Here’s about how I see it.
[li]During the Great Depression, it was appropriate to call upon the federal government to exercise (and expand) its powers because the problem was of a truly national nature, and could arguably only be addressed with a national solution. [/li][li]During the civil rights era, it was appropriate to call upon the federal government to exercise (and, again, expand) its powers because the states were not addressing the problem and were, in many cases, actively contributing to it.[/li][li]During the late 60s and early 70s (LBJ-era Great Society, for example), liberals saw what the New Deal and the civil rights era had accomplished, and accordingly viewed it as appropriate to use the federal government to combat general social ills – not only were these ills of a national scope (meaning, due to economy of scale, that the federal government might be better equipped to tackle them), but the states often seemed to want to do little.[/li][li]For much of this time, and up until the 90s, Democrats controlled Congress. Thus, it was natural for liberals to turn to Washington, D.C. to address and achieve their policy goals.[/li][/ul]
Taken together, these things have led to a disturbing and complacent reliance by liberals (and by the Democratic Party) on the federal government as the place where things can (and should) be done. Which is unfortunate, for at least three reasons: 1) it causes them to put less energy and focus on local and state politics, in many cases barely bothering to contest elections at these levels; 2) it hurts them on the national stage, as they’re easily typecast as being in favor of federal bureaucracy for every problem, come hell or high water, a charge that resonates with swing voters; and 3) it’s a false assumption that often leads to bad policy. There are many things that I believe are best done by the federal government. But there are many other things that it seems are best, or most appropriately, done by the states. And still others that are best left in the hands of private industry. While the Democratic Leadership Council, for all its blemishes, has made inroads toward repudiating the idea that Democrats are hostile to the market, it appears that they, and liberals generally, are still directing their policy initiatives toward the federal level and giving fairly short shrift to state and local government.
It’s my contention that the Democratic Party, liberal causes, and the country as a whole would be best served if the Democrats were to re-energize their efforts towards states and localities, even if it meant admitting that the federal government is not the solution to all of life’s problems. While I believe that the states-as-laboratories-of-democracy idea is at best unworkable and at worst dangerous, I don’t think there’s anything inherent about the concept of federalism that should cause it to hew to one political ideology over another…except that liberals assume that states, given the freedom to do so, will implement conservative policies. That may be true, at least in large part. If so, so what? Get on the ground and go change people’s minds. Yes, that means that you have to persuade fifty sets of citizens, rather than muster enough of a majority to pass legislation. Fine. The bulk of domestic policy issues are better handled closer to the ground, and if that means that you allow Montanans to choose lower taxes over social programs, so be it. It also means that Iowa or Minnesota or New Mexico might end up more progressive, on the whole, than they would otherwise.
My only concern in this respect is that which drove the civil rights movement, protection of the rights of minorities – which is why I’ve envisioned (and articulated elsewhere) a robust role for the state and federal courts in acting as a countermajoritarian foil to ensure a fair, open, and representative political process.
Anyway, I guess the debate is twofold: First, would it be a good idea for the Democrats to place less emphasis on federal policy? What would be the result if they did so? And second, is there something inherent in federalism – that is, to greater state and local autonomy – that makes it less conducive to the success of liberal policy positions?