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Decentralize Government to Resolve Country's Divisions


By Joel KotkinFebruary 14 2017

Appearing in: 
The Orange County Register

America is increasingly a nation haunted by fears of looming dictatorship. Whether under President Barack Obama’s “pen and phone” rule by decree, or its counterpoint, the madcap Twitter rule of our current chief executive, one part of the country, and society, always feels mortally threatened by whoever occupies the Oval Office.

Given this worsening divide, perhaps the only reasonable solution is to move away from elected kings and toward early concepts of the republic, granting far more leeway to states, local areas and families to rule themselves. Democrats, as liberal thinker Ross Baker suggests, may “own” the D.C. “swamp,” but they are beginning to change their tune in the age of Trump. Even dutiful cheerleaders for Barack Obama’s imperial presidency, such as the New Yorker, are now embracing states’ rights.

The founders’ solution

When the founders crafted the Constitution, they confronted a country with deep divisions — rural and urban, slave and free, immigrant and nativist, manufacturing and commodity producing. The solution they came up with had its shortcomings, notably the tolerance of the truly deplorable institution of slavery, but without these built-in restraints the republic likely would not have survived its first decades.

Even after the Civil War settled control of the central government, the country largely followed the founders’ vision of separating and restraining power. Education, zoning, laws and the governing of morality were handled largely at the local level. The federal government focused on things that were its natural purview — interstate transportation, immigration, foreign and defense policy.

Federal intervention remained necessary at times, for example, to assure voting rights. But, overall, maintaining power at the local level has remained broadly popular, with the support of over 70 percent of the adult population. Even in one-party California, most would prefer to see local officials, not those at the national or state level, in control.

Division and the road to alternating dictatorships

As in the antebellum period, American politics sadly reflects two increasingly antagonistic nations. One can be described as a primarily urban, elite-driven, ethnically diverse country that embraces a sense of inevitable triumphalism. The other America, rooted more in the past, thrives in the smaller towns and cities, as well as large swaths of suburbia. Sometimes whiter, the suburbs are both more egalitarian and less reflexively socially liberal.

This division worsened in the Obama era, whose city-centric approach all but ignored the interests of the resource-producing regions of the country, as well as the South. In contrast, under Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, Democrats were joyously competitive in these areas, assuring that the party was truly diverse, rather than simply the lap dog of the littoral constituencies.

With the GOP now in control of Washington, the coastal areas are becoming, to paraphrase President Obama, the new clingers, whether on the environment, racial redress or gender-related issues. Now they fear, with good reason, that the very administrative state they so eagerly embraced could come back to undermine their agenda even at the local level.

Republicans, for their part, are stoking these fears by using statehouse control to slap down efforts by communities in the states they control to embrace progressive policies on minimum wages, transgender bathrooms and fracking bans. By doing this, the GOP could be accused of engaging in its own form of payback, which simply assures that when the Democrats get back in power, they will do the same to them.

Read the entire piece at The Orange County Register.

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com. He is the Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His newest book The Human City: Urbanism for the rest of us, was published in April by Agate. He is also author of The New Class ConflictThe City: A Global History, and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. He lives in Orange County, CA.

Photo: Matt H. Wade, [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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"Greenurbia is the suburbs of the future. The suburbs of the 1950s were bedroom communities for people who commuted into the city. Today, there’s much more employment in the suburbs, and the big change is the number of people working full-time or part-time at home. Having people commute from one computer screen to another doesn’t make sense."

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Praise for The Next Hundred Million

Kotkin has a striking ability to envision how global forces will shape daily family life, and his conclusions can be thought-provoking as well as counterintuitive. It's amazing there isn't more public discussion about the enormous changes ahead, and reassuring to have this talented thinker on the case. — Jennifer Ludden, NPR national desk correspondent

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