Jonah Goldberg on Heather Gerken’s Progressive Case for Federalism

Like me, conservative National Review columnist Jonah Goldberg has a generally favorable take on Yale Law Professor Heather Gerken’s progressive case for federalism:

A one-size-fits-all policy imposed at the national level has the potential to make very large numbers of citizens unhappy, even if it was arrived at democratically…..

Pushing government decisions down to the lowest democratic level possible — while protecting basic civil rights — guarantees that more people will have a say in how they live their lives. Not only does that mean more people will be happy, but the moral legitimacy of political decisions will be greater.

The problem for conservative and libertarian federalists is that whenever we talk about federalism, the Left hears “states’ rights” — which is then immediately, and unfairly, translated into, “Bring back Bull Connor.”

But that may be changing. In an essay for the spring issue of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, Yale law professor Heather K. Gerken offers the case for “A New Progressive Federalism.”

Gerken’s chief concern is how to empower “minorities and dissenters.” Not surprisingly, she defines such people in almost purely left-wing terms of race and sexual orientation. Still, she makes the very compelling point that the current understanding of diversity — having minority members as tokens of inclusion — pretty much guarantees that racial minorities will always be political minorities as well…

Allowing local majorities to have their way, Gerken continues, “turns the tables. It allows the usual winners to lose and the usual losers to win. It gives racial minorities the chance to shed the role of influencer or gadfly and stand in the shoes of the majority.”

She’s right, and not just about her favored groups. For instance, Mormons (not a group Gerken highlights) are a national minority. But they are a Utah majority. Hence, Utah takes on Mormon characteristics. It’s no theocracy, but it is more representative and distinctive. In areas where Latinos or blacks are the majority, what’s so terrible about having institutions that reflect their values?

Whereas I think Gerken sometimes doesn’t give federalism enough credit, Goldberg sometimes gives it too much. For example, he ignores the problem that federalism is often ineffective in protecting the rights of immobile people and rights to immobile assets, such as property rights in land.

Be that as it may, Gerken’s progressive defense of federalism continues to get favorable notice in conservative and libertarian quarters (see also this comment by libertarian Damon Root). It will be interesting to see whether it will be equally well received by the intended left of center audience. There is already this moderately favorable piece in the Nation.