Wake Up, Democrats


In the Kubler-Ross stages of grief, which began on the evening of the last election, the Democratic Party refuses to move out of stage 1:Denial. This map might help Democrats move on at least to Anger–“who is responsible for this disaster?” Today 146 Million Americans live in states controlled at both the legislative and executive levels by Republicans. By contrast 49 Million live in states with total Democratic control. The Republican majority in the House is the highest since the days of Herbert Hoover. The very notion that a demographic tidal wave of black, brown and youthful voters will sweep in Democratic rule in Washington DC is a fantasy that will not be realized for at least ten years, because Democratic voters are bunched in cities, while Republicans are spread out across vast numbers of more rural and suburban districts.

And yet contrast the political map, with this map of marriage equality.


Quite a difference. So its clear that state and local action on cultural issues like Gay Marriage get results, and yet Democrats keep thinking that all progress needs to come from the Federal Government. It is time for progressives to abandon this pipe dream and fight their battles in the state and city legislatures. Nothing good is going to come out of Washington DC for decades. The best we can hope is holding the Presidency to be able to veto the most egregious proposals of the Tea Party.

Of course, the balance of power between the states and the federal government has long been a point of contestation, requiring constant fine-tuning since the time of our Founding Fathers. All evidence suggests, however, that the next adjustments that need to be made in this balance of power would tip the scales back towards the states. We have seen that progressive gains on women’s rights, gay marriage, healthcare, and the minimum wage have all come from state and local legislation, not federal. And when we compare the execution of these progressive policies at the national and local levels, the states again seem to come out ahead. For example, in the midst of all the liberal panic about the failure of the Healthcare.gov website, the New York Times reminded us that the California version of Obamacare functioned remarkably efficiently:

In its first month of business, California’s insurance exchange enrolled more people than any other state-run exchange and more than the federal exchange serving 36 states, which has been paralyzed by technological failures.

The problems of the Affordable Care Act system point to the basic dichotomy inherent in a federal system of governance: the more centralized control, the more complexity of systems needed to serve all of the states. An extraordinarily important essay from Professor Steven M. Teles of Johns Hopkins University entitled Kludgeocracy: The American Way of Policy highlights the dilemma:

For any particular problem we have arrived at the most gerry-rigged, opaque and complicated response. From the mind-numbing complexity of the health care system (which has only gotten more complicated, if also more just, after the passage of Obamacare), our Byzantine system of funding higher education, and our bewildering federal-state system of governing everything from the welfare state to environmental regulation, America has chosen more indirect and incoherent policy mechanisms than any comparable country.

And while a system of pure federalism might lead to less complexity as the states were left to devise their own solutions to education or healthcare, that is not the system we currently have, as Teles points out.

While states and localities actually administer all of these programs, the federal government is deeply involved as a funder, regulator, standard-setter and evaluator. The consequence is the complicated “marble-cake federalism” structure that characterizes almost all domestic policy in the United States, and which makes clear lines of responsibility (as we have learned in the Katrina disaster and the BP oil spill) hard to establish.

The main point of Teles’ Kludgeocracy argument is that, as we have seen with both Obamacare and the NSA scandal, we cannot simply blame the federal government for poor policymaking; it is the mass of private parties who actually run things that are a truly self-perpetuating nightmare.

This army of consultants and contractors then became a lobby for even greater transfer of governmental functions — including, as Janine Weidel shows in Shadow Elite, such core roles as formulating policy knowledge needed for government out of the state and into the private sector, thus becomes nearly indispensable. And with their large, generally non-competitive profits, the kludge industry has significant resources to invest to ensure that government programs maintain their complexity, and hence the need to purchase their services.

Teles’ point is made clearly in the case of the healthcase crisis: Whereas the Healthcare.gov website was built by an army of competing vendors with no one in charge, the Covered California site was built by a single contractor, Accenture, with a reputation for successful execution of complex IT. As Teles has suggested, this system that only pays lip service to federalism needs to be sacked. “In other words,” he writes, “whether it is education or health care, either give the problem to the federal government or give it to the states, but don’t give it to both.”

If indeed the overcoming of detrimental complexity is the single most important issue of our time, then progressives must reconsider their aversion to localism, which was (understandably) born during the civil rights era but today threatens to reverse the tide of progressive change. In the corporations we partner with at the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab, the strategy of pushing power to the edges of an organization is seen as the secret to nimble, innovative firms. As Sam Palmisano put it when he was CEO of IBM, “We must lower the center of gravity in the company.” I appreciate Sam’s metaphor because I think it helps us get at one of the core problems we face in America today: a top-heavy, lumbering giant of a political machine that is unable to respond with any degree of speed or agility and, indeed, threatens time and again to stumble over (or crush) the people it’s trying to serve.

I have been writing about this progressive concept of New Federalism since 1997, observing along the way how California created its own clean car laws that were far superior to federal regulations, and how in the areas of gay rights and gun control, it has been the progressive states that have led the rest of the country. In a world of kludgeocracy and a gerrymandered House of Representatives, I humbly suggest that progressives should reconsider embracing some version of this New Federalism if they want to get anything done in the next decade. I am well aware of the legacy of the phrase “states rights” in the Democratic Party, but I believe that two concepts actually better define what I’m talking about. The first idea is captured by the corporate terms “devolution” and “decentralization”—to devolve power to regional managers, which is what Palmisano did to ignite innovation at IBM. The second notion is one Pope Francis has begun to adopt: “subsidiarity.” As Wikipedia puts it, “Subsidiarity is an organizing principle of decentralisation, stating that a matter ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest, or least centralised authority capable of addressing that matter effectively.” My feeling is that the federal government is not so different from a company like IBM, and—just like Palmisano—we are in dire need of some sort of innovation to help our organization thrive. Thus, in my view, the way to ignite progressive experimentation in education, worker training, healthcare, and transportation is for the federal government to foster regional change by making large, per capita block grants  in these areas, with a minimum of rules on how the programs are designed. This is not to say that the federal government should give up all oversight, however; what should be required is total transparency, whereby the states must report to the public and the federal government just how they spent this money.

Ultimately the Democratic Party is going to need to develop a politics for the decentralized, networked, bottom-up world we live in. They can go on believing that all roads lead to Washington DC and its legions of crony capitalists or they can embrace the politics of devolution and help the creative class prosper in their regions of progressivism.



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