Are Americans doomed to an indefinite future of extreme partisan conflict? The Senate impeachment trial is off to a rancorous start, and it appears that the process will make the most polarizing president on record even more polarizing. Meanwhile, the Democratic presidential candidates debate a raft of polarizing proposals: Medicare for all, free college, universal basic income, adding seats to the Supreme Court, and a wealth tax on the super-rich. These moves and countermoves have produced what Representative Justin Amash calls a "partisan death spiral".
How to pull out of this downward spiral? There are few good options. For Amash, the solution is to reject partisan identities and jettison our two-party system. For others, the great hope lies in abolishing the Electoral College. But the odds of either of these solutions coming to pass are indistinguishable from zero. Partisan loyalties are well entrenched, and there is no chance of getting enough states onboard to legislate away the Electoral College.
There is, however, a more promising path: devolution.
As political scientists, we have seen that threat perception moves with shifts in the distribution of power. When overseas enemies pose the greatest danger, Americans conspiracy theories have focused on bogeymen abroad and have centralized power to confront them, like during the Cold War. But when Americans are safer from foreign foes, domestic dangers loom larger and citizens fear centralized power, such as when opposition to Obamacare took the form of death panel anxieties. Times are now so safe that, though most voters disapprove of foreign interference in U.S. elections, that disapproval is largely reserved for interference that hurts candidates from their own party. Americans now appear to feel more threatened by each other than outsiders. The remedy is federalism.
American parties may take turns obstructing Congress or trying to impose one-size-fits-all solutions on the country through the presidency or the Supreme Court, but political deadlock or pendulous policy swings will not give the country much happiness or good governance. Trust in institutions is declining all over the world, and the United States is no exception: organized religion, Congress, the presidency, and the media have all fallen significantly over the last two generations. But where modest minorities have substantial confidence in national government, healthy majorities have substantial confidence in state and local government. American institutions are alive and well ⎯ outside Washington DC.
The U.S. government should repose authority where the most citizens have the most confidence. Americans do not like to be ruled by far away authorities and they do not like being ruled by people they do not identify with. State and local governments tailor solutions to local conditions; they're more responsive because their representatives are from closer to home, and they work closer to home.
That is not only common sense, it is what the owner's manual suggests. As James Madison stated in Federalist 45, "The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite.... The operations of the federal government will be most extensive and important in times of war and danger; those of the State governments, in times of peace and security."