Another Horror Show Election Means It’s Time for a New Localism

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A great nation has nearly come to blows over two geriatrics with bad hair. Let’s devolve power down.

It’s time for a new electoral map, one that colors the states according to what Donald Trump thinks should happen to the votes there. So make Pennsylvania and Michigan lavender since Trump wants their counting to stop. Arizona can go mauve since he thinks the tallying there should continue, possibly forever. And shade Nebraska’s Second Congressional District yellow indicating it holds important lessons for both sides that they’ll doggedly refuse to learn.

The end result will look like an tie-dye shirt as seen through a kaleidoscope, the perfect color muddle for this hallucinatory year. Yes, Election Night was about as 2020 as it could have possibly been, or Election Fortnight, as it currently stands. And while political campaigns always bring out a nation’s peculiarities, this one in particular has cast light on our patchwork of confusing state-based election laws and customs. One imagines a Frenchman clicking over to CNN: so there are two Maines but only one New Hampshire? Keeping up with the results has sometimes felt like playing the world’s most sadistic game of Carmen Sandiego. Robocrook was spotted here, where mail-in ballots can’t be counted until Election Day and Senate races go to runoffs…

Presidential elections show our federalist system at its very worst, as dozens of states play by thousands of rules in pursuit of a single answer to a single question. And with the Precambrian Period now looking relatively brief compared to the current round of vote counting, it may be time to take up the cause of serious election reform. After its 2000 debacle, Florida under Jeb Bush overhauled its election system, ditching hanging chads for optical scanners and reforming its ballots; as a result, the Sunshine State is now always among the first in the nation to finish its counting. And while most states already use optical scanners, there are other changes that can be made to smooth the process and speed it up.

Yet however arthritic Arizona’s vote system might look, the lesson of this election is not that we should give up on states’ rights. To the contrary, this campaign has been one long madcap cram session as to why America badly needs to restore her federalist structure. Over at First ThingsPeter J. Leithart gets the ball rolling on this, arguing that because the country is so divided, “Renewed federalism could produce a genuinely pluralist America.” He adds, “Such pluralism will be sturdier than our current enforced tolerance, because each experiment will be backed by the institutionalized power of a state.” As it stands now, America has nationalized next to everything; a state can’t even ask “at what age may people drink alcohol?” without feeling the federal gun against its temple. And politics has followed suit, with progressives ever more reliant on Washington bureaucracy and conservatives embrace nationalism. Sweeping moral questions are resolved at the national level, inflicting singular judgments on a diverse nation of 330 million people, making real consensus impossible.

The result has been tension, gridlock, and our current culture forever war. Being a conservative writer, I have a stamp that reads “The founders saw this coming,” and I’m going to bring it down right here. The founding fathers dispersed power not just horizontally among the three branches of the federal government, but vertically among the feds and the states. This derived, as did much of their wisdom, from their studies of classical history. “The lawgivers of antiquity…legislated for single cities,” wrote John Adams. “Who can legislate for 20 or 30 states, each of which is greater than Greece or Rome at those times?” Size and proportionality were of great concern in our early republic; many powers were reserved for closer to home, among the near and familiar rather than the faraway and alien. Today, Washington not only attempts to legislate for 50 states even larger than what Adams could have imagined, it doesn’t even bother to involve the actual legislature. Most rules and regulations originate in the executive bureaucracy, while most cultural issues require imprimatur by the Supreme Court.

This is why gifting Mountain Dew and firearms to young children is generally a calmer affair than a Supreme Court confirmation hearing. It’s why every presidential election turns into a less believable director’s cut of Freddy vs. Jason. These are the only ways we can influence political power anymore and so we fight like hell over them. Yet amid all the sturm und drang of the latest presidential deathmatch, it’s worth zooming the camera out and taking stock of the disgraceful broader picture. I mean, really. Really. A great country has nearly come to blows over two bellowing geriatrics with some of the worst hair in political history. On this, we’ve spent $14 billion, at a time of serious economic want, with more to come. I don’t deny that elections are important or that serious issues are at stake. But any sense of context, of proportionality, has evaporated right into the blue mirage.

We need to stop thinking of every presidential election as Gettysburg, lower our gazes to where real improvements can actually be made. There will be obstacles to reinvigorating our federalist system, of course. The left has come to equate states’ rights with racism, though given that it’s also come to equate Gone With the Wind, maple syrup, suburbs, and smirking boys with racism, the point is less salient than it used to be. As for conservatives, federalism can bring with it an unpleasant odor of relativism. Why should we let California be California? Isn’t what California is doing wrong? This admittedly can be a hard knot to untie, though not nearly so hard as a compulsory mandate for legal abortion handed down by nine lawyers in robes. Before anything else, conservatives must be realists, and right now they’ve lost the popular culture and the D.C. class. They aren’t going to wield serious national power anytime soon, though they might yet keep Texas red by pointing quiveringly at Connecticut.

America is now entering her lame-duck period, that special time set aside by the founders for us to get the NBC election theme music out of our heads. Trump will spend it trying to recount his way out of a 45,000-vote Philadelphia pothole, while Biden rubs his hands together and contemplates executive orders yet to come. The rest of us should consider the best kind of election reform: lowering the stakes by devolving power down. Whatever happens to Trumpism, neo-Trumpism, Dutch Reformed Trumpism, it’s clear we need a new localism. Because Texas isn’t Connecticut and Connecticut isn’t Texas—not culturally, not economically, not in terms of COVID cases—and what a fine thing that is.

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