Wednesday, November 24, 2004I’m taking a break from the heavy-duty theoretical stuff. Writing all those analytical pieces is exhausting. Instead, today I'm going to comment on some interesting articles over the last few days.
Everyone should go read the interview with Amelia Tyagi in the Washington Monthly. She's the author of the 2-income trap. I think her analysis of the middle class's economic insecurity is precisely the set of issues Democrats should be focusing on. Liberals need to start talking about our debt crisis – the trade and federal debt, of course, but also the personal debt. And we need to make sure people know who to blame: corporate-loving Republicans who have no idea of what real people’s problems are like.
There is also a post from MaxSpeak from a few days ago that I feel compelled to respond to. Max called liberal federalism "infantile." He is opposed to the idea that the left should focus on state governments to pursue progressive causes. Max suggests that there is a one to one correlation between progressive policies and centralization for a reason: local governments have neither the resources nor the inclination to do liberal social policy.
Now I think Max is correct as far as it goes. States do engage in a "race to the bottom" which tends to favor pro-corporate development rather than economic and social justice. The states do have substantially less fiscal flexibility. And there is a much stronger pattern of discrimination and class bias on the part of states than the national government (for an explanation of why, read Federalist #10).
Having said all this, I think Max is assuming what exists now is the only thing that could exist. When I and others talk about liberal federalism, we are suggesting something very different than simple devolution. Liberal federalism would attempt to solve these two problems of inclination and ability by 1) organizing progressive organizations at the state level, and 2) having the federal government continue to provide the resources for social policy.
State-level mobilization would have a number of benefits. First, it would create a constituency at the grass roots level, which would pressure state governments to act in appropriate ways. One of the reasons that states are so bad at social policy is that there is little public attention on them: most folks concentrate on the national government. Second, creating a grass-roots constituency would both encourage greater popular participation, because the problems and solutions would be more immediate (the national government just seems to far away) and would create a cadre of democratic organization in all fifty-states, which we need to do anyway. By creating a permanent organization, we wouldn't have to re-invent the campaign wheel every 4 years and we could coordinate to create a viable national strategy. One of the reasons we haven't done so in the past is because of our exclusively electoral focus. If we start paying more attention to state policy issues, then we will keep people involved because they will always have something to do.
The second part of the strategy is to use the federal government to leverage social policy at the state level. The national government provides the resources and defines basic solutions to the problem, and the states and localities run with it. Liberal federalists are NOT calling for simple block grants. We are arguing for a more active federal government, but one that does not micro-manage policy.
Unfortunately, Republican domination of government makes the second part of the strategy impossible (for the moment). But our defeat in 2004 should encourage us to focus on the first part of the strategy, state-level mobilization. And by embracing a new, more flexible governing approach, we could finally shed our label as "big government liberals." Which is only to the good.