Move power out of Washington to save democracy

Move power out of Washington to save democracy
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The continuing failure of Washington to forge sustainable solutions to pressing problems like health care, income inequality, immigration, race relations and climate change has done more than deny the nation effective responses to its greatest challenges. Federal deadlock is undermining American’s confidence in our constitutional democracy.

The fact that most Americans see the federal government as broken has led many of our fellow citizens to conclude that democracy doesn't work.

Recent polls indicate that roughly 30 percent of Americans would prefer government "with a strong leader who doesn't have to bother with Congress and elections" or "army rule" to our current democratic system. 

The culprit most cited for Washington deadlock is the partisan, cultural, ethnic, generational and economic divides that have deepened over the past decades. The solution promoted by pundits and politicians alike has been for leadership that “brings us together” around a new national consensus on the best solutions.

We disagree.

We see the pursuit by Americans of varied lifestyles and cultural preferences as a healthy sign of American freedom and choice, not a destructive force.

We need to rebuild public confidence in American democracy, not by insisting on a singular national answer to each problem, but by celebrating the ability of America’s varied communities to find solutions that work best for them.

As we see it, the challenge confronting the nation is to find a way to permit this range of opinion and action to flourish while restoring a shared faith in the common democratic values and processes that define American self-government.

Specifically, we propose a new civic ethos or governing framework, "Constitutional Localism," designed to shift the greatest number of public decisions possible to the community level — albeit within a clear constitutional framework to protect the individual freedoms and rights won over the past 250 years. 

We believe empowering local communities promises greater benefits than simply escaping from the frustrating deadlock in Washington.

In the near term, it offers venues to solve real problems and the opportunity for citizens to experience democratic successes in settings where democracy is more direct, interests are more congruent and solutions better tailored to local circumstances than at the national level.

In the longer term, we see Constitutional Localism as the right way to adapt American democracy to a country with an ever-wider range of ethnicities, social mores, political philosophies and economic opportunities without sacrificing either self-government or membership in one nation.

The “constitutional” part of Constitutional Localism is critical for us. We cannot overstate our conviction that local empowerment must not risk undermining America’s greatest achievement — the progressive expansion of individual and civil rights to all citizens.

A bias toward local action cannot be seen as an invitation to individual communities to selectively secede from the Constitution.

Our urgent call for a new civic ethos reflects our belief that the old New Deal structure of centralized, standardized solutions does not align with the variety of life in America today.

Given our current divisions, it should come as no surprise that efforts in Washington to craft “one-size-fits-all” responses to the challenges confronting the nation fail to find majority support.  

The idea of moving more power to local governments to fix our problems is a popular idea that cuts across partisan lines. A majority of both Trump and Clinton voters trust their local governments most to find solutions to public problems. It also reflects the preferences of millennials to “think globally but act locally.”

Constitutional Localism will require establishing new institutions, such as government-to-government networks, to allow these local “laboratories of democracy” to share innovations with other communities and bring them up to scale. Mayors should become leading actors in this effort.

Those on the left will fear Constitutional Localism as a return to the discredited doctrine of states’ rights. The right will see an effort to neutralize the Trump presidency and Republican control of Congress. For those reasons, support for Constitutional Localism must be broadly bipartisan in order for it to succeed.

Unless we can find a better way to ensure that our constitutional democracy serves the country’s needs, we run the risk of losing support for democracy to the growing forces of autocracy here and abroad.

The right way to unite America is to reinvigorate our common bond based on shared democratic experiences and ideals and rebuild faith in American democracy from the bottom up.  

Doug Ross is a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Mike Hais and Morley Winograd are co-authors of a new book, "Healing American Democracy: Going Local."