Decentralize Government to Resolve Country's Divisions


America is increasingly a nation haunted by fears of looming dictatorship. Whether under President Barack Obama’s “pen and phone” rule by decree, or its counterpoint, the madcap Twitter rule of our current chief executive, one part of the country, and society, always feels mortally threatened by whoever occupies the Oval Office.

Given this worsening divide, perhaps the only reasonable solution is to move away from elected kings and toward early concepts of the republic, granting far more leeway to states, local areas and families to rule themselves. Democrats, as liberal thinker Ross Baker suggests, may “own” the D.C. “swamp,” but they are beginning to change their tune in the age of Trump. Even dutiful cheerleaders for Barack Obama’s imperial presidency, such as the New Yorker, are now embracing states’ rights.

The founders’ solution

When the founders crafted the Constitution, they confronted a country with deep divisions — rural and urban, slave and free, immigrant and nativist, manufacturing and commodity producing. The solution they came up with had its shortcomings, notably the tolerance of the truly deplorable institution of slavery, but without these built-in restraints the republic likely would not have survived its first decades.

Even after the Civil War settled control of the central government, the country largely followed the founders’ vision of separating and restraining power. Education, zoning, laws and the governing of morality were handled largely at the local level. The federal government focused on things that were its natural purview — interstate transportation, immigration, foreign and defense policy.

Federal intervention remained necessary at times, for example, to assure voting rights. But, overall, maintaining power at the local level has remained broadly popular, with the support of over 70 percent of the adult population. Even in one-party California, most would prefer to see local officials, not those at the national or state level, in control.

Division and the road to alternating dictatorships

As in the antebellum period, American politics sadly reflects two increasingly antagonistic nations. One can be described as a primarily urban, elite-driven, ethnically diverse country that embraces a sense of inevitable triumphalism. The other America, rooted more in the past, thrives in the smaller towns and cities, as well as large swaths of suburbia. Sometimes whiter, the suburbs are both more egalitarian and less reflexively socially liberal.

This division worsened in the Obama era, whose city-centric approach all but ignored the interests of the resource-producing regions of the country, as well as the South. In contrast, under Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, Democrats were joyously competitive in these areas, assuring that the party was truly diverse, rather than simply the lap dog of the littoral constituencies.

With the GOP now in control of Washington, the coastal areas are becoming, to paraphrase President Obama, the new clingers, whether on the environment, racial redress or gender-related issues. Now they fear, with good reason, that the very administrative state they so eagerly embraced could come back to undermine their agenda even at the local level.

Republicans, for their part, are stoking these fears by using statehouse control to slap down efforts by communities in the states they control to embrace progressive policies on minimum wages, transgender bathrooms and fracking bans. By doing this, the GOP could be accused of engaging in its own form of payback, which simply assures that when the Democrats get back in power, they will do the same to them.

Read the entire piece at The Orange County Register.

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of He is the Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His newest book The Human City: Urbanism for the rest of us, was published in April by Agate. He is also author of The New Class ConflictThe City: A Global History, and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. He lives in Orange County, CA.

Photo: Matt H. Wade, [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons


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Souds good if you say it fast.

I think most people agree with the generalities of what you are saying, I think most people disagree when it comes to specifics.

In general, most people would like environmental regulations (for example) written by the people most closely affected by the results. The problem is that it quickly introduces a race to the bottom. To attract paper pulp mills, Florida might pass a regulation allowing raw sewage to be dumped directly in the river (which, in fact, was allowed right up until 1972). To keep from losing valuable jobs, Georgia might counter by not only allowing raw sewage, but large-scale clearcutting as well. It doesn’t take an economist to understand how the air in Jacksonville once got so polluted that it was literally taking the paint off of new cars coming into port. It doesn’t take an agronomist to figure out how the forestry topsoil in the South got so depleted.

In each case, the Federal Government stepped in and passed a few (heavy-handed) regulations to prevent businesses from passing their external costs off to the public at large. The regulations could have been better written, but the alternative was literally nothing.

Almost every single Federal regulation shares the same kind of back-story. Every regulation started because some local politician was making his buddies very rich by allowing them to abuse banking laws, or the environment, or immigrants, or the school system, or minorities. Well-meaning Congressmen stepped in because the states wouldn’t, or couldn’t, or were in on it. Next thing you know, some law that was originally intended to make the playing field safe (or level) is being used to provide an unfair advantage to a different set of players.

A handful of Democrats are suddenly proponents of state’s rights because they want the states to be able to provide more (not less) legal and environmental protections. The Republicans want to go back to “state’s rights” exclusively because they want less. These are not equivalent positions: People who want to re-introduce abuses are not the moral equal of people who want to end them. Democrats are not in favor of higher minimum wages because they love government control, it is because they want to be able to afford to send their children to college.

Adjusted for inflation, the federal minimum wage peaked in 1968 at $8.68 (in 2016 dollars). This was not a fortune, but it was enough to pay rent. If you were a student, it was even better: In 1978, a student working a 14-week minimum wage summer job could afford to pay a full year’s college tuition. Today, that number is 52 weeks.

If we leave this decision up to the states, I can tell you where they will come down: They will come down on the side of big businesses. That is barely even the question. The question is: Should we take away the power of Congress to fix this problem, simply because the current Congress refuses to?

Before you answer that question, you should drive up to Jacksonville and breathe the air for a day. The Clean Water Act revisions of 1972 shut down one sodium sulfate paper mill, and made the others clean up their act. The air is pretty good, and in an emergency you could swim in the river.

Like you, Trump wants to “decentralize” environmental regulation. Like you he knows that some cities and states will stand up to big polluters, and some won’t. And all the biggest polluters can simply move to the cities where people care the least, or where the potential profits simply outweigh environmental concerns; just like they do in, for example, Indonesia.

If you care to visit the Citarum River Basin in West Java, that will give you an idea where decentralized environmental regulation is headed. Look up pictures of the river if you dare.