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Federalism and Progressive Resistance in America

BERKELEY – The year 2016 was one of ascendant populism in the United States, the United Kingdom, and many other developed countries. With income stagnation, faltering economic opportunities, and a loss of faith in progress fueling widespread discontent, voters backed candidates who promised to return power to the “people” and to shake up systems that mainstream political leaders had “rigged” in favor of a corrupt “elite.” In the US, growing ethnic diversity, smoldering racial tensions, and changing social mores added fuel to the electoral fire.

In the US, long-term erosion of trust in the federal government culminated in Donald Trump’s victory in November’s presidential election: even though President Barack Obama enjoyed high public approval, only 19% of Americans trusted the federal government to do what is right. Given traditional Republican priorities, reflected in President-elect Trump’s cabinet choices, federal government programs (with the notable exception of the military) are likely to be slashed. Ironically, spending cuts for health, education and training, and the environment, along with large regressive personal and business tax reductions, will further enrich the “elite” while undermining programs that benefit the majority of households.

But the major social and economic challenges addressed by federal programs will not disappear. The responsibility to deal with them will merely fall more heavily on state and local governments, which will have to tackle them in innovative ways. Indeed, the answer to Trumpism is “progressive federalism”: the pursuit of progressive policy goals using the substantial authority delegated to subnational governments in the US federal system.

Annual Gallup polls continue to show that a majority of Americans trust their state governments (62%) and their local governments (71%) to handle problems. A 2014 Pew study found that while only 25% of respondents were satisfied with the direction of national policy, 60% were satisfied with governance in their own communities. And the US Constitution allows individual states to function as what Judge Brandeis called laboratories of democracy by experimenting with innovative policies without putting the rest of the country at risk.