This post (lengthy, but with lots of pictures) strikes an uncharacteristically cheerful note: there is a chance to revive a sensible, efficient, competitive federalism. That hope does not rest on the libertarian pipedream of a Supreme Court that at long last restores our “lost Constitution” and overrules the New Deal. Nor does it rest on a hankering for a November victory for a GOP that promises to “devolve” power to the states. (The stupid party has no coherent federalism program; and in any event, for federalism purposes, federal election outcomes are epiphenomenal.) Rather, competitive federalism’s hope rests on one of the most resilient forces in American politics: sectionalism.
By “sectionalism,” I mean a division among states that is too deep and profound to be overcome by congressional compromise and techniques to produce state consensus at an administrative level (such as fiscal transfers, bureaucratic discretion, and intergovernmental networks). Sectionalism is essential: it is only if and when the central government cannot generate a consensus or compromise among the states that the federal system adheres or reverts to the constitutional baseline: competition among the states.
“Hope” does not mean “certainty.” Sectionalism, to be effective, must be organized and translated into a viable political strategy and program. It is far too soon to tell when or even whether such a strategy and program will materialize. It’s not too soon, however, to think about the possibility. The potential rewards are too great to be left on the table. Today’s post covers the empirics; tomorrow’s, some casual analytics.