Why We Need a Strong Federal Government Now, More than Ever
The coronavirus outbreak has exposed the folly of abandoning the federal government to Republican destruction.
Two things I read recently have stuck with me. The first was a book titled Real Queer America: LGBT Stories from Red States. In this book, the author Samantha Allen argues, unconvincingly in my view, that queer people are thriving in areas outside of the major urban centers. Despite the fact that there is a strong push from the GOP — and from their constituents — to roll back the gains that have been made in the last few decades, Allen argues that everything is in fact better than we’ve been led to believe by those living in their liberal bubbles.
The other was a short essay by James Fallows in The Atlantic, detailing why it might be a good thing that the federal government seems to be collapsing on itself. Drawing a (rather specious) comparison between the decline of the American federal government and the collapse of the Roman Empire, he suggests that this might be a golden opportunity for local governments to step into the gap.
Both of these pieces betray a certain naïveté. For Fallows, this belief makes sense, since his recent writing career has focused on the ways in which the heartland of America remains healthy and vibrant and peaceful despite the toxic nature of our national politics. Allen’s sanguinity is a little harder to understand, but perhaps it stems from an understandable desire to see the best in everyone, to find in the “heartland” a sort of queer acceptance that, for far too long, has been sorely lacking.
Unfortunately, in their rush to optimism, both of them miss some key components of the political reality of the United States, both past and present. I respect both of these authors enormously, but I think that their arguments about the positive impacts of a shift in emphasis to local governments is not only politically wrong-headed, it is also dangerous. Both of these figures wield a substantial amount of clout in helping to shape the national discourse, and it concerns me that they seem so ignorant of the law of unintended consequences.
For make no mistake. If the Democrats and their allies prove willing to concede the inevitability of the decline of the federal government, then the Republicans will make full use of that opportunity.
And minorities will pay the price.
One doesn’t need to look back at the decline and fall of the Roman Empire to see the ways in which the collapse of a stable central government often victimizes the subaltern and most vulnerable; one need only look at American history. From the beginning, the rhetoric of states’ rights was a key weapon in arsenal of pro-slavery advocates, a means of hamstringing any sort of national effort to abolish slavery (even today, you’ll hear pro-Confederate voices asserting that the Civil War was really about states’ rights and not about slavery).
Even after slavery was abolished, there was substantial resistance to giving African Americans equality before the law. Again, this was framed as a states’ rights issue, and it was only with a supreme effort of national (and political) will that civil rights legislation at last made its way through Congress. By ensuring that states had to recognize the power and superiority of federal law in matters concerning minorities, black civil rights leaders were able to ensure that the deep prejudices that characterized states in the South (and elsewhere) wouldn’t be able to be used against them.
That’s precisely why so many civil rights movements — whether those based on race, gender, or sexuality — have understood that the only way to ensure that their rights are protected is to appeal to the federal government, either through legislation or through the courts. It is only when you have a law that applies throughout the country that you can have any measure of security against local prejudices. Minorities know this better than anyone. It’s no accident that those areas that have attempted to roll back the rights of women, people of color, and LGBT+ people happen to be in exactly the places that Allen documents in her book. For example, almost as soon as the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, states that had previously been required to submit their actions for federal approval began to roll out legislation clearly intended and designed to ensure that key Democratic constituencies — most notably people of color — were as disenfranchised as possible.
Now that the specter of Roe being similarly undercut (if not abolished entirely) has become more of a possibility with the Supreme Court firmly in conservative control, it should come as no surprise that numerous states have begun preparing anti-abortion laws that are truly staggering in their draconian character. Both Georgia and Alabama passed laws that raised a national outcry, and they will almost certainly not be the last to do so.
One doesn’t have to look far afield to see which group’s civil liberties are already in the crosshairs. This joins a raft of anti-trans legislation that has begun to sweep through the middle of the country, even as anti-same-sex marriage advocates have also been sharpening their knives for another potential showdown regarding this issue. If you think that the hard right has stopped being motivated by this issue and is content to rest with the ruling in Obergefell, then I have a bridge to sell you.
Even beyond the fact that the federal government has proven so crucial to the furtherance of civil rights legislation, it has also proven to be a key protector of various industries (including farming) and those who rely upon them for their livelihoods.
As Michael Lewis usefully documents in his eye-opening book The Fifth Risk, the very institutions that the Republicans and Trump are so dedicated to gutting (if not outright destroying) are the very ones that their own voters have come to rely upon. Their genius, if you want to call it that, has been their success in convincing these people that the federal government is their enemy, that it is in the control of socialists, of radical homosexuals and feminazis, of all of those who want to want to tear down and demolish the traditional American way of life (whatever that means). Nothing is as effective at persuading people to vote against their own best interests like creating an other against which they can measure themselves.
I understand that for some it might be tempting to just allow these voters to reap what they sow. If those in red states (or purple ones, for that matter) want to continue voting for policies and politicians who don’t have their best interests at heart, why not let them? After all, those in blue states will continue to provide a safe haven from the worst excesses of their red state brethren, so what does it matter?
The ongoing coronavirus crisis has shown us how dangerous this line of thinking is and how truly cataclysmic Trump’s hollowing out of the federal government has been. There is no question that the nation’s governors and mayors have done an exemplary job of taking the lead in doing everything possible to make sure that this disease is as contained as possible and that its worse effects are mitigated. But imagine how much easier that would have been if Trump hadn’t done everything in his power to keep us honestly appraised of what was coming, rather than downplaying it at every opportunity. Imagine how much more effectively we could be combating this had he not dismantled so much of the infrastructure needed to combat this crisis?
Though it’s hard to look ahead a time like this, we must not forget what is at stake in the November election. We need to elect someone who will take both his duties as the chief executive and the advice of scientists seriously. Joe Biden has already shown that he can do both.
Rarely have the stakes been so high in an election. It is up to each of us to make the right decision.
Lives, in fact, depend on it.