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The Case for Progressive Federalism | The Nation

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Jamelle Bouie

Jamelle Bouie

 Politics, wonkery and everything in between.

The Case for Progressive Federalism

One of the problems for demographic minorities of any stripe is that, in a country where the federal government is the locus for a huge array of policy making, their attempts to exercise power are often thwarted. African-American members of the House may hold positions of seniority, but they are rarely in a position to bring policy in their direction, because of the reality of the legislative process; most congresspeople—most Democrats—won’t vote for policies that specifically benefit blacks or other minorities.

Writing for Democracy Journal, Heather Gerken uses this fact to highlight a key problem with the progressive approach to minority rights—namely, that ignores the extent to which autonomy and authority are crucial to empowering minorities. And with that, she makes a careful and fascinating case for a new progressive federalism, that guarantees the rights of minorities, while giving them the opportunity to empower themselves. Here is the crux of her argument (I apologize for the lengthy blockquote; you should really read the whole thing):

However, when one turns to the question of winners and losers, the limits of the diversity paradigm are clear. While the diversity paradigm guarantees racial minorities a vote or voice on every decision-making body, it also ensures that they will be the political losers on any issue on which people divide along racial lines. Racial minorities are thus destined to be the junior partner or dissenting gadfly in the democratic process. So much for dignity.

Minority rule, in sharp contrast, turns the tables. It allows the usual winners to lose and the usual losers to win. It gives racial minorities the chance to shed the role of influencer or gadfly and stand in the shoes of the majority. Local institutions offer racial minorities the chance to enjoy the same sense of efficacy—and deal with the same types of problems—as the usual members of the majority. Minorities get a chance to forge consensus and to fend off dissenters.

Rather than keep minorities as junior partners in a national government, Gerken wants progressives to embrace decentralization as a way for minorities to enjoy majority status for themselves. And beyond the sense of community efficacy that comes with this, there’s a practical reason for this strategy; by debating, compromise and passing policies that benefit their communities, minorities move dissent away from rhetoric and toward action, and can place key issues on the national agenda. This goes for progressive concerns like same-sex marriage—which became part of the national debate, in part, because of the actions of states and localities—as well as conservative ones like border control and abortion.

Because Gerken’s piece is exceptionally thoughtful, I’m not going to rush to judgment; I want to give it the time it deserves. For now, though, I have two thoughts. The first is that this is a powerful argument; giving minorities a chance to demonstrate the substance of their arguments through local rule is a powerful tool in the fight to change policy on a national level. Black unemployment is persistently higher than unemployment for any other group; are there policy solutions that are impossible to pass in Congress, but could be tried on a local level? You can ask these same questions for everything from climate change to educational reform.

But there are obvious concerns. Would national majorities use empowered local communities as an excuse to shy away from broader problems? And would this renewed federalism become, again, a tool for oppression? I can imagine a world where a majority-Latino community creates school districts that specifically cater to Latinos, but this comes with uncomfortable echoes of “separate but equal.” Of course, quasi-segregation for the sake of empowerment is different than outright segregation for the sake of oppression. But it’s something to consider.

In any case, I really recommend that you read the whole piece. At the very least, it will give you something to think about, and there’s a good chance that I will return to the subject with further thoughts.

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