Progressives are deeply skeptical of federalism, and with good reason. States’ rights have been invoked to defend some of the most despicable institutions in American history, most notably slavery and Jim Crow. Many think “federalism” is just a code word for letting racists be racist. Progressives also associate federalism—and its less prominent companion, localism, which simply means decentralization within a state—with parochialism and the suppression of dissent. They thus look to national power, particularly the First and Fourteenth Amendments, to protect racial minorities and dissenters from threats posed at the local level.
But it is a mistake to equate federalism’s past with its future. State and local governments have become sites of empowerment for racial minorities and dissenters, the groups that progressives believe have the most to fear from decentralization. In fact, racial minorities and dissenters can wield more electoral power at the local level than they do at the national. And while minorities cannot dictate policy outcomes at the national level, they can rule at the state and local level. Racial minorities and dissenters are using that electoral muscle to protect themselves from marginalization and promote their own agendas.
Progressives have long looked to the realm of rights to shield racial minorities and dissenters from unfriendly majorities. Iconic measures like the First and Fourteenth Amendments, the Civil Rights Act, and the Voting Rights Act all offer rights-based protections for minorities. But reliance on rights requires that racial minorities and dissenters look to the courts to shield them from the majority. If rights are the only protections afforded to racial minorities and dissenters, we risk treating both groups merely as what Stanford Law Professor Pam Karlan calls “objects of judicial solicitude rather than efficacious political actors in their own right.”
Much of Gerken’s argument is based on the simple but important point that groups that are relatively weak minorities at the national level often wield greater influence in state and local governments where they are a much higher proportion of the population. In these situations, political decentralization benefits minorities by shifting power to the level of government where they have more political clout.
This will not come as news to students of federalism in countries outside the US. Many federal systems were established in the first place precisely because some ethnic groups that are minorities at the national level are majorities in a province or state. Federalism therefore protects them against domination by the national majority. Canada, Switzerland, Spain, India, and many other federal systems are examples of this pattern.
In the United States, of course, this aspect of federalism has largely been ignored because we have had very few cases of states where a national minority was a majority within a single state. The Mormons in Utah are an important exception, but one that few federalism scholars have paid attention to. However, as Gerken points out, racial and other minorities have increasingly become majorities in some state and local governments.