Progressive Federalism

There are clearly two Americas, and one is holding the other back.  At least this is likely the view held today by many Progressives. To use the terminology of the famous nuclear war strategist Herman Kahn (though obviously in a different context) there is the A-country, and there is the B-country [*See Note Below*].  The A-country is making progress, where the government is involved in creating communities, taking care of the vulnerable, and creating equal opportunity for all.  This is the Northeast, parts of the great lakes (primarily Illinois and Minnesota), and the entire west coast.  These are places that routinely vote for Democrats and have reliably Progressive policy initiatives.  It is also where the most interesting stuff is happening, and where we are most likely to find conditions conducive to a good life (for the Progressive at least).

Then there is what Progressives would likely think of as the B-country; this is all the rest.  Libertarian and conservative politics prevail, the government does far less to provide equal opportunities to all citizens, and the people generally have somewhat “backward” or “traditional” values.  Of course, from the perspective of libertarians and conservatives, much of B-country is preferable to A-country; they see the policies of A-country to be smothering initiative and violating individual rights.  These different ways of life are supported by different sets of values.  

One problem, you might think, with the standard progressive strategy of the past 30 years is that action has been at the national level.  Policies have meant to apply across both A and B countries, even though the people living in those different places have wildly different values.  This has long been the complaint of conservatives who desire for the federal government to stay out of their business, so that they can ban abortion or permit discrimination against minorities.  Additionally, conservative states often want to be left out of various programs that involve the government intervention in various aspects of life.  This preference for strong federalism has been resisted by Progressives who have wanted their policies to apply across the country.  

The resistance to strong forms of federalism makes perfect sense in clear cases of injustice.  Progressives cannot permit the widespread discrimination against minorities or the denial of basic rights to occur anywhere in the country (though there is also conflict about what should be considered a “basic right”).  However, I think there might be a different story for positive programs, like the provision of universal health insurance.  It may be possible for states in the A-country to undertake such programs themselves, much like Massachusetts did in the 2000s, but as a block.  This might be in the form of a single market between states for health insurance (providing more competition) as well as the provision of common regulation and subsidies for that market (providing benefits of scale in implementation), or even a single-payer health system shared by those states.  

The single-payer system may be especially interesting, because it would provide these states (which have a large proportion of the national population) substantial leverage to negotiate prices. It would also seem that this may not violate any constitutional restrictions on limiting federalism (a problem with Trump’s “plan” for the interstate sale of insurance), because it would be formed through the voluntary agreements between states.  Multi-state agreements like this are not uncommon (port authority and transportation authorities, for instance), though this would be far more ambitious.  

There are obvious difficulties to coordinating such a system, but I think it could be done if some of the larger or adjacent states (centered around California and New York, for instance) took the lead.  If large states formed such a block, then the inevitable taxes required to pay for insurance subsidies would not render those states uncompetitive relative to others.  Businesses to not routinely move from California or New York to Texas simply because of small differences in taxes (which already exist).  The benefits of these locations are too enticing.  Such a program could provide the benefits of the Affordable Care Act without the necessity of dragging unwilling states into the mix.  There is a hope that voters in B-country would eventually see the benefits of such a social welfare program and want to be included in the interstate agreement.  This may eventually grow into a truly national program once a critical mass of states agree to join.  Of course, it is possible that majorities in B-country will never come around.  All the worse for them, but it is not the fault of those living in A-country that those living in B-country are backward looking rather than Progressive.

Some will rightly worry that such a program would create a further rift in our country.  Perhaps.  Though in many ways that rift already exists.  People in A-country and B-country already live in rather different worlds.  And voluntary interstate agreements would eliminate the high levels of conflict that exists at the federal level; there simply would be less to argue about.  The hope is that this would lower the stakes of federal policy formation, and thus make our politics more functional.  Progressives will have an easier time convincing New Yorkers and Californians to implement such a program than convincing a block of former slave states.

*Completely unrelated note*: Kahn’s idea (From On Thermonuclear War) was something like the following.  Even if our major cities like New York and LA (A-country) were blown up in the first round of a nuclear war, we might still have a substantial supply of infrastructure, resources, and people left. This “B-country” might include exciting places like Winona or Cedar Rapids.  He thinks that we should plan on a strategy for an extended but winnable nuclear war rather than simply “mutually assured destruction.”  But please don’t tell this to Trump.  Especially because Kahn wrote this before larger stockpiles of hydrogen bombs existed, so his insight may no longer be relevant.

What now? Progressives must speak to the working class, even the deplorables.

Trump has won: the barbarians are inside the gate.  They will undoubtedly destroy much of what we have built.  And I did not sleep last night.  What does this mean for us all?  I’m horrified as any right-thinking person should be.  But I try to be a positive person and look at what we can learn from this.  In particular, I am ruminating on what this might mean for the Progressive movement, or what it should mean for that movement.  At least if it ever hopes to be a successful core of the Democratic Party (in other words, win elections).

First of all let’s get something out of the way. It is certainly on our minds.  Many progressives (almost all I would think) find the fact that someone would vote for Trump to be repulsive and idiotic.  That of course we cannot deny; Trump supporters did a disgusting thing and did not live up to our standards of basic human decency.  They are all deplorable.  But that matters little, because standards of decency change very slowly (often only through what might be politely called “attrition” i.e. death).  We will certainly not convince them that they are indecent.  More importantly, many of them are the very working-class subjects of Progressive policy.  They are who Progressives wish to help.  And for that reason Progressives must understand (and take seriously) their needs, fears, their thoughts.  Otherwise Progressives will not be the ones who will get the opportunity to “help” them, conservatives will.

Below I lay out a few ideas of where Progressives might focus.  Some of this runs deeply contrary to the standard “Progressive” line.  I only ask that you forgive me if I offend your progressive proclivities, for I am light on sleep.

Labor and economic issues must form the center of our policy agenda, and they must be the sorts of policies that aid the lower-middle and middle classes.  Poverty cannot be our only focus.  This undoubtedly means that Progressives must take seriously the sorts of concerns I raised two posts ago about the lack of low skill jobs in the new economy.  Democrats as much as Republicans are seen as allies of those who are bringing about the demise of working-class jobs, and that must change (just look at how David Plouffe is now at Uber, destroyer of working-class driving jobs).  It is unreasonable to think that people with IQs below the mean will be able to train into jobs found in the new knowledge economy, and it is also unreasonable to expect them to live decent lives on the dole.  Stable work that pays a living wage is a basic requirement of a decent life.  It must be at the core of Progressive policy.  Financial support without work is not enough.

Fighting for new social policy in states rather than at the federal level seems crucial for winning white working class voters. Let’s be frank: the white working class (and especially white men) are disproportionately misogynist bigots.  Trump himself is a misogynist bigot, and this is one reason why he appeals so much to working class voters.  One of the great elements of progress during the Obama administration was the extension of gay marriage rights.  But this incredible victory was won through slow social change and not national politics, and the only politics that aided it were at the state level.  I think this must be a model for the future.  

Progressives should push policies in states in which they have the most influence, showing the country how life can be better if policies are made in the Progressive model.  In many ways this has already occurred. Lives are far better for people in places like Massachusetts and Minnesota than they are in Alabama and Arizona; this is in large part due to the sorts of policies people in those states have chosen for themselves.  This will certainly mean that some in backward states will be left behind.  But many of those same people consistently vote for Republicans; you cannot help people who will not help themselves.  It is too bad that many are stuck in conservative states, but at this point progressives can do little to help them.  Help for them must come later, once attitudes change.  We need to accept that.

Frame issues of civil rights and economic justice in terms of class, rather than race.  I think that there is a crucial point lost on many Progressives, that white working class Americans find the concept of “white privilege” to be insulting to their lived experience.  Even if they have benefited in various ways from racial bias, working class whites certainly do not perceive how they have benefited.  And, in fact, I find it plausible that the benefits of this privilege to rust belt working-class whites is minimal.  Therefore, direct racial preference from affirmative action programs create significant amounts of racial animosity.  Very similar effects can be achieved by focusing on class (parents’ income, educational level, etc.) rather than directly on race.  These are highly correlated with the groups who need help anyway.  Progressives may think that there is still tremendous amounts of direct racial bias in American society — and indeed there is — but they must also think strategically.  

I will certainly have more thoughts later.  But I think Progressives must take seriously the difficulty they will have in appealing to working class voters as long as they stay a movement that assumes a college-educated mindset.  We must be more Biden and less Clinton.  

We must also fight.