Why America's Broken, Part II

May 1, 2015

Last week, we considered the core political dilemma in the United States. One residing at the heart of those perfunctory questions often asked by today's electorate.
"Where did we go wrong?" "When did the system become so broken?" "What happened to the land of opportunity?"
Each, an iteration of the same interrogative.
Consider the nation's evolution. It's social and political structures. You'll notice a discernible pattern. One that reveals the fly in the ointment. That being the hegemony of D.C.'s political class over the electorate. The centralization of most policy and decision making. To the nation's detriment.
The nation has strayed from its Federalist roots to a system by which D.C.'s "ruling class" has consolidated everything. Accordingly, D.C. mandates business, economic and social policy throughout this vast country.
That was not the Founder's intention.
The Founders knew that the nation consisted of no less than 13 unique economies. One per colony. Today, the U.S. is home to 150 economies. Maybe more. As states like California and Florida often consist of three to four unique economic regions. Accordingly, the Founders knew that, like the monarchy against which they rebelled, no system of governance can cope with such a vastly differing array of people using a one-size-fits-all approach. Such an approach is inevitably offensive to the 50 percent of the citizenry that disagree with every outcome. So why not keep the outcomes local, as the Founders intended?
A hundred years ago, the U.S. was a blossoming nation. Economically, diplomatically, and culturally. The nation's capital operated in a capacity as defined by the Founders. State and local governments used homegrown familiarity and resources to contend with regional issues. There was little of the national policy homogeneity so prevalent today.
From the beginning, the United States thrived on variation. In fact, variation represents a critical aspect of any robust political system. Standing as the guarantor of diversity, toleration and trust.
With state and local governments presiding over most of the provisions intended for government, then the various regions and economies could coexist. Because the nation was devoid of today's omniscient political toe stomping. Which is inevitable when the federal government attempts to mandate national policies pleasing to all parties. Instead of allowing regional governments to define and manage policy in a way that pleases regional constituents.
The quickest path to failed government? Attempting to please everyone. Because it cannot be done. Yet, that is precisely what the federal government attempts to do with every policy under consideration.
Social, economic and cultural issues on which with the electorate holds vastly different opinions. Opinions that differ depending on the state or region. Issues that demand local, institutionalized cultural awareness.
The federal government was created to provide a national defense, a sound legal framework, interstate commerce and to protect us from each other. Following that, the federal government was to recede from our lives. Yet today, the federal government appears as the central protagonist in every issue with which the nation grapples.
Gun control? Gay marriage? Tax policy? Education standards? The electorate's opinions on each differ vastly by state and region. Residents of Miami live 3,300 miles from those in Seattle. Of course they feel differently about any number of policies. So, shouldn't local municipalities work with local electorates to determine local policies? Thus providing a framework within which individuals can operate as they choose, so long as they remain within the letter of the law.
Social and economic issues were once left to local governments. As the Founders rightfully anticipated that attitudes in New York might differ from those held thousands of miles away.
In New York, a city of 10 million, there should be a ban on assault weapons. Such a dense population living right on top of each other? Such a policy makes sense.
But in Montana, a hugely spacious state inhabited by only one million, the residents should be able to drive tanks if they so choose.
Federalism allowed Americans to migrate to areas befitting their opinions and attitudes. Residents of one state want to smoke pot? Fine. Others want higher taxes? Fine. To marry members of the same sex? Good. To carry loaded weapons? No problem. To drive at 75, 55 or 85? Works for them!
Ever wonder why the five issues that fixate the nation with each election cycle can never be solved? They weren't meant to be! At least not nationally. Yet, every four years we watch a bunch of candidates from both parties willing to promise anything to get elected. Even as reasonable people know it will never be accomplished.
Such political promises are calculated to upset half of the electorate, while galvanizing just enough voters to cobble together a winning electoral number. That's your government at work.
With a return to our Federalist origins, national politicians will again handle only issues of national importance. Leaving local politicians to determine the rest. Importantly, as state and local governments accrue a more vital role in the nation's calculations, those vying for state and local positions will logically become better, sharper and more qualified candidates. Eventually, the best government representatives will live year round among the constituents they serve. Removing a number of the conflicts of interest that exist today.
Will there be difficulties? Of course. Regardless of the system. Politics will always present challenges. But at the very least, shouldn't we tackle these challenges with the most effective system available?
There will be flaws. Because perfection cannot be achieved. Nor will the answers to certain questions ever exist. "How can we ensure that nothing ever goes wrong in the United States?" Or, "Which of the multitude of competing concerns should triumph over others?"
Remember, utopia does not exist. Nor is there a perfect set of answers that can be diligently applied to all issues. Political opinions represent the byproduct of philosophical assumptions and a prioritization of values. Would society prefer an equality of outcome or equality of opportunity? Liberty or security? Individual answers to such questions reveal one's politics. Because the argument is not one between the ideological and the pragmatic. But, between those who assign a different weighting or priority to different situations.
The economist Thomas Sowell has said, "There are no solutions; there are only tradeoffs."
So, shouldn't the nation's citizenry be given the opportunity to contend with the issues deemed most vital to their local cultures, traditions and economic circumstances?
Critics contend that the "localization" of politics can lead to unequal outcomes. Yet, can they posit any area of the political spectrum against which the same charge cannot be leveled? Unequal outcomes will remain a fact of life. To gain something, one gives up another. But it stands to reason that localized decision making would result in a more contented electorate as their energies would be allocated to only the most critical issues.
Moreover, localizing policy and decision making enables communities to confront, engage and occasionally terminate ineffectual, misguided politicians. Fail to act upon local issues and deliver local progress? Time to give someone else a chance. As opposed to today's electoral tactics by which politicians deliver little to no progress but gain reelection by using unsolvable concerns to leverage half a scared constituency against the other anxious half. This interminable political tactic has all but assured stagnant political progress on most major issues while simultaneously permitting politicians to treat their offices like family businesses.
What about political solutions that, while holding promise, are deemed too risky to attempt at the national level? Under a Federalist, localized approach, if certain states wish to serve as "laboratories" for innovative policy, then the local electorate can determine as much. Based upon local facts. At no risk to the rest of the nation. Such is the American ideal, right?
Massachusetts wishes to mandate statewide education reform? Then elect a governor proposing to do so. Alabama wishes to stick with its current curriculum? Great. Eventually, the rest of the nation will have ample opportunity to gauge the results in each state and so adopt the more effective approach.
Consider Texas. The state's unemployment rate sits a full 20 percent lower than the national average. In fact, since President Obama took office, half of the jobs created in the U.S. have been created in Texas. Such is the reward for a state that has established itself as a bastion for business and opportunity.
Nonetheless, Texas also has the nation's highest percentage of residents without health insurance. Accordingly, one might infer that economic opportunity and a limited public safety net are not directly correlated. One could assume that there are many Texans who do not wish to purchase health insurance. Still, such a large number of uninsured represents a problem. But, perhaps such problems represent one of the less-welcomed downsides to dynamic economic growth. Promoters of local governance should be prepared to concede some drawbacks. And to explain how other benefits eventually outweigh them.
In Texas, for instance, limited health coverage has not prevented workers from across the nation from migrating there to procure gainful employment.
In any system of governance, as in all facets of life, there will never be perfection. Reward is always accompanied by risk. Understanding that, the United States can only solve its current impediments once it denies politicians the opportunity to promise perfection.
When local candidates must justify their actions to local constituents. To voters that reside just beyond their office doors. Only then will there be a sea change in government productivity. Not to mention more satisfaction among national constituents. A level of satisfaction denied to most Americans for the last 75 years. Yet, one that remains achievable, if constituents inhabiting every facet of the political spectrum can agree that the problem is not ideological, but systematic. Because ideological issues can be argued, but never solved. Systematic issues can.
Until then, Americans will scratch their heads and ask, "What went wrong? "
The Founders understood that the nation might veer off course. Still, they were confident that, given the hope and promise ingrained in their system, we could find our way back.
Consider the words of Thomas Jefferson. Spoken during his first inaugural address, when he enumerated the Founder's enduring ideal. What he called 'the essential principles of our government .'
"These principles form the bright constellation which has gone before us and guided our steps through an age of revolution and reformation. The wisdom of our sages and blood of our heroes have been devoted to their attainment. They should be the creed of our political faith, the text of civil instruction, the touchstone by which to try the services of those we trust; and should we wander from them in moments of error or of alarm, let us hasten to retrace our steps and to regain the road which alone leads to peace, liberty, and safety."
The founders escaped from the chains of a distant, ineffective government with little understanding of the people it ruled. Is that so very different from where we find ourselves today?

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