After his crushing defeat in the New York primary, which had been described by the media and even his surrogates as a must-win, Bernie Sanders and his allies have been working desperately to spin some positivity out of the loss, and in the process they’ve stumbled into the truth about big, centralized government.
One tack that gained significant social media traffic in hours and days after the primary was to point out the fact that Bernie succeeded in carrying more counties in New York than Hillary Clinton. Their claim is that the people all over New York state have somehow been drowned out by concentrated support in coastal counties. Apparently territory is now more important than total votes to Sanders fans. Obviously, in a state-wide race where a representative is being chosen by all that state’s voters (or party members) the votes of the majority ought to be respected. That’s how democracy works after all.
Yet the sour grapes of Bernie’s supporters do actually present a valid argument about the nature of political power and authority. It just happens to be one their whole ideology claims to reject.
It is unsurprising that people living in far-flung environs in a state would feel hard done by when they are overshadowed by far more populous regions. Likewise, when the federal government assumes more and more power unto itself, it thieves that power and self-determination from the states. Bernie’s supporters have thus realized, inadvertently, why a candidate with views antithetical to those of communities, municipalities, and states ought not be able to dominate them.
This gets to the core of the problem with the centralization of government in Washington D.C. in direct violation of the Constitution. Even socialists should be able to realize that when power is a winner-take-all prize, one that can be won by either side, it can be used to curtail and undermine the things they want as assuredly as it can bolster them. These big government activists rail against the federal government for curtailing reproductive rights, labor organization, healthcare, and more when they are not in power, but fail to realize that the reason their opponents can exercise that power at all is because they have struggled to make the federal government a unitary state.
The Constitution reserves most powers to the states because the framers realized that a single government could not reflect the different social and economic characters of the many communities and cultures in the United States. This was long before the U.S. spanned the entire continent. These differences have continued to multiply as the diversity of cultures and beliefs have grown thanks to evolution and immigration. Americans have been best served when the federal government acknowledges it cannot create policy that will reflect the wants and needs of all its citizens. Recognizing its limitations means it will not pass oppressive laws, and it also allows the states to experiment and flourish under their own power.
The exemplar par excellence of this philosophy may be Calvin Coolidge. As governor of Massachusetts, he signed into law numerous labor reform bills that were considered very liberal at the time. Yet when he entered the White House, he refused to do the same at a national level. Leaders who have behaved similarly in the present day have been blasted by the media for “flip flopping”. Take the case of Mitt Romney, also a governor of liberal Massachusetts. As governor he signed a law very similar to Obama’s Affordable Care Act, yet he opposed Obamacare when he ran for president in 2012. He was called unprincipled and branded a flip-flopper, a label he proved unable to shake.
Yet Romney was simply observing the same principle Coolidge had employed 90 years prior. It was the realization that just because a law may be good for an individual state, that does not make it appropriate to employ at the federal level, or to compel all states to adopt.
The fact that Romney was so maligned in 2012, and that federal power continues to expand year by year, are both indicators of a dangerous shift in the way Americans perceive their government. As the presidency has expanded in power, so too has it overshadowed other forms of civic engagement. Voting numbers continue to fall more precipitously outside of presidential election years because voters have come to see these smaller prizes and not worth their time or consideration. This has perpetuated a vicious circle in which the legitimacy of local authorities erodes as the federal government becomes ever more domineering and remote.
It is the desperate and critical task of supporters of the Constitution and the rights of states and communities to self-determination to make the case for devolution of power. This year of political upheaval may be the last chance for a long time to break with the status quo. And if even Bernie Sanders’ rabid supporters can begin to understand the problem with centralization, then maybe there is hope for all of us.