How Federalism Thwarts Dystopia

Delegates point to an electoral map at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Pa., in 2016. (Charles Mostoller/Reuters)

People on the left are correct that our constitutional system makes it harder for them to get what they want. To which I say: Thank God.

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Hotel California Politics

There is a fun web game called “Redraw the States,” which lets you reimagine the 2020 presidential election by moving counties from one state to another. The idea is to flip the results of the election in as few moves as possible. For example, Donald Trump would have won in 2020 if the votes of just three counties – Philadelphia (Pa.), Fulton (Ga.), and Wayne (Mich.) — had been reassigned to California or some other Democratic state. The opposite strategy — turning blue states red by annexing Republican counties to them — is a little more difficult, or at least I found it so, because Republican votes tend to be spread out over a greater number of less densely populated counties. So, you could have flipped a state to the Trump column by adding in the votes of Lubbock County, Texas (120,000 votes, two-thirds of them for Trump) to Georgia, but finding the votes to flip Pennsylvania or Michigan in a single Trump county is a lot more difficult. The counties that Biden won have in total 67 million more residents than the counties that Trump won.

I imagine that both of my Democratic readers already are thinking: “Reassigning the votes of a handful of dense, urban, and disproportionately black counties to California is effectively the same thing as taking them right off the map, which is, of course, what Republicans are trying to do by making it more difficult to vote.” The broad objection to the Electoral College is similar: that our state-centered presidential elections have the effect of quarantining big-city votes in a handful of states instead of allowing their effects to be distributed across the country as they would if we had a single national popular election for president. Lately that has worked to the advantage of Republicans in two ways: by reducing the effect of the very large Democratic majorities in California and by not reducing the effect of the smaller Republican majorities in Texas and Florida. In 2020, Joe Biden won California’s 55 electoral votes by a margin of 29 percent, while Donald Trump won the 38 electoral votes of Texas and the 29 electoral votes of Florida by only 5.6 percent and 3.4 percent, respectively. Put another way, the 11 million votes that Biden got in California earned him 55 electoral votes, while the roughly equal number of votes Trump won in Texas and Florida combined won him 65 electoral votes. Biden’s advantage of 5 million votes in California was of less worth in terms of electoral votes than was Trump’s advantage of about 1 million votes in Texas and Florida combined.

There are many factors that go into that, including the fact that Republican presidential candidates more or less forgo campaigning in California and other states in which they are not realistically competitive, while Democrats will put up a pretty good fight in Florida (and, to a lesser extent, in Texas) because they believe they can win there.

It is impossible to disprove a counterfactual, but I strongly suspect that if in 2000 George W. Bush had won the notional “popular vote” while Al Gore won in the Electoral College, or if Hillary Rodham Clinton had won an electoral victory over Trump in 2016 without winning more votes nationally, then we would be hearing a good deal less from Democrats about the purported injustice of the Electoral College. (Facebook would be a happier place, too, if the Democrats hadn’t needed someone to blame for 2016 and settled on Mark Zuckerberg rather than, say, their incompetent candidate.) But that is not how our particular democratic cookie crumbles.

It is (entirely too) easy to oversimplify this. For example, taking Philadelphia, Fulton, and Wayne counties off the electoral map by consigning them to the oblivion of California or Connecticut would affect more white voters than black ones (each of those counties has a larger white population than black population) but would affect black voters disproportionately (each of those counties is more than 40 percent black in a country that is 13 percent black), while our current arrangement tends to amplify the influence of voters in such largely white states as Wyoming and North Dakota.

This is particularly galling from the point of view of the gross majoritarians when it comes to Senate seats, which, unlike Electoral College votes, are distributed among the states with no regard for population at all: Why, they demand, should the half-million people of Wyoming enjoy as much Senate clout as the 40 million people of California?

Again, reality is complicated: While small-state voters are disproportionately white and Republican, this is not a straightforwardly partisan issue, either: The same arrangement that benefits Republican Wyoming also lifts up the voice of our lightly populated second-whitest state, Soviet Bernistan.

The point of view of the gross majoritarians makes sense only if the states don’t. And so it is no surprise to find voices ranging from the dopey Left to the zany Left calling for the abolition of the states: Writing in Jacobin, Rob Hunter dismisses the states as “an ignoble legacy from the early history of the republic,” part of “American federalism’s long tradition of strangling popular sovereignty and democratic equality in the knots of competing and multiple state jurisdictions.” Lawrence R. Samuel, writing in the Washington Post, insists that diminished regional differences have turned “the once radical proposition of the ‘United States’ into an anachronism that now has little or no real value.”

I find myself agreeing with the gentleman from Jacobin in his assessment but not his conclusion: Yes, federalism and many other aspects of American government are very much designed to strangle popular sovereignty and to frustrate democratic equality by dividing power into competing jurisdictions. I think he has it about right when he writes: “Federalism multiplies the loci of power that must be captured by popular movements seeking to transform the capitalist state, or even just win some advances within it.”

I differ from Rob Hunter in that I thank God for it.

Why do we have states at all?

(Why, for that matter, do we still have counties when we have no counts, while we have no shires in spite of our having so many sheriffs?)

Hunter supplies part of the answer to his own question: Dismissing the value of the states as theaters for policy innovation, he writes: “History has shown how those little ‘laboratories of democracy’ are just as likely to be run by mad scientists as they are by benevolent researchers.” Indeed, they are. But what is true of the small ones also is true of the big ones, as 20th-century and 21st-century national governments broadly allied to Jacobin’s view of the world amply demonstrated by murdering some 100 million people in labor camps and gulags and through the use of such innovative tools as mass starvation as an instrument of political discipline. These United States are one of the few polities in the world that can be characterized accurately as enjoying open borders — between the states — which makes fleeing bad public policy and abusive government relatively easy. Relocating from California to Texas is pretty straightforward.

(It is a hell of a lot easier than relocating from Texas to, say, Switzerland.)

If you happen to be advancing a fundamentally totalitarian view of the world that recognizes no legitimate sphere of private life outside of political control that rejects liberalism and pluralism and the rule of law itself, and that deifies the “will of the people” — then, in such a situation, competing loci of power must be understood to be intolerable. Socialists are not content to live as socialists on their own terms — they insist that you must live as a socialist on their terms, too. (And if it comes down to it, better you than them: If a high-ranking apparatchik enjoys a dacha and an extra ration of caviar, then that’s really, somehow, the will of the people, too!) As libertarians sometimes put it: In a free society, there is no reason that a bunch of lefty crackpots couldn’t put together a worker-owned, democratically managed steel mill that supplies its product to a worker-owned, democratically managed automobile factory, which could build cars and distribute them in whatever way best satisfied its members’ sense of justice. (There will be only one sense of justice, because there can be only one — in the socialist republic, disagreement on that point is tantamount to treason.) But the opposite — a free-market subculture in a socialist society — would be impossible. Totalitarian politics is total on more than one front: total authority, total discretion, total reach. To fracture political power is to recognize limits on political power, which is an unthinkable thought for the totalitarian.

In the American context, the states are an embarrassment to the Left and an impediment to the Left’s increasingly totalist project. Hence the efforts to abolish them piece by piece: by dissolving the Electoral College, by deforming the Senate, by preempting state elections with a new Washington-run electoral system, by removing their discretion in financial matters, by supplanting local standards and practices in education and administration, etc.

Totalitarianism fully realized requires that there be nowhere to run. It ultimately requires defacing civilization to extirpate the genuine organic diversity of peoples, cultures, religion, regions, and modes of life. This is why socialist governments, for example, so reliably turn abusive and repressive when they are not outright genocidal. But socialism is not the only species of totalitarianism, and the current right-wing populist rhetoric that similarly deifies “We the People” is based on a similar set of assumptions. And what happens when “We the People” demand something We the People’s self-appointed populist spokesmen dislike? False consciousness, says the Marxist. Media bias and left-wing educators, says the rightist.

None of those gets to the facts about democracy, facts that were well understood by John Adams and others among our Founding Fathers: Democracy is at best a procedural convenience for choosing representatives and ensuring a minimum level of accountability in elected officials. Democracy is not a synonym for “good government” — often it is the opposite — and democratic is not another way of saying “decent” or “intelligent.” We all understand this at the moral margins: If the United States had had a national referendum on slavery in 1862, slavery would have won in a landslide. But we know slavery was wrong and needed to go. A century later, a national referendum on civil rights for the descendants of those slaves would have failed at the polls. The framers of the Constitution knew that We the People cannot be trusted very long or very far, which is why the most important of our liberties — freedom of speech, of the press, of religion, to keep and bear arms — were put in the Bill of Rights, placing them beyond the reach of mere democratic majorities. We the People need to be told “No!” pretty often and “Hell, no!” from time to time. Every time a populist initiative strips away some layer of insulation keeping the People from exercising direct power, it also strips away some layer of insulation protecting the People from having direct power exercised on them. Populism means government modeled on Twitter.

Hell, no.

The creator of “Redraw the States” offers it as an invitation to “weep at how arbitrary our electoral system is.” Arbitrary is offered as a synonym for undesirable or unfair, but the fact is that all voting systems have arbitrary rules. Why on earth we let 18-year-olds vote when we won’t sell them a handgun or a beer is a mystery to me. (No, I don’t want to lower the drinking age to 18 — I want to raise the voting age to 40.) Our system has a lot of pressure points and a lot of veto points, and it has them by design. And we are hardly the only country that has such measures in place: In Switzerland, for example, national referenda must win both a majority of the overall vote and a majority in a majority of the federation’s 26 cantons to take effect. That’s a high bar to clear, which is why Switzerland has no national minimum wage (thunderously rejected by 76 percent of voters) or a strict “corporate responsibility” law (approved by a majority of voters but not in a majority of cantons).

About a third of the U.S. population lives in just four states (California, Texas, Florida, and New York), but our system of government ensures that a handful of populous states cannot dominate the affairs of the entire nation. South Dakota soybean farmers have their own interests, distinct from — and sometimes rivalrous to — those of Wall Street financiers or Silicon Valley entrepreneur or low-income people in San Antonio. Federalism, properly understood and properly implemented, gives them a chance to say “Hell, no!” (or maybe just “No, thanks!”) to policies and laws reflecting values and priorities at odds with their own. Unhappily, our politics has for many years now run in the opposite direction: Rather than working to restrict the national government to matters that are genuinely national in character (foreign policy, immigration), the schemers and snoots and do-gooders and botherers have pushed Washington’s big ugly snout into every corner of American life — public life, yes, but increasingly into private life, too.

All systems based on definite rules can be manipulated, and all political systems include rules that are arbitrary. But our arbitrary rules serve a necessary purpose — or two: The first is giving people the means to put up roadblocks in front of nonsense, and the second is providing a means of escape when those roadblocks fail. If you would like to know more about the practical realities of living in a society with no means of internal exit, some of your immigrant neighbors might be able to fill you in.

The worst effects of leftish/progressive government in these United States can still be avoided by moving to a state with different practices. And people unhappy with the Republican dominance of Texas or Utah can always move to a Democrat-dominated state — there is more room in those states every day. The power of exit puts real pressure on dopes and miscreants and charlatans and fools such as Andrew Cuomo and, you know, every single sad-faced clown holding office in the extra-long stretch-limo clown car that is California. When the people pack up and go, so does the tax base, and politics is no fun at all without easy access to other people’s money, and lots of it.

Progressives prefer a world in which you cannot leave California even if you leave California, in which the Golden State really is a Hotel California from which you can check out but never escape. There’s a reason Senator Elizabeth Warren has proposed a confiscatory tax on the assets of Americans who renounce their citizenship and move to another country.

Americans should think a little bit about why a particular political tendency would desire to create conditions making exit from its jurisdiction impossible.

Words About Words

A count’s territory is a county. A sheriff’s territory is a shire — he is a shire reeve, reeve being an old Anglo-Saxon name for the chief local official, something like what the Italians would have called a podestà once upon a time. Sheriff seems to bear a family resemblance to the Arabic sharif, but the two words are unrelated.

Rampant Prescriptivism

Gail Collins: “I wonder if there’ll be more or less people naming their children Donald in the future.”

Stannis Barartheon:

If you write “less” when you mean “fewer,” you are more or less asking to be misunderstood.

Send your language questions to [email protected]

Home and Away

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In Closing

I’d like to point out that Amazon’s policy banning the sale of books with dissenting views of the transgender controversy — specifically those that frame the issue as one of mental illness — is purely pretextual and entirely dishonest. It is some shameful . . . stuff. It was obviously cooked up after the fact to justify the suppression of Ryan Anderson’s book. You know that because Amazon continues to sell the works of Sigmund Freud, not to mention old copies of the DSM. Like the clown-show over at Condé Nast, this is pure corporate cowardice on the part of people who expect to be entrusted with a special role in shaping public discourse — and who cannot be trusted with that responsibility.

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