For at least two and a half centuries, Americans have argued over the proper size and scope of a central government. Though the abuses of power by a distant monarch and legislature sparked our revolt against England, and though Americans have always remained suspicious of putting too much authority in the hands of our own federal government, the general drift over the years has been toward more centralized power, and thus more centralized decision-making over important issues.
But we may have hit peak centralization.
The very election of Donald Trump spoke to the extreme contempt with which many Americans have come to hold the federal government. Many Americans held their noses while voting like never before, out of a sense of desperation that the candidacy of Hillary Clinton — the embodiment of the political class that earned their contempt — represented a point of no return regarding the concentration of power. From health care to immigration to energy to the judiciary (and the host of issues it considers from the First Amendment to the Second and beyond) a Clinton presidency could have locked into place that drift toward centralization. Instead, most conservatives and independents cast their lot with a man who at least offered a chance at preventing that.
But to many liberals now, Trump’s presidency represents a terrifying mirror image of what the right had feared. They see his actions and attempted actions as a retrogression to be Resisted. Such is their anti-Trump fervor that his presidency appears to be sparking a serious rethinking of their long-held appreciation for federal power. I suggested somewhat tongue-in-cheek right after the election that this should happen. The clearest and perhaps most prominent example that it may actually be coming true can be found within this essay in Politico by the urbanist Richard Florida. Here is the key excerpt:
“It’s time to confront a simple but stunning fact: When it comes to urban policy and much else, the federal government is the wrong vehicle for getting things done and for getting them done right. Whether it is controlled by the left or the right, no single top-down, one-size-fits-all strategy can address the desires and needs of a country as geographically, culturally and economically divided as America. Big cities and metropolitan regions, far-flung exurbs, suburbs and rural areas are very different kinds of places, with vastly different desires and needs.
“If we are ever going to rebuild our cities and our nation as a whole, including our suburbs and rural areas, there is really only one way forward, and it does not and cannot start in Washington. It can only come from our many and varied communities, who know best how to address and solve their own problems and build their own economies. And if that sounds like going back to an old-fashioned, conservative conception of how federalism should work — a kind of extreme localism — to address the sorts of issues liberals worry about, so be it. America needs nothing less than a revolution in how we govern ourselves, or we’ll only end up poorer, angrier and more divided.”
Read the whole thing, but this excerpt neatly summarizes what conservatives have long argued. The thinking is “old-fashioned” only in the sense liberals have long since deluded themselves into believing more-centralized power could only be good, because it would inevitably be used to achieve their desired ends. That might have been true as long as the right was chiefly devoted to limiting and devolving federal power. But with a president coming from the right who instead is quite interested in seeing what he can do with this large federal hammer the left spent decades fashioning, it seems some liberals are suddenly gaining a Strange New Respect for returning power to those governments closest to the people. Threatening to withhold federal funds to coerce acquiescence to federal prerogatives is apparently less appealing when it comes to sanctuary cities harboring illegal immigrants rather than (as Obamacare attempted) states refusing to expand Medicaid. It seems to have taken Trump to demonstrate to liberals what Reagan meant when he said a government powerful enough to give you what you want is also powerful enough to take it away.
I don’t want to overstate this nascent trend, if we can yet call it a trend (Florida names other liberals who agree with him later in his essay). You of course still hear many liberals whose response to Trump on, say, health care is to elect Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren in 2020 and get on with the mission of single payer. But the more honest liberals surely recognize what this sentiment amounts to: Get “Better” Leaders.
The problem is Get “Better” Leaders is neither a political philosophy nor much of a plan. For one, it’s fraught with risk, as the election of Trump seems to have shown. And consider the possibility, if a strong-federal-government right truly becomes ascendant, that what follows Trump is not “better” but — perish the thought, gentle progressivist reader! — worse. If you don’t want a president who can so terrify you with his actions, the best answer is not to have such a powerful president (and executive branch … and federal government more generally). More fundamentally, Get “Better” Leaders is the very conceit of governance our Founding Fathers rejected because of their appropriately dim view of human nature.
It would be ironic if what it took for the left to acknowledge the wisdom of the right’s arguments for less-centralized governance were not the arguments themselves, but a president coming from the right who wields power like one from the left. I guess seeing really is believing.