the main obstacle to majority rule.
The desire to centralize power in the right hands is understandable. But we should be clear where this tendency takes us. If the federal government is empowered to clean up the failures and excesses of federalism, it means national elections will take on even higher stakes. Control of all three branches of government would yield a concentrated, purified form of power, freed from minority constraint. And what happens if that power is placed in authoritarian hands?
This is the most serious argument for repairing federalism and protecting elements of minority influence: When people lose an election, they don’t lose everything. And losing everything in politics can lead to the kind of despair and nihilism that threaten democracy itself.