How De-Federalizing Government Could End Partisan Gridlock and Save America from the Next Civil War

Americans live in a nation divided along party lines. Political polarization hasn’t been this extreme since the United States broke apart 150 years ago for the Civil War. This chart, drawing from a dataset of Congressional votes, tracks partisan polarization since the Civil War. Higher numbers correspond to greater polarization (source):


A Pew Research Center analysis from 2014 showed that Americans grew dramatically more partisan in their beliefs since 1994 (source):

Finally, the presidential election map tells a similar story of polarization. I’m sure most Americans have heard about the “two Americas” by now: the coastal elite dominated by Democrat politics and the rural heartland dominated by Republican politics.

heres-the-basic-electoral-college-map-with-states-that-clinton-won-in-blue-and-states-that-trump-won-in-red-assuming-that-trumps-narrow-lead-in-michigan-holds.jpg.pngWhen the nation is as divided as during the Civil War, we may need to consider measures to de-escalate this extreme polarization before violence breaks out.

Many scholars have ideas about what causes this growing partisan divide. Geographical concentration of like-minded people is one popular theory backed up by empirical data. Others point to partisan media outlets like The Huffington Post that facilitate confirmation bias by filtering the news through an ideological lens.

Mainstream thinking ignores another significant reason for this polarization. Enabled by population growth and mass media, the U.S. political process plays out at a national level. The federal government is enormous and all-powerful. Because it is the national government, its decisions override local decisions in all 50 states.

Control of the national government alternates between Republicans and Democrats. Approval ratings for modern institutions of national politics (the W. Bush, Obama, and Trump presidencies; and the Congress during those periods) almost always remain below 50 percent. This suggests deep dissatisfaction with our national system of politics that transcends any one party, person, or period of time.

Our ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to governance is not working.

Perhaps instead of trying to solve polarization, we should accept it as a reality of modern life and move on. It is still possible to integrate regional differences into our system of government by returning to an earlier form of American democracy.

This involves de-federalizing the American government. Let blue states like California do whatever they want and let red states like Texas do the exact opposite. Over time, individual U.S. states could become a laboratory for ideas.

Governor Greg Abbott’s proposed Constitutional amendments offer a preliminary blueprint for de-federalizing the United States government. At first glance, this looks like a Republican dream, but it also gives liberal states a lot of room to pursue their agenda.

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2 Responses to How De-Federalizing Government Could End Partisan Gridlock and Save America from the Next Civil War

  1. dneu1 says:

    I thought this was a really cool post because it goes after such a large, often completely overlooked structural issue for our government. In a lot of ways I think one can construct a strong argument that our country is simply to large to maintain a functioning federal government while balancing the interests of so many diverse constituents. While I think Abbott’s amendment has some unneeded excess fluff, it does represent one possible solution to this issue. However, I also think gridlock could be tackled in a different way. Instead of severely limiting the federal government I think we could go in the opposite direction and eliminate it’s ties to any specific constituency or geographic area. Doing this would require getting rid of electoral districts entirely and using a system of proportional representation across the entire country. In this way congress would be tied to the American people as a whole, not the often deadlocked interests of one constituency vs. another. Additionally this would allow for actually feasible third party representation. I’m not sure if this would be better than defederalization but it is another interesting possible solution.

    • arc says:

      That is definitely another option!

      One problem I’ve noticed is that data about polarization can be sliced so many ways to tell different stories. (Click the links to view the graphics.)

      For example, the Cook Political Report released their 2017 Partisan Voter Index last week (link). It shows fewer ‘swing’ and ‘crossover’ Congressional districts. “78% of Democratic-leaning seats got even more Democratic, and 65% of GOP-leaning seats got even more Republican.”

      Yet if you display county-level election results on a map with a color scale that reflects the margin of victory, you get a Purple America (link).

      Finally, if you warp that Purple America map by population, you get an accurate picture of the United States by geography, population, and partisanship (link). But this map doesn’t tell a clear story.

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