Think Nationally, Act Federally

Both sides should talk about the need to turn to states and local communities to allow innovation to take root and diversity to flourish.

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According to scholars and pundits, Washington's broken. There's no leadership or collegiality. There are only partisan arms races, brinksmanship, and finger pointing.

Americans seem to agree. Not only is a large majority (58 percent) "frustrated with the federal government", but an astounding 77 percent of Americans "say the way politics works in Washington these days is causing serious harm to the United States". Surely, the recent rancor over sequestration hasn't done anything to reverse these trends.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

While it's easy to blame the politicians, the problem stems from us. We're a thriving democracy with more individual free expression, organizations for association, and mediums for political speech than ever before. We can't go back (nor should we) to 50 years ago when most elected officials in Washington were white men representing white men, when the only real interest groups were labor unions and industry consortia, and when three television networks told us the news. Women and minorities (not only ethnic, racial, and religious, but also ideological and issue-specific) possess far more power today than they did when the government "worked" (notably by exclusion).

But this democratic expansion has come with a price. It's now exceedingly difficult to craft a national policy that can garner majority support. It's not just the hyperpartisan issues of taxes and spending, but also the regionally-cleaving ones like immigration, energy, and gun control, as well as the socially-incendiary ones like abortion, drug use, and gay marriage. We're a factionalized nation and we don't agree on policy details—about anything.

[See a collection of political cartoons on immigration.]

The way out of Washington's permanent winter is to stop hoping that some Lincoln-like superhero can fix our political system and embrace the solution that was sown into our government's design in 1787: federalism. Not only do large majorities of the public trust their state (65 percent) and local governments (74 percent), but as recent legislation has shown: States' rights aren't just for conservatives.

Last year, both Colorado and Washington legalized recreational use of marijuana for adults. In January, New York passed new and tougher gun laws. And nine states, including Iowa and Maryland, currently recognize same-sex marriage. The left-leaning Brookings Institution has even launched a federalism project, dedicated to offering state and local-level policy solutions on everything from trade to carbon taxes.

[See a collection of political cartoons on gun control and gun rights.]

Rather than condemning these liberal initiatives, Republicans could recognize the political opportunity they represent to bind Democrats to a limited federal government. Recalling Thomas Jefferson, Republicans could again proclaim that "the way to have good and safe government, is not to trust it all to one, but divide it among the many, distributing to every one exactly the functions he is competent to." And both sides could talk about the need to turn to our states and local communities to allow innovation to take root and diversity to flourish.

Ending Washington's gridlock is simple. Stop going there. All congestion abates with less traffic. From now on, think nationally, but act federally.

  • Read G. Phillip Hughes: Congress Should Nix Barbara Lee's Peace and Nonviolence Act
  • Read Leslie Marshall: The Real Scandal in Arne Duncan's Sequestration Pink Slip Statement
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