May 10, 2012
Howard Dean is a former Governor of Vermont and candidate for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. presidential election in 2004. He was also chairman of the Democratic National Committee from 2005 to 2009.
Mr Dean will be in Montreal next Tuesday as a guest of The Federal Idea. He will discuss the presidential election campaign now underway in the United States and its implications for American federalism. For more information: www.federalidea.ca/howard_dean
The balance of power between the states and the American Federal Government shifted dramatically beginning in 1933 as the states became unable to deal with the devastation of the Great Depression. Social programs such as Social Security, and various job promotion programs were made available to the states by the Federal Government and rarely refused, (My home State of Vermont was one of the rare refusers, declining to build a parkway which would have weaved in and out of the Green Mountains peaks for the entire length of the state creating hundreds of short term jobs. Most Vermonters and Quebec citizens who own second homes in Northern Vermont are today, very glad of that decision).
In 1964, The Federal Government assumed more power at the expense of the States. The Civil Rights issues which the southern states were unwilling and unable to deal with, were dealt with by the Federal Courts and the Federal Government (including the use of a federalized National Guard in some instances.)
The addition of a sweeping set of entitlement such as universal health care for those over 65 years old (Medicare) and for all poor children (Medicaid) cemented the enormous power of the
Federal Government relative to the states.
Environmental Laws, and even Education, long seen as a prerogative of the States, became increasingly polarizing as the Federal Government asserted its power, both by Congressional legislation and Executive Branch regulation.
In 1980, when Ronald Reagan became President, there was a great deal of rhetoric about turning more power back to the states. But conservatives at the Federal level found themselves as eager to subject the nation to their brand of ideology as the Democrats had before them.
Appointments to the Supreme Court and other federal courts were made by Republicans in 20 out of the next 32 years, with much discussion and rhetoric about « Strict Constructionism », « Originalism », » Federalism », and a variety of other slogans. But the increasingly right wing courts did not avoid the desire to remake America in their own image.
Finally the terrible events on September 11, 2011 began a systematic erosion of the civil liberties some state constitutions enshrined. This was all done with the support of the American people, and even most state legislators, which did not have the financial means to fund the anti-terrorist networks they thought would keep them safe.
With the great recession of 2008, Federalism had all but collapsed, as city and state governments, facing massive budget deficits, began laying off what to date has become nearly three quarters of a million workers. They simply could not afford even a modicum of self-sufficiency.
In 1927, a huge flood/hurricane struck Vermont with large property damage and significant loss of life. Vermont picked up virtually the whole cost. In 2011, Hurricane Irene dealt Vermont the most violent blow since 1927. This time the federal Government picked up about eighty five percent of the public tab, and Insurance companies picked up a substantial part of the private costs.
The plain truth is that there is no real future for the decentralization of government in the United States, there is too much to undo, and the price tag would be prohibitive, even in better economic times.
But there will be a massive decentralization any way. Young people on the internet have now achieved an extraordinary influence on public policy, which vastly exceeds the influence of Congress on issues they care about.
In 2011, the largest bank in the U.S., Bank of America, announced that it would impose a five dollar a month fee on those who used Debit cards. In the old days there would have been a public uproar and eventually it would have faded and the fee structure would have remained.
But within three days of the fee announcement, over one million people, organized by various online groups, pledged to remove their deposits from B of A and put them in credit unions instead. On the fourth day, B of A rescinded the new fees.
More impressive was the collapse of intellectual property bill which had made it out of Committee in the Senate with bipartisan support, a rare occurrence in today’s American political environment. The entertainment industry knew well how to move the process in Washington DC, and the Googles of the world knew little. Of course the bill favored the creative industry at the expense of the Net providers.
But Google and its friends did know how to reach almost all of the Americans’ who had contempt for Congress; about 90 percent of them if the polls are to be believed. After a campaign which involved the voluntary shutdown of major websites, and notices explaining what Americans could do to get their views known by public officials, both the White House and Congressional email services stopped working because of the enormous outpouring of emails from outraged users of the NET. After a fruitless day of bluster trying to explain the reason for the bill, Majority Leader Harry Reid announced that the bill would not be voted on, and two years of work was washed away.
The future of decentralization is alive and well in America, and elsewhere, but it is not the Federal or central governments that will effect the change. That will be done by the public, newly empowered by the increasing penetration of the preferred weapon of democracy advocates everywhere, the World Wide Web.