We have an incredibly thought provoking interview to share with readers this week. Mike Hais, Morley Winograd, and Doug Ross are the authors of “Healing American Democracy: Going Local.” Recognizing the ever growing political divide amongst the citizens, and the equally growing lack of faith in the federal government, Hais, Winograd, and Ross discuss revitalizing the local community as the center of governmental decision making. All three of the authors are well versed in American politics, considering themselves as practitioners rather than academics! Their biographies and the book itself can be found at www.golocal.us.com. The book is also available by going directly to Amazon.
We hope you enjoy their thoughtful answers to our questions.
1. We are the Federalist Coalition, so I think the first question is obviously, what is the difference between federalism and constitutional localism? Does specifying dual federalism vs cooperative federalism change the comparison?
- Our advocacy of Constitutional Localism comes from our concern that a growing number of Americans are beginning to lose confidence in our constitutional democracy, not out of a concern to restore a predetermined federal order that has somehow moved out of balance.
Federalism, especially “dual Federalism”, suggests a rigid and permanent definition of roles and responsibilities between the federal government and state governments, including cities and counties which are essentially creatures of state governments. Constitutional Localism regards this division of authority between the levels of government to be a flexible one that must be adjusted periodically to meet the political and societal demands of the times. Our call to devolve all possible power to the most local form of government that can address the problem at hand (much like the principle of subsidiarity in the Catholic Church) is partly based on the notion that government closest to the governed is best when feasible, and partly on the fact that the level of diversity of values, lifestyles, and ethnicities in contemporary America makes forging national majorities difficult and has produced the deadlock in Washington. We want more power shifted to communities because we think moving public problems to local venues will result in more decisions that respond to real problems, and create successful democratic experiences for citizens that help restore fading confidence in our democratic processes.
- Therefore, Constitutional Localism is much more accommodating of the idea of “cooperative federalism” than any rigid conception of separate sovereignties for states that is implicit in “dual Federalism.”
- More importantly, Constitutional Localism emphasizes the need for any such devolution of power to localities to be done within the boundaries and constraints of our Constitution as amended and as interpreted by the Supreme Court of the United States. This idea borrows from an organizational concept often referred to as an “empowerment box.” Two of the borders of such a box are givens—things that no one can change—and constraints– things that can be changed but only by a higher authority. We consider the Constitution as amended to be a given in our form of a federal government (it’s hard to conceive of an America that was not a federal system of governance) and the Supreme Court’s final authority to interpret its meaning when necessary as a constraint.
In organizational settings, when people or groups are “empowered” to take on responsibilities formerly held by higher levels of the hierarchy, they often spend all their energy seeking to change the givens and constraints instead of exploring how much they could do within their new writ of responsibility. This is true in organizations at both the individual and group level (the two other boundaries of the empowerment box) and usually results in wasted energy and complaints about how the grant of power was not truly empowering. But in organizational practice, when those empowered instead focus on how much they can do in their own space, (to continue with the box analogy) as both individuals and as a group, an enormous amount of energy is released leading to many accomplishments that were not otherwise able to be achieved. We believe that by empowering local communities in a system of Constitutional Localism and encouraging both the communities and those who live within them to focus their energy on dealing with their new responsibilities rather than trying to change the givens and constraints inherent in a federal system of government, many of our seemingly intractable problems can and will be solved.
2. In the first chapter of your book you note that any policy changes that advance the concept of localism must be done in a way that honors the Constitution. How would this process work for controversial issues like gun rights, abortion, or immigration?
- Localities would be free to exercise their democratic decision making process to deal with the issues you raise, but their decisions could be challenged on constitutional grounds by those impacted. And if the Supreme Court determines the locality’s decision was “unconstitutional” its decision would be voided.
- We see this taking place almost daily on two of the issues you raised—gun laws and abortion—but usually when states, not localities, have enacted laws which are then appealed all the way to the Supreme Court for final disposition. Our idea would be to empower localities to make their decisions about these issues without being preempted by their state governments, but still constrained by the Supreme Court’s decisions on the constitutionality of any laws they might seek to enact.
- Immigration is a slightly different case, since the supremacy of the Federal government to make such decisions is explicitly stated in the Constitution and has been affirmed ever since by the Courts. So, as current rulings on actions by the state of Arizona and others to enact their own laws about immigrants have made clear, there is a limited ability of the states, let alone localities, to act in this area. But we do offer an example in our book on how localities could play a role in perhaps moving our immigration policies to a less confrontational environment. In a Constitutional Localism framework, the Federal government would of course retain its authority to determine what our immigration policies are, including how many to admit into the country and why. But once those rules have been established, our proposal would require those who have been vetted for immigration to obtain a community sponsor for admission. Localities needing or wanting to add legal immigrants to their community could do so by selecting from the pool of approved applicants. Those localities that don’t, wouldn’t. Of course, once admitted and located in a community, these legal immigrants would have the same rights to move about the country as other Americans, but at least initially such a process would give citizens in different communities a way to impact immigration in their own area.
3. Furthermore, how can localism be married with Amendments 9 and 10? What are some of the other hurdles you anticipate facing?
- We don’t perceive either the Ninth or Tenth Amendments as impediments to the implementation of Constitutional Localism. To the degree localities step beyond the constraints of these two provisions, the Supreme Court can rein them in, just as they could and would for violations of the first eight Amendments, or the 13th through 15th Amendments, etc. The major hurdles we think will need to be overcome are based on the deep-seated divisions that currently exist in the country—culturally, economically, generationally, and politically. While some of those divisions surface in judicial decisions, that branch of government is wisely a step removed from such pressures and more likely to resolve such disputes in a way that preserves our Federal system of government.
- As we indicate in our book, we believe that the biggest threat to establishing Constitutional Localism will come from those on the right or left unwilling to give up the ideological war in which they are so invested for a system designed to lessen those divisions. Fortunately, in our limited experience to date, that concern has not yet been evidenced and we have found equal support among both liberals and conservatives for our ideas. Only time will tell, however, if our concerns were justified.
4. You note in the book that your call for localism is not a direct result of the 2016 election. Specifically, “The need to find better ways to organize governance in twenty-first century America…would be just as urgent if Secretary Clinton had won the 2016 presidential election.” This is a bold statement considering your backgrounds in democratic politics. How do you convince conservatives and libertarians to work together with liberals on this matter?
- We ask conservatives, libertarians, liberals and progressives if they like the way the country is functioning today. No one does. We then ask them if they believe in the possibility of complete victory by one side or the other or the establishment of a third party that will take power away from the existing two parties in the near term. Although a few do think such an outcome is possible, we point out the historical and generational reasons why this isn’t likely to occur soon, if ever. The question then becomes what do we do to preserve our precious democracy until today’s divisions magically disappear or fade away into history?
Once the question is asked this way, we find people of all political persuasions anxious to engage in a discussion about how to take on the challenges we face right now and in ways that enhance the chances of our democracy healing itself in the long run. For us, that answer is Constitutional Localism but, if those conversations lead to ideas that are potentially better than ours, we are happy to discuss them. In short, by getting people to recognize that the common goal of healing our democracy is bigger than any particular ideology, we believe we can convince them to consider the value and wisdom of our idea.
5. As you discussed in a recent interview with Kristen Soltis Anderson, terms like limited government and local decision making are typically seen as part of the conservative world view. How does one sell localism and distribution of power to a self-proclaimed progressive?
- The only way you can convince a self-proclaimed progressive of the need to redistribute power away from the Federal government to localities is to begin by emphasizing the first word of our idea “constitutional” so they don’t think this is the discredited idea of state’s rights dressed up in new clothes. Any attempt to suggest a solution that would in any way undo the gains in civil and individual rights that we have made over the las 250 years is a non-starter with progressives. They may not be happy with the current Supreme Court’s interpretation of the nature of these rights, but they absolutely don’t want to see their enforcement subject to the whims of local officials.
But once you convince them that this would not be permitted in a system of Constitutional Localism, many are quite interested in ideas that would avoid the current gridlock in D.C. and address problems they consider urgently in need of resolving. This is especially true among Millennials, who are inclusive and consensus minded by nature, and looking for something they can do in their local community to reinforce their values and beliefs.
6. How can everyday American citizens help encourage and promote localism? Especially individuals who do not have the ability to run for office?
- Everyone has the ability to get engaged in their local community government’s activities. Remember, those range from education to law enforcement, from issues of taxation to spending priorities. City Council meetings are almost always held in the evening at a location that by definition is nearby and at which anyone has a chance to speak. Of course, helping candidates running for local office or running for office oneself would have more direct impact, but even those who don’t have the time or capacity to do that still have the ability to participate in a democratic decision-making process and encourage others to do so as well. From that experience, the process of healing our democracy can begin.
7. Who is your favorite founding father? Why?
- Morley Winograd: Thomas Jefferson because of his grand vision of equality and inalienable rights.
- Doug Ross: George Washington, because he assumed the burden of organizing and winning the near-impossible fight for independence and self-governance, and recognized the importance of limiting the power of the democratic leader by his insistence in stepping down from the Presidency after two terms.
- Mike Hais: Thomas Jefferson because he so clearly and eloquently championed equality of opportunity and individual liberty.
8. What inspired you to get involved in politics?
- Morley Winograd: I was a freshman at the University of Michigan when Senator John F. Kennedy appeared on the steps of the Michigan Union and appealed to a very late night crowd to give back to the country and the world with service on behalf the common good. The plaque honoring that historical occasion marks the time when he first proposed the Peace Corps and his speech inspired so many of my peers to eventually join it. I took the more prosaic path of getting involved in politics as a way of serving my country and its ideals and ended up becoming Democratic Party Chairman in Michigan twelve years later. The rest is history.
- Doug Ross: Coming of age when John F. Kennedy ran for President with his inspiring call for all of us who were children of America’s post-war affluence to get involved helping those less fortunate, and his assertion that each of us “could make a difference” was my initial inspiration. The civil rights movement unfolding at the same time in the South where young people were changing an oppressive status quo that most said couldn’t be changed served to further galvanize my decision to get involved in the political arena.
- Mike Hais: It began with constant discussion—and sometime arguments—about politics at the family dinner table. My father, in particular, believed that interest and involvement in politics were crucial values. Later, I found the study of government and politics so intellectually stimulating that I earned three degrees in political science, taught college level courses in American government and politics. It was only a short step toward wanting to apply that knowledge actively through personal involvement in politics as a political pollster.
We again thank Mike Hais, Morley Winograd, and Doug Ross for taking the time to enlighten our readers. If you have not already done so, please consider becoming a member of The Federalist Coalition here. If you wish to read more about “going local” or you want to purchase the book, visit www.golocal.us.com to find out more information.
Note: The Federalist Coalition is a nonpartisan, grassroots organization seeking to encourage politicians of all political persuasions to support a return to decentralized governance. We support any efforts and will applaud any political figure willing to support and communicate the principles of American Federalism. This article is not an endorsement of any political party or candidate.