After making it to the top, Barack Obama is looking down. In October, the outgoing president signaled that he will focus on state-level politics when he leaves office. This promise took on new urgency after the election, which left Republicans in control of 32 statehouses and 33 governor’s mansions, not to mention both chambers of Congress and the White House. “One of the big suggestions that I have for Democrats as I leave … is how do we do more of that ground-up building?” the president told NPR in December. “What I’m interested in is just developing a whole new generation of talent.”
Obama seems to be taking part in the larger process of soul searching among Democrats. “I wonder, sometimes, whether the Democratic Party has contributed to [a decline in local politics] by making the president and the federal government the fulcrum of so much, and suggesting that we can solve these problems from the top down,” said David Axelrod, the former senior Obama administration advisor, during a recent panel discussion at the University of Chicago. “Democrats have ceded a lot of statehouses and legislatures. Congress has been gridlocked. And the notion has been: What can the president do with the power that he has to try and create some progressive action? It just puts a lot of weight on the presidency, when maybe we have to be a bit more innovative.”
These explanations are not primarily philosophical. They’re about winning. In the face of painful electoral losses, Democrats are rediscovering the strategic case for activism at the state and local level. Yet there are deep historical and ideological reasons why the party has tended to focus on the federal government as a means of making policy. An ideological shift would be much more important, and is more unlikely, than a strategic one.
As Democrats move to focus on state and local politics in 2017, this distinction between ideology and strategy will be important to watch. The party, and progressives more broadly, could take up a friendly posture toward state and local governance on the grounds that Americans should directly influence the laws that constrain them and the policies that supposedly benefit them. Alternatively, this sudden impulse toward state and local organizing could prove instrumental and temporary, doomed to reversal whenever the party wins back the U.S. Senate or the White House. Democrats’ approach to federalism will matter for the future of the party and the permanence of its policies. But ultimately, it will show what Democratic leaders really believe about people’s proper role in their government.
For some progressives, a renewed focus on state and local politics is primarily about obstructing Washington Republicans. Heather Gerken, a Yale law professor, wrote a piece for Vox about why the left should embrace federalism in the coming years—essentially, she argued, it offers ways to counteract federal policies. “Progressives at the state and local level can influence policy simply by refusing to partner with the federal government,” she wrote. “If blue states and cities refuse to implement Trump’s agenda, Republicans will sometimes be forced to compromise rather than pay a political and fiscal price.”
For others, local politics are more important in their own right. “We think there’s a lot of importance in protecting local democracy,” said Nikki Fortunato Bas, the executive director of the Partnership for Working Families, a network of regional advocacy organizations that work on economic and environmental issues. “It’s in the communities [where] we live [that] we’re most connected to the need of our neighbors, and lawmakers are most connected to the needs of their constituents.”
Regardless of their reasons for wanting to focus on state and local politics, Democrats will be limited by the enormous imbalances of party power in governors’ mansions, state legislatures, and city halls. Especially during Obama’s second term in office, the party lost control and influence in a number of statehouses. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the party controls roughly half as many state legislatures as it did in 2010, and roughly half as many states will enter 2017 with a partisan split compared to the same year. Similarly, Democrats have been losing governships steadily since Obama took office in 2008: Compared to the 29 states held by Democrats that year, the party now holds 16. The only place where Democrats still dominate across the country is in large cities, where they control many city halls.
The unevenness is partly a reflection of progressives’ reluctance to push their policy agendas through states. Historically, arguments against federalism—or the principle that power should be robustly shared between state and national governments—have centered on race. “Progressives are deeply skeptical of federalism, and with good reason,” Gerken wrote in a 2012 essay in Democracy. “States’ rights have been invoked to defend some of the most despicable institutions in American history, most notably slavery and Jim Crow.” Others see the decentralization of governing power as a way of stifling dissent, she argued.
This is one reason why the national Democratic Party has often looked to Washington to make and enforce policy. But there’s another ideological explanation, argued Ernest Young, a professor of law at Duke University, in an interview: The progressive project is ultimately about working toward a society built on one unified vision of policy and culture, rather than a diverse array of policies and cultures. “If you’re confident that you can get the right answer to something, like health-care policy, or welfare, or any number of very difficult social problems, it’s hard not to say that right answer should be equally available to everyone,” Young said, meaning that progressives believe their “right answers” should be legislated through federal policy. “If you’re a more Burkean type of conservative, and you’re skeptical that we’re ever going to find out right answers to these questions, you might favor different solutions in different jurisdictions, and see from experience what works out. That tends to lend itself to a commitment to federalism, and local governments, too,” he said.
Not all progressives believe that most policymaking should happen at the federal level. Especially in recent years, some policymakers have looked to cities and municipalities to lead reform efforts. “Cities were the original sites of disruption: They disrupt class orders; they disrupt social practices; they disrupt businesses,” said Jennifer Bradley, the director of the Center for Urban Innovation at the Aspen Institute. No matter what Obama and other national Democrats may say, this work has already been in progress, she added. “This notion that Democrats were relying too heavily on the federal government is belied by eight years of what actually happened,” she said. In part because Washington is so dysfunctional, “cities and states have learned to rely less and less on the federal government, and I think that trend will sharply accelerate.”
Practically speaking, the narrative that progressives favor federal policymaking while conservatives favor state and local action is far too simplistic. Both parties tend to use federal power when they have it. “George W. Bush, as a matter of ideology, cared a lot about states,” Young pointed out. “But the first thing he did as president was to shift power to the federal government in the area of education, which had been a terribly important area of state predominance.”
Conversely, both parties have used state-level litigation to intervene in federal policymaking when they’ve been out of power. Take Massachusetts vs. Environmental Protection Agency, the Bush-era Supreme Court case in which 12 states, several cities, and advocacy groups sued to force the EPA to begin regulating greenhouse gases. During the Obama years, other states pulled a similar move—Texas sued the administration over deferred immigration enforcement for people in the country illegally, for example.
“Broadly, I think federalism is not a conservative or liberal thing, or a Republican or Democrat thing,” Young said. “It offers a way of not having all your eggs in one basket when changes in who controls various institutions occur.” It’s also a way of making sure one party doesn’t force the other permanently out of power at the national level: As Democrats are now discovering, it’s hard to get elected in districts that Republican-heavy state legislatures have gerrymandered to favor their own party.
But there’s a reason why the United States is not a constellation of self-determining city-states. Federalism is a political orientation, not a body of clear-cut policy prescriptions. The negotiation of power between national and state governments—and, relatedly, between state and local governments—is complicated and partisan. Larger bodies of government, led by Democrats and Republicans alike, often threaten smaller bodies with litigation or funding cuts if they don’t follow certain policies. During the Reagan years, the federal government famously used this method to get states to comply with its policy on the legal drinking age. And in 2016, the Obama administration used a similar method when it sent a letter to school districts instructing them to comply with federal guidance on accommodations for transgender students.
States often write laws limiting cities from legislating certain issues as well. North Carolina’s H.B. 2 may have been the most notorious of these kinds of prohibitions in 2016: Among other things, the statute prohibited cities from passing non-discrimination ordinances to protect LGBT residents. Preemption on LGBT issues is fairly new, according to the Partnership for Working Families. States preempt cities and municipalities most frequently on issues like transportation regulations, minimum-wage standards, labor agreements, and policies on earned sick days, the organization reports.
If national Democrats are truly interested in revitalizing state and local governance, perhaps they’ll push to repeal these kinds of preemption laws, which force policy decisions into the realm of larger and larger legislative bodies. Or maybe they’ll swear off executive orders, on which the Obama administration heavily relied, whenever they eventually regain federal power. It’s not like voters are big fans of the federal government, anyways: According to Pew Research Center, Americans’ trust in bodies like Congress has been declining for at least the last decade, while their belief in state and local bodies is much higher and has remained relatively constant over the years.
This might be the most compelling of all arguments for a new era of federalism: Voters simply don’t like or trust the federal government. As a new administration prepares to take office, “The one thing I really hope states and locals can do is model a different kind of political behavior,” Bradley said. “What I would hope is that the actions of state and local lawmakers can restore people’s faith and trust, honestly, in democracy.”