December 31, 2013
Red versus Blue States: A Divide Worth Having
By J. Robert Smith
It's hit the radar at the Washington Post, a liberal establishment mainstay, meaning liberaldom is or will be engaged. The "it' is the increasingly stark divide between the nation's red and blue states. Conservative states continue to track right, while blue states are becoming more liberal. Texans and Californians, for example, inhabit different worlds, and the differences are growing. The suspicion is that liberals are nervous about the divide breaking against them.
Dan Balz, who wrote the Post article about the growing red-blue divide, gets it wrong in his lead. Penned Balz:
Political polarization has ushered in a new era in state government, where single-party control of the levers of power has produced competing Americas. One is grounded in principles of lean and limited government and on traditional values; the other is built on a belief in the essential role of government and on tenets of cultural liberalism.
With freedom, party control -- red or blue -- represents an end-result, not a first cause. "Single-party control" hasn't "produced competing Americas." Differences among Americans have engendered different Americas. Balz concedes as much later in his article:
In many more states, however, citizens are being governed by a philosophy and a set of policies that conform more closely to public opinion within their borders. That has accelerated the trend toward more-partisan governing, and as Ronald Brownstein and Stephanie Czekalinski wrote this year in National Journal, it is sometimes "straining the boundaries of federalism."
Much of the Brownstein and Czekalinski article bemoans that conservative states haven't gotten with the liberal program. It appears to chafe both that red states haven't tagged along with enhanced gun control, are tightening abortion restrictions, aren't promoting same-sex marriage, and aim at implementing dramatic reforms ranging from taxes to schools to public unions.
But Balz is really only partially wrong about the power of political parties (or more specifically, politicians), though I doubt he'd appreciate why. Brownstein and Czekalinski indirectly furnish the why:
Yet the general scope of congressional lawmaking and judicial decisions through the 20th century was to narrow the differences among the states. That was both because Washington assumed more power to set national standards (on environmental regulation, wage and hour laws, and racial equality, for instance), and because the Supreme Court established more national rights that overrode variations in state law (on everything from school desegregation to abortion and interracial marriage).
Stated another way, progressives, through the federal courts, principally, and legislatively, began the process nearly a century ago of breaching constitutional limits that thwarted ambitious politicians and factions from crimping liberties and imposing themselves through government. Politicians and parties today are better able to manipulate the system and impose themselves because constitutional constraints have loosened; that loosening has occurred in states, too.
Be that as it may, the government and policies Texans get fairly mirror what Texans want. Ditto Illinoisans, who get the profligate, overtaxed, indebted, and overregulated state they inhabit. New Yorkers and Californians get lenient abortion laws and same-sex marriage because, generally speaking, liberal social milieus are, at least, tolerable to most of them. Kansans and Idahoans, on the other hand, are socially more conservative, and their state laws regarding abortion and homosexual unions reflect that conservatism.
Brownstein and Czekalinski lament the long gone days when governors "were generally not the most partisan but those who most creatively blended ideas from the two parties." Of course, that pragmatism tended to favor liberalism, in that Republican governors were unlikely to challenge the reigning liberal orthodoxy -- accept one governor who became president, Ronald Reagan. Reagan's profound influence on the reinvigoration of conservatism nationally and in the states merits not a word from Brownstein and Czekalinski.
Differences among the states are good for Americans, and should be welcome to those of us who want more, not less, federalism. States as laboratories of democracy, per Jefferson, permit us to see which worldview is superior, the conservative or liberal one. Or states simply provide the societies that Americans of different stripes desire to inhabit. States that are starkly different in their relationships to liberty give Americans' choices.
But Balz's Post article hints that liberals are uneasy with the growing red-blue divide among states -- and not for the "good government, let's split our differences" trope Balz offers, but because "experiments in democracy" might lead to choices that the left would prefer not be made: either the overturn of liberal dominance in blue states or the continued - if not accelerated -- drain of productive citizens and enterprises from liberal states. (See Joel Kotkin's article, "Blue States Double-down on Suicide Strategy" at Forbes.)
Without overdoing the comparison, liberals may be discovering that they have a dilemma similar to that of the old communist regimes: the ambitious don't often stay where liberty is constricted or outright denied (though crony capitalism and big government have their adherents among the ambitious, for they see the potential to profit from either or both).
Clearly, Maryland isn't East Germany, but neither is it Texas. While Texas thrives mainly due to less government and free enterprise, Maryland is a federal government outpost; its economy relies heavily on federal spending, directly or indirectly. Its counties bordering or near the District of Columbia are bedroom communities for legions of federal workers and government contractors. The same thing can be said about northern Virginia.
The values that underpin these governing strategies reflect contrasting political visions, and the differences can be seen in stark terms in the states. In a red state such as Texas, government exists mostly to get out of the way of the private sector while holding to traditional social values. In blue states such as California and Maryland, government takes more from taxpayers, particularly the wealthy, to spend on domestic priorities while advancing a cultural agenda that reflects the country's growing diversity.
So be it. Californians and Marylanders order their state as they see fit, though continuing to gouge the "wealthy" (liberally defined in blue states) leads productive citizens to find their ways elsewhere. Not for nothing have mostly blue states lost population and congressional representation every decade for a long time (why else are liberals so keen on opening the borders to illegals if not to find ways now and in the future of boosting their political clout?). New Yorkers and Pennsylvanians have sought more than sunshine and milder winters down south and out west: they've sought opportunities free from onerous taxation and red tape.
The left has long sought to nationalize government, which means a subordination of the states. In the meantime, liberals aren't blind to the advantages red states enjoy over blue states, in terms of siphoning off blue states' productive citizens and enterprises. Liberals see where many businesses choose to relocate. They appreciate that red states are often more affordable to Americans.
Critical to the nation's ongoing experiments in democracy is the imperative to roll back intrusive -- and often coercive -- national government. Washington is an informal ally of blue states, like Maryland, at the expense of red states, via legislation, court rulings, or executive fiat. What Washington can't annex from states outright, it uses taxpayers' dollars to leverage compliance with federal rules and regulations.
The Obama presidency has been largely an attempt by the left to reenergize and reassert national government at the expense of true federalism. President Obama is the "anti-Reagan." The left wants leftism regnant in every state and locality and is using a bolder national government to impose itself.
But the left's error may be in thinking that conservative Americans will eventually go quietly into the good night, permitting the left to work its will. Big fights loom if the left continues to try to ram its agendas down the throats of red state Americans (ObamaCare is a first critical battle). There's now a long history of leftism in America. The right's rejection of leftism is grounded in the left's demonstrated failures and in cultural and societal constructs that conservative Americans view as wrong-headed and deficient. The lines have been drawn and set.
Yet the betting is that the left will continue to plot and plan its assaults on federalism (on liberty itself), with the backing of federal courts too often, congressional Democrats and the president almost always. Tumult and protracted conflict -- and one hopes, eventual defeat -- will be the left's rewards.