How Civic Obligations, Education, and Federalism Can Save America

Three observers of American politics fear deepening division and polarization, and offer different proscriptions for the best way forward.

Hannah Mckay / Reuters

For Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, the best, most succinct description of democratic values comes from the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence: that all people are created equal. “Living this value, and protecting democracy to foster and further it, is always going to be difficult in practice,” he wrote. “But I believe the continued story of America has been one of hard-fought progress, and that every step toward progress, fairness, and equality is worth fighting for.”

As he sees it, the difficulty of fulfilling our promise and potential is partly due to the fact that “while these rights are ‘inalienable,’ they are not inevitable.” As he sees it, “it takes courage and compassion to continuously create the kind of democracy we want.”

These are the obligations he believes that all of us have:

All of us have to participate, and stay informed and engaged. And that’s hard work. For us to truly become a nation free of injustice and inequality—a nation where everyone, regardless of their ideology, political beliefs, and values, has access to peace and prosperity—we must realize our personal peace and prosperity is intimately linked to that of those around us. In other words, our freedom does not happen by itself.

Our Constitution implies that “We, the People” have a responsibility to extend and protect our freedoms for one another. So, to move this country forward, we must reflect on how we have benefited from the refinement of democracy, and recognize that we have a responsibility to serve each other.

We have a responsibility to listen to one another which hopefully creates empathy and understanding, even though we may not all look, act, speak, worship, or love the same way. Most importantly, we have a responsibility to stand up against those who sow seeds of fear and division among us, and know we are strengthened by our ability to build bridges connecting us to one another. These are responsibilities we bear as members of a democracy and co-laborers in the effort to make America a more just, more equal, and more free society.

If we want to live together in peace and prosperity in this country, we must work to reduce inequality in all its forms, and restore hope for our people and faith in our democratic institutions and values. Once we do that, I’m hopeful that our democracy can become all it was intended to be: a beacon of liberty, dignity, justice, and freedom for all.

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For Geoffrey Stone, a law professor at the University of Chicago, a fundamental challenge as we look to the future of democracy is political and ideological polarization. Perhaps more than ever before, he fretted, Americans tend to live in political and ideological bubbles, in part because social media has permitted citizens to construct their own feeds rather than relying on common, more or less responsible news sources, “like Walter Cronkite, Huntley-Brinkley, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and the Chicago Tribune.” Although these sources sometimes had biases in one direction or the other, he acknowledged, “they were almost always within the mainstream of responsible journalism.” There were deep disagreements on hugely consequential issues back then. But citizens could “at least speak with one another with a more or less common foundation.”

What we need going forward, Professor Stone argued, is “a new focus in our educational system on civics and on the responsibility of citizenship, leaders who
encourage citizens to see both sides of the issues that divide us, and technological mechanisms that automatically provide us with the opposite perspectives from those we tend to favor.”

In the long-run, he said, “these and other innovations are central to the future success of our democracy.”

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Observing the same political and ideological bubbles, Jonathan Taplin, Director Emeritus of the Annenberg Innovation Lab, muses on federalism’s role in the American system:

For the last ten years, we have blamed the gridlock in Washington on divided government. But now Republicans control both houses of congress and the White House--and still we have gridlock. The Founders made the Constitution in full knowledge that different regions of the country would have "conflicting value systems", but Jefferson thought the way to deal with this was by circumscribing the areas in which the federal government could act—thus leaving most legislative decisions to the states. Jefferson wrote, “The true theory of our Constitution is that the states are independent as to everything within themselves, and united as to everything respecting foreign nations.” Or as Justice Brandeis wrote, “It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.” That is the role that California and Oregon are performing today.

With the election of Donald Trump the theoretical ideas behind federalism have taken on new urgency. The New York Times titled an editorial, “California Looks to Lead the Trump Resistance.” In the article, California Governor Jerry Brown noted that if Trump tries to cut back on climate science funding, “We’ve got a lot of fire power: we’ve got the scientists, we’ve got the universities, we’ve got the national labs and we have the political clout for the battle. And we will persevere, have no doubt about that.”

Trump’s E.P.A. will begin legal proceedings to revoke a waiver for California that was allowing the state to enforce the tougher tailpipe standards. Governor Brown has vowed to fight this all the way to the Supreme Court, and the state has already hired former Attorney General Eric Holder to represent it.

Since the Great Recession of 2008, the United States has been involved in a controlled experiment being played out at the state level pitting two theories of government against each other. The conservative Republican theory to revive growth (which Trump has embraced) was championed in Texas and Kansas by Rick Perry and Sam Brownback. It held that cutting taxes on the wealthy and cutting regulation on business would surely stimulate growth. The progressive Democratic theory of growth was championed in California and Oregon by Jerry Brown and Kate Brown (they are not related). There, taxes were raised on the wealthy to pay for more education and public infrastructure spending and regulations on pollution, privacy and assault weapons were strengthened.

The results of the experiment are now in.

California and Oregon grew 4.2% and 4.1% respectively in 2015. Texas and Kansas grew 1.8% and -0.8% respectively in the same year. Although the Kansas tax cuts have been a huge windfall for the Koch Brothers whose company is based in Wichita, it has been a bust for the working class. As the Washington Post noted, “On the whole, Brownback’s policies modestly increased taxes for the poor and working class, who pay more in sales taxes than income taxes, while reducing taxes drastically for the rich.” In Kansas both the K-12 system and the Universities have undergone drastic cutbacks in spending, the state’s credit rating has been lowered and the state has experienced a net out migration of citizens.

Despite this evidence, Trump and the Republican Congress are about to impose the Kansas model on the whole country, cutting taxes on the wealthy and regulations on business, promising just like Brownback and Perry to bring growth back to the nation. Those promises will prove to be equally hollow. Billionaires will prosper, the stock market may boom, but the working class jobs and the 4% growth of California will not emerge for the nation as a whole. In the next two years, Democrats in Congress will be almost powerless to stop this Trump agenda.  Democrats from the defeated Hillary Clinton to the left wing champions Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have seized on the term “Resistance” as the proper tactic against the Trumpist agenda. Resistance to the power of Trump’s federal government is important, but there is another more positive agenda for the Democratic Party that lies in the founder’s concept of federalism.

All three political observers spoke this week at the Aspen Ideas Festival, co-hosted by The Aspen Institute and The Atlantic.