Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Can Federalism Save American Democracy? Maybe …

State and local governments are still trusted more than Washington, though they’re having their own brushes with incivility and polarization. But they’re still the best bet for preserving our traditions of governance.

A parent of a Lake County student holds up a sign during the school board meeting in Tavares, Fla., on Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021. Board members were debating a new policy that would mandate face masks, with a parent opt out.
(Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)
“Canada is like a nice family living over a biker bar,” Dustin Hoffman once quipped. “They keep telling the downstairs neighbors to keep down the noise, people are trying to sleep.” But our Canadian friends are increasingly worried that things downstairs are moving from disorder to danger.

In the country’s leading newspaper, Toronto’s Globe and Mail, political scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon wrote recently, “By 2025, American democracy could collapse, causing extreme domestic political instability, including widespread civil violence. By 2030, if not sooner, the country could be governed by a right-wing dictatorship.” The United States “is becoming increasingly ungovernable,” he wrote, and wondered, “How should Canada prepare?”

It’s not just the Canadians who are worried. An NPR/Ipsos poll published in early January found that 64 percent of Americans agreed that “American democracy is in crisis and at risk of failing.” One in four believed that it was sometimes OK to use violence to protect American democracy, although of course it’s their own version of democracy they’d want to take up arms to protect.

In a few short years, we’ve moved from the world’s very model of democracy to a government that, in the eyes of other nations, is anything but. A European think tank’s 2021 report classified the U.S. as a “backsliding” democracy, with “the sustained and deliberate process of subversion of basic democratic tenets by political actors and governments.” Commentary around the anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021, U.S. Capitol insurrection was united in the conclusion that “American democracy is tottering,” as a Vox headline put it.

Even biker bars have rules that aim to keep at least a semblance of order. Critics are pointedly wondering if the same can be said for American democracy.

The federal government is a mess. So it’s worth asking: Can state and local governments, closer to the people, provide a lifeline to the nation’s grand traditions of governance? Can federalism save American democracy?

There’s a strong case that the answer is yes. After all, the biggest fear of some of the founders was that so much power would accumulate in Washington that liberty would erode. They believed that preserving the power of states, as the new nation’s building blocks, would prevent tyranny.

Worrisome Battles

So if the United States is backsliding, can its state and local building blocks stop the skid?

There’s certainly hope. Congress is the Hells Angels of biker bars, with Gallup finding public trust in the federal government to handle domestic problems at 39 percent, near the historic low. (And that may be an optimistic number: The Pew Research Center found that only 24 percent trust Washington “to do what is right just about always or most of the time.”) But while Americans’ confidence in state and local governments has been slipping in recent years, those levels of government still enjoy much higher levels of public trust: 57 percent and 66 percent, respectively, according to Gallup. A Deloitte study put it simply: “the more local, the more trusted.”

Yet despite the headlines about Washington’s dysfunction, some of the more worrisome battles are raging at the state and local levels. In 2021, at least 34 laws were passed in 19 states that restricted voting, the Brennan Center for Justice tallied, with more such legislation teed up for 2022. Brennan called this an “alarming and unprecedented attack on our democracy.” Meanwhile, record amounts of money are cascading into once-sleepy races for state secretaries of state, from groups trying to set up the next round of vote challenges.

Just as alarming are the full-blooded battles that have erupted at school board meetings around the country. In many communities, these meetings used to be downright boring affairs, mostly poring over the details of school budgets. But COVID-19 and the culture wars have changed all that.

In Rapid City, S.D., and Kalispell, Mont., for example, conservatives who were furious about mask mandates ran to gain control of local school boards. In a suburban school district near Columbia, S.C., a battle over pandemic restrictions led to the ouster of the school superintendent who was the state’s reigning Superintendent of the Year.

In Texas, a new state law forbids teachers from being forced to discuss “a controversial issue of public policy or social affairs” in the classroom. That spun off into a battle to ban the teaching of critical race theory (CRT) in local schools, even though there’s no evidence that local schools were teaching it. CRT was, until recently, a relatively obscure college-level issue focusing on whether race is woven into legal systems and political practice. But now any issue involving race attracts the CRT label — and an argument to ban it. The battle led a Black principal accused of promoting CRT to resign from a school district near Dallas.

And in Virginia, in November Republican Glenn Youngkin surprisingly won the race for governor on the back of attacks on CRT, although the evidence that the issue won the race for him is controversial. Noncontroversial was the problem itself: Virginia teachers don’t teach CRT.

It’s not just issues around race. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott called on the Texas Education Agency to conduct a formal criminal investigation into “the availability of pornography” in the state’s public schools. It wasn’t clear where rivers of obscenity were flowing through the schools. In any event, the TEA has no investigators or prosecutors. In Williamson County, near Austin, county commissioners temporarily delayed allocating millions of dollars in federal money to two local school districts in a battle over what they claimed were offensive books on library shelves.

A New Civil War?

Americans might trust state and local governments more than the feds because the more local a government is the more trusted it is. But, on the other hand, the more local a government is, the easier it is to create flashpoints on issues, mobilize crowds to overwhelm debates and terrify elected officials into relenting.

That’s led some analysts to warn starkly that the U.S. stands on the verge of a new civil war. In The Atlantic’s Jan. 6 issue, Barton Gellman argued that “January 6 was practice” and that the “next coup has already begun.” Barbara F. Walter, the author of the new book How Civil Wars Start, tells us, “We are closer to civil war than any of us would like to believe.”

That’s a tough message to hear but, she writes, “if you were an analyst in a foreign country looking at events in America — the same way you’d look at events in Ukraine or the Ivory Coast or Venezuela — you would go down a checklist, assessing each of the conditions that make civil war likely. And what you would find is that the United States, a democracy founded more than two centuries ago, has entered very dangerous territory.”

And, back to the Canadians, journalist Stephen Marche, in The Next Civil War: Dispatches from the American Future, warns of the escalating “tolerance for violence.” He writes, “Eventually somebody acts on it.” In The Globe and Mail, Homer-Dixon worries that “we live in a world where the absurd regularly becomes real and the horrible commonplace.” Our neighbors are worried about what’s going on downstairs in the biker bar of American democracy.

A Democracy-Building Strategy

There’s a way out, but it won’t be easy. In the Deloitte study, John O’Leary, Angela Welle and Sushumna Agarwal suggest a simple strategy: Go local, since people tend to trust the government that they interact most with; go focused on individual governmental functions, since people tend to trust the programs and agencies that deliver value to them; go digital, since satisfaction with digital services is connected with higher levels of trust; and go transparent, since it’s easier to trust the things we see than the mysteries we don’t.

The best bet for saving American democracy lies, as always, with state and local governments. Working to uproot the incivility and polarization that has infected local governments — especially local school boards — would be an important first step. The second step lies in the collection of trust-building strategies that local governments have close at hand. In the raucous politics spreading through local governments, that’s possible, with strong leadership. But it’s a very tall order.

Or the disruptive battles wracking local politics could continue, or perhaps even escalate. That would be both sad and dangerous. Sad, because it would eat away at the foundation of American government. Dangerous, because without that foundation, the worries of our Canadian neighbors could come to pass.

America is in genuine trouble. Federalism can save it, or sink it. For clues about which way it’s going to go, check in with your local school board. And tell those bikers to cool it.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
Donald F. Kettl is professor emeritus and former dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Policy. He is the co-author with William D. Eggers of Bridgebuilders: How Government Can Transcend Boundaries to Solve Big Problems.
Special Projects