Kevin Vallier on Decentralization and the Election Results

The election results have been traumatic to many people, and have occasioned the revival of two structural proposals usually unpopular among left-leaning liberals–decentralization through federalism, and secession. Both strike me as pointless and unrealistic gimmicks. The first won’t solve the problem; the second won’t work, and might not solve the problem if it did.

The real options, it seems to me–at least for those of us traumatized by the prospect of a Trump presidency, as opposed to those welcoming it or viewing it with equanimity–are endurance or emigration. Since I count myself among the traumatized, those are what I regard as my own options. Endurance is the less pleasant but more realistic option, emigration the more attractive but harder to pull off.

As for emigration, I have friends and family in Canada who, for a long time, have been suggesting Vancouver as a healthy alternative to (living in and bitching about) New Jersey.

My Vancouverite cousins: “I don’t get why you won’t just move here and get a job at the University of British Columbia. I’m sure they have a Philosophy Department or whatever. It’d be so much fun!”

My British Columbian friend: “Staying in America just seems really self-punitive on your part. Is that why you’re still there?”

The irony is that my cousins, nominally Muslim but adherents of the Shopohaulic faith, now fear that a Trump presidency might put an end to their weekly shopping forays into Seattle. Scary stuff. In other words, moving to Canada might really mean moving to Canada.

I’d always kept the Vancouver Option “under consideration” in a loose and gauzy sense of that phrase, but now have reason to take it more seriously, if only as a retirement option. To put the matter bluntly, there may be reasons to stay in the U.S.–most obviously reasons connected to having a full-time academic position here–but those reasons will become irrelevant after retirement. I may have been born in the USA, but at this point, I intend to die elsewhere.

Anyway, here’s a long comment, slightly edited, that I wrote in response to a post by Kevin Vallier at BHL, “Healing Through Decentralization.” It hasn’t been commented on in the four days it’s been up at BHL, so I figured I’d cut and paste it here.

Maybe you deal with this in your book, but this post is so lacking in specificity that I have no real idea how the proposal is supposed to work.

Example: New Jersey went to Hillary Clinton, but only because the urbanized counties went to her. The rural counties went to Trump. So decentralization to the state level won’t help. Further, some of the urban counties that went to Clinton overlap with congressional districts that went red for down ballot options (as well as rural counties that went to Trump that overlap with congressional districts that went blue). So again, decentralizing to the state level is of little help. Here’s what a blue state like Jersey really ends up looking like.

In other words, it’s only a blue state along the Northeast Corridor rail line. The rest of it is red. But “places along the Northeast Corridor rail line” is not a political district, and therefore not a candidate for “decentralization through federalism.” I’m not sure this sort of thing is idiosyncratic to New Jersey.

Further, even if you look at counties or municipalities, it’s not as though you find pure Clinton or pure Trump anywhere, or pure red or or pure blue anywhere. Yes, there are majority-red and majority-blue places, but there is appreciable red mixed with the blue and vice versa just about everywhere, down to the level of municipalities, municipal wards, school districts, neighborhoods (in the sociological sense), zones (in the “master plan” sense), streets, and even families. Even the reddest places in New Jersey were tinged with blue, and the bluest places were tinged with red. A friend of mine in a firmly blue town (59:36) walked me through his suburban neighborhood and (quietly) pointed out the Trump vs. Clinton houses on his street.

As for freedom of movement, I don’t quite understand your point.* We already have freedom of movement, and it doesn’t solve the problem at hand. Setting aside the rhetoric about moving to Canada, no one is leaving any time soon. And why would they? People go where the best school districts are, and where they find the most favorable commuting time to their job. No Trump voter is going to say, “Well, I better give up my plum school district, and move to a redder town because the Democrats outnumber me 59:36 here.” If what you mean is that freedom of movement is vitiated by regulations like residential zoning, that may be true, but the remedies for e.g. exclusionary zoning are a matter of state-level policy, and I’ve already suggested that state-level policy is likely to be a red-blue food fight. That’s been the history of inclusionary zoning remedies in New Jersey for the past 40 years.

The one bright spot I can see for decentralization is the idea of sanctuary cities for undocumented aliens. But it’s not that bright: some of these sanctuary cities are also under federal consent decree by the Justice Dept for civil rights violations by their police departments (e.g., Newark). So decentralization will likely come with a cost or a trade-off, with the Trump Administration saying: “You want to be a sanctuary city? Well, then your federal consent decree will be a decree in name only. Don’t expect help on that bullshit from us. Expect us to flip you the bird. And as for the 75% constitutional violation rate you were managing during your stops and frisks? That don’t impress us much. We kinda think a bit of stop and frisk is a good idea, not just for black people, but for people who might look Syrianish or Mexicanish or whatever. Anyway, we’ll get back to you on that. First we gotta check with Steve. Steve Bannon, that is.” And you don’t need a consent decree to get a trade-off; all you need is federal funding. The post doesn’t deal with the degree of federal involvement in local politics. Maybe your point is that the federal involvement should be scaled back, but that’s easier said than done.

Speaking of Bannon, can you say something about why we’re supposed to “heal” as opposed to doing something else? The ACLU is gearing up for litigation. That doesn’t sound very much like healing, but it sounds like the best idea I’ve heard since last Tuesday.

I suppose Vallier could respond that he only intends the decentralization proposal to be applied where it might antecedently be thought to work. If it doesn’t work in New Jersey, it needn’t be applied there, but it might work elsewhere. What this overlooks, however, is that we can’t coherently decentralize the process of decentralization. Either we decentralize across the board, or we don’t. If we do, the proposal runs into problems of the sort that come up in New Jersey and places like it. If not, we’re back to endurance or emigration.

Which is where I think we are. In other words, the lesson here is: America–hate it or leave it. I’m up for a bit of both.


*To be more precise, Vallier had invoked “freedom of association,” but in the context of a defense of decentralization, what that ends up meaning is “freedom-to-move-to-a-place-of-demographic-like-mindedness-and-then-freely-associate,” which I referred to without elaboration as “freedom of movement.”

Thanks to Ron Rice for the tip on Newark as a sanctuary city.

One thought on “Kevin Vallier on Decentralization and the Election Results

  1. I was really hoping the calls for secession would die out.

    if your state really does have different values than the rest of the country and would like to explore those independent of federal constraints, there’s already a much easier mechanism for accomplishing this: state rights. Conservatives have long championed state rights, but have traditionally been blocked by liberals, who tend to favor federal (“big government”) solutions.

    Nonetheless, liberals have won a number of recent victories at the state level, including early successes in gay marriage (prior to Obergefell v. Hodges), doctor-assisted suicide, legalization of (medical) marijuana, and increasing the minimum wage. Indeed, the latter two saw significant in the past weeks, even in traditionally “red states”. If there was a strong bipartisan consensus on state rights, we could return to the anemic federal government that dominated US politics up until the early twentieth century.

    Of course, you’d have to forsake those harmed by weak civil rights, labor rights, environmental standards, healthcare access, education standards, and social safety nets in either poorer or more conservative-leaning states. But that’s going to happen if you secede as well, so that ought not be a concern. (Although at least with secession you wouldn’t be quite so accountable for the fallout of those decisions, in case that’s your primary rationale for federal oversight).

    Third, no state is an island. Not even Hawaii, metaphorically speaking. Each of the states depends on trade with the other states. Different crops grow in different regions. Financial institutions are largely centralized in New York. Much of fossil fuel comes from Texas, Alaska, and a handful of other states. If for example California seceded, they’d need to negotiate trade agreements, immigration rights, visa requirements, etc. to ensure all of that could continue to move freely between borders. Oh, and by the way, they’d also have to renegotiate their trade agreements with the rest of the world, which would be pretty critical since large parts of the economies in California and Washington are dependent on global trade. Essentially, you’d be in a Brexit situation (yes, the same Brexit most liberals here condemned).

    Liked by 1 person

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