The disUnited States and its Refederated future
America needs to update its federation to prevent a deeper unraveling
The AP released a disheartening poll yesterday on the state of US democracy:
Add to it that US media thinks little of the fact there was no debate between the candidates for President this week says a lot about the state of America. In 2004 at the DNC Barack Obama appealed to the better selves of America and asked for a leap of faith to transcend the red/blue divide. His call to action mostly failed, due to entrenched interests and more.
It’s also worth pointing out that the last President accepted by both parties was elected in 1988, 32 years ago. Since GHW Bush, Clinton, Bush 43, Obama and now Trump have been contested by the other side and deemed “illegitimate” Presidents. Add to those 32 years a heavy dose of revenge politics in the form of deeply contested Supreme Court nominees since Robert Bork in 1987. Clarence Thomas in 1990 and Kavanaugh in 2018 personified an America unable to coalesce around shared goals and ideals, but rather an America disunited.
David French and other astute analysts have seen the chasm between so-called Red and Blue America widen to depths unseen since the 1850s. French has just written “Divided We Fall” on the topic and his book is but one in a long series.
19th century French thinker Ernest Renan’s “vouloir vivre” / will to live together theory of nations still applies in the 21st century when one looks at the tired nation states in America and Europe. Almost all of them are contested internally, and Brexit cannot be understood without the “England vs Scotland & Northern Ireland” factor. Candidate Joe Biden in his speech at Gettysburg on Oct 6 remarked that “today we are a house divided”. This is WAY more than campaign rhetoric. The way forward to preserve the American experiment is to recognize that the current constitutional system is in need of a massive overhaul, and that an updated federation is one of the solutions to consider.
The American experiment has always been made of compromise, a dirty word in this age of polarization
The original 13 states were made up of a hodgepodge of English, Scottish, German and other European settlers, most of whom deeply suspicious of ANY government. Most of them hailed from families that had come to the American shores not necessarily by choice but pushed out to sea because of a rigid class system and/or religious persecution. The long path to the US Constitution was marked by difficult compromise which gave birth to a checks and balances system designed to render accomplishing anything especially HARD, on PURPOSE. Fast forward 233 years and a Civil War later, the same tensions persist between cities and rural areas, self-professed elites and satisfied Know Nothings, small government types and interventionists.
Canada, America’s friendly northern neighbor, is an example too few American analysts study when it comes to a rocky, yet successful federal framework between a rightsized central authority in Ottawa and the 13 provinces and territories spread out on the second largest landmass in the world. Considered a confederation, Canada is actually a federation with a weak federal level, by design. Australia is another example of a federal system with powerful states. The Parliament of Western Australia defines a federation as: “a system of government in which a written constitution distributes power and responsibility between a national government and a number of state or regional governments.”
Republicans have spun their “states rights” mantra for decades and yet are now enamored of the federal level for the most hypocritical reasons. Democrats control large states such as Illinois, New York and California, they would surely do well with a reinforced distribution of powers at the state level. Too many forget that the US federal government is a creation BY THE STATES, not the other way around.
A newer flavor of federation, Canadian-style, could solve the difficult task of finding a conduit to bring together more than 330 million Americans who, though they share a common language and currency, are in fact vastly different cultures, with different aspirations.
What a redefined federation could solve
The key issue in 2008, 2012, 2016, 2018 and 2020 for most Americans: access to healthcare. The Affordable Care Act has been a welcome boost to universal healthcare which US capitalists should embrace as keeping it as a workplace-based ‘benefit’ is actually an economic hindrance. A Canada-type federation could allow healthcare to be managed at the state level, as it is in Canada at the provincial level. The US is a ‘salad bowl’ of cultures and of economic development, one size fits all approaches are increasingly impossible to roll out across 50 states and 330M+ people. A fully Confederated approach to healthcare could be a solution to consider, the Medicaid expansion already fits within this framework.
The Covid-19 crisis laid bare what many on both sides already knew: the federal government is mostly powerless aside from a few core missions, browbeaten by decades of Reaganesque “government is the problem”. Re-empowering states, through an accelerated devolution of federal prerogatives in economic management for example, could help lengthen the American experiment.
What can YOU do
There’s a reasoned, thoughtful debate to have within the 50 states around this necessary redefinition of federalism to prepare the 22nd century. Reasoned, sensible people of all walks of life should help structure and nurture it.