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The State of the States

Osita Nwanevu
9 min read
The State of the States

Hey all. Let's hop to it.


There isn’t much to be happy about in the headlines, but I think it’s encouraging that people are taking more and more interest in the structural factors shaping American politics. Ross Douthat’s recent column suggesting Democrats and Republicans are comparably anti-democratic isn’t good at all, but it can be taken as a sign, at least, that the very meaning of democracy is now up for debate in a way that it wasn’t, say, five years ago. Douthat’s argument centers around Democratic support for the administrative state ⁠— the fact that liberals want people like Anthony Fauci setting public health guidelines and support school boards insulating curricula from parent protests means, he says, that they don’t really trust the public. It’s true that bureaucracies raise important questions for democratic society, and democratic theorists have spent a lot of time musing about how they might be made more accessible and responsive. But supporting expert judgment and central authority on certain matters doesn’t make one an opponent of democracy, especially in comparison to a party and ideological camp that muses openly about whether most ordinary people deserve the right to vote and participate in the first place.

In a lengthy response to Douthat, New York Magazine’s Eric Levitz noted that liberals have been willing to lend support to central authority partially because institutions like the judiciary wound up being instrumentally useful in the defense of equality during the civil rights era. And he argues too that conservatives back technocracy and bureaucracy when it suits their ideological objectives:

It is genuinely true that, during the Nixon years, a liberal judiciary advanced busing as a remedy for school segregation in defiance of both conservative activists and popular opinion. Progressives would maintain that privileging the democratic equality of minority groups over majoritarianism is not contrary to democracy as it is properly understood. Yet liberals do not oppose majority rule solely in instances where the rights of the marginalized are under threat. As Douthat suggests, liberalism does champion a secular, scientific epistemology, which it seeks to promulgate through the public-education system. I don’t think many progressives would argue that if a large majority of parents in a given school district favor intelligent design over evolutionary theory, its schools should teach the former instead of the latter. Nor do we generally think the tenure rights or research agendas of scholars at public universities should be subject to democratic rebuke merely because the voting public subsidizes those institutions.
So Douthat is right to suggest that progressives are wont to frame popular democracy as morally sacrosanct even as we carefully guard our preferred exemptions from it. But he’s wrong to posit a coherent, right-left disagreement about the proper balance between democracy and expert rule. The right likes anti-democratic technocracy when it serves conservative ends, and plebiscitary democracy when it does the same. As Douthat notes, conservatism is simultaneously suspicious of the power of “demagogues” to whip the masses into a frenzy and contemptuous of expert governance. Those two impulses are completely contradictory; if mass opinion is easily swayed by charismatic charlatans, there is no reason to favor democracy over technocracy as a matter of course. The reason these two disparate attitudes can coexist within the same movement is that neither expresses a principled philosophy of government. Rather, they are just two alternative modes of oratory and self-justification, which can be deployed as necessary for advancing the movement’s substantive goals in discrete conflicts. When the American right’s British allies scored a victory for xenophobic nationalism through the Brexit vote, referenda were sacred expressions of the people’s sovereign will. When red-state electorates vote to raise the minimum wage, however, sage legislators must subjugate the masses’ unruly passions to the laws of economic science (after all, we are a republic, not a democracy).

That last point is worth emphasizing. The notion that conservatives genuinely and consistently prefer local popular control to the dictates of administrators at higher levels of government is a tired canard. Republicans are working to overturn the COVID restrictions being established by cities and school districts. The trans bathrooms debate, framed routinely by pundits as another example of progressive identity politics run amok, began with efforts to invalidate local LGBT anti-discrimination laws. Republicans spent the Trump administration talking openly and endlessly about cracking down on sanctuary cities.  The list goes on.

While we tend to focus on the anti-democratic design of our federal system, the real villains in many of these cases are Republicans in state government. And given this, we should acknowledge that states can subvert the public’s will in ways far beyond the distortionary effects they have on the distribution of power in Washington. This was the subject of one of Alex Pareene’s recent newsletters:

In the United States as currently constituted, the state is the form best suited to maintain, at the local level, the dominance of the suburban and rural over the urban, and, at the national level, the dominance of geography over people. This attachment may be a result of philosophical clashes about the role and nature of government dating back to the founding of this country, but I don’t think the right’s current attachment to federalism has much to do with those debates anymore, even if rhetoric echoing them is often borrowed to defend the status quo. That is, while conservative attachment to state government supremacy might be justified with appeals to “federalism,” and while modern arguments about federalism might broadly map onto a clash of supposedly high-minded philosophies dating back to the founding, today the right’s commitment to the principle is plainly just a pragmatic recognition that the state accidentally became, over many decades, the form best suited to conservative rule.
The state is cheaper and easier for the local American gentry to influence (even control) than the federal government. In many places with decimated local media it is easier to get away with quite blatant bribery and graft and corruption at the state capitol than it is in Washington. The way the federal government carries out much of its domestic agenda is by dispensing a lot of money to states and saying, “Here’s what to do with it, but you can get creative and we won’t really look into it that carefully.” And many decades of federally directed investment in particular housing and transportation patterns led to many (but not all) states having a geographically distributed white non-urban population that is able, even before gerrymandering, to politically dominate the urban population in state legislatures, thanks to the at this point very well-understood effects of single-member districts and first-past-the-post voting.

Elsewhere in the letter, he links to a thought-provoking piece from The Nation last year. In it, CUNY professor Nathan Newman argued that we should by trying to disempower and work around state governments by legitimating and providing resources directly to regional ones. “And if you think ‘regional governments’ would take massive new social engineering to create, think again,” he wrote. “Over the past half-century, the federal government has quietly helped create what are called Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) covering well over 400 metropolitan regions in the country.”

The reality is that MPOs, which cover specific metropolitan economic regions, reflect the actual social dynamics of how people live, work, and commute. Compare that to state borders, which are largely arbitrary creations of the federal government, originally splitting territories to balance slave and free state interests, adding multiple Dakotas to beef up Republican Party power in the 19th century, or just chopping up acquired territory based on the whims of D.C.-based bureaucrats. The rectangular borders of many states highlight how little they were designed to reflect even the basic geographic features of the country—much less the evolving economic industries that define each current metropolitan region.
[...] In the short term, the goal should be to ensure that we funnel new federal funds as much as possible not through the states but through existing regional governance structures. In the longer term, we can imagine these beefed-up regional governments overseeing regional single-payer health care operations, raising regional minimum wages, or coordinating Green New Deal job guarantee programs. Ideally, federal policy should make clear that such MPOs are recognized federal entities not subject to state preemption for their operations.
Over time, shorn of federal money, the states who now largely exist to take credit for spending federal dollars will either have to justify their existence with useful programs adding value to federally funded regional programs—or fade away as unimportant fiscal actors. Which would be fine. Before the New Deal, most states were largely skeletal operations, and having many of them return to that status would be a net political gain for the country.

Of course, the problem facing the left is that making new federal funds available for any purpose will require gaining power in Washington, where, again, the states are king. And gaining that power will require making inroads in rural America, where the advantages the federal system grants to sparsely populated regions haven’t actually paid off for millions of struggling workers. For the incredibly stacked new issue of The Drift, High Country News’ Nick Bowlin wrote a terrific and informative essay on the state of rural politics ⁠— a piece that takes aim at the stereotypes and dated misconceptions that have hobbled our understanding of regions that have stratified and diversified beyond recognition over the last several decades. The largest single owner of farmland in the United States, it turns out, is Bill Gates. Those who would have tilled the land he and other large landowners have swallowed up generations ago are, like Americans elsewhere, increasingly employed in sectors like healthcare and retail, beholden to corporations and patterns of consolidation familiar to us all:

Eased by weak antitrust enforcement, corporate retailers like Walmart muscled out independent businesses in small towns. Now, dollar stores proliferate in rural communities, sometimes forcing the big box stores to close. There are more dollar stores in the U.S. than Walmarts and McDonald’s locations. In many large geographic areas with low populations, people live with reasonable access to only one hospital, or even a single healthcare provider. Lack of competition in rural areas is a crucial reason why Obamacare exchanges have failed to keep down healthcare costs, as The Intercept reported. And that was before the pandemic, which has caused a record number of rural hospitals to shut down for good.
It’s no coincidence that this trend toward consolidation tracks a sustained stretch of economic stagnation in the rural United States. Forty years ago, just over twenty percent of new businesses came from outside metro areas. By the 2010s, that number had declined to twelve percent. According to one recent study, 97 percent of net job growth between 2001 and 2016 went to cities. And it’s a plain fact that rural areas never recovered from the Great Recession. From 2010 to 2014, counties with fewer than 100,000 people had a zero percent net rate of new business creation. While many cities bounced back, jobs and businesses didn’t return to rural areas, especially those with predominantly non-white communities. Unemployment levels were still trailing pre-recession levels when the Covid-19 economic fallout arrived to hammer rural areas yet again. Deindustrialized towns continue to bleed population and jobs. Broadband access lags, preventing established industries from keeping up and new ones from breaking ground, while gaps in secondary educational attainment between rural and metro areas yawn wide.

The economic case for left politics in rural America is obvious, but Bowlin also argues that succeeding in these communities isn’t just a matter of presenting the right policy platform. Culture matters, and while racial grievances shape rural politics in obvious ways, working-class rural Americans of all stripes share, in his words, “a sense of having lost something while the rest of the country moves ahead.”

Urban and rural Americans won’t unite in support of a left democratic politics unless rural Americans are convinced the impression the rest of the country has moved ahead masks the extent to which poor and working class Americans elsewhere have also been shut out of prosperity. They share the same enemy ⁠— capital and the politicians who constrain democracy to capital’s benefit.

Reasons to Be Cheerful

Starbucks union drives are spreading. Alex Press in Jacobin:

Fifty-four stores in nineteen states have now filed for NLRB elections. One location in Mesa, Arizona, just finished voting, with ballots set to be counted on February 16, despite Starbucks’ appeal to block the vote, with the company arguing, as it unsuccessfully did in New York, that a single store is not an appropriate bargaining unit.
The number of unionizing Starbucks locations is ticking up so quickly that it may well have changed by the time you’re reading this article. On the final day of January alone, Workers United, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) affiliate that is organizing the Starbucks campaign, announced fifteen new NLRB filings. On that same date, contract negotiations began at the first unionized Buffalo location.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of the campaign’s speed thus far. Each Starbucks location employs a small number of workers (around thirty) and, had the victory remained isolated to one or two stores, the company could have closed those stores or otherwise stalled and derailed the bargaining process until the union deteriorated. Many unions in the United States never win a first contract, and plenty of restaurant and café owners prefer to shutter their locations entirely rather than cede the slightest ground to workers. Instead, Starbucks workers spread the organizing drive so quickly that it has become impossible for the company to send high-level managers to every location to dissuade workers.

A Song

I Gotta Dance To Keep From Crying - The Miracles (1963)