Healing Through Decentralization

Donald J. Trump will be the 45th president of the United States. He was elected in perhaps the most polarized election of the last 100 years. We have, more and more, two cultural-political tribes in the United States. And the red tribe’s hatred for the blue tribe beat the blue tribe’s hatred of the red tribe. On social media, and in the press, many people grasp the consequences of this division. Trump is what happens in a country where people so despise one another’s politics that they will either elect a man who is manifestly unqualified or insult and despise everyone who voted for him. If we hope to move forward, it would be wonderful if we could depolarize and compromise on pressing issues. But sentiment is not enough. Healing requires political decentralization.

Polarization Isn’t Going Away

While researching for my forthcoming book, Must Politics Be War?, I’ve been reading a lot of literature on political polarization. One important question is whether the increase in party polarization over the last fifty years is the cause or the effect of polarization among the public. A second important question is whether the public is polarized, or whether party polarization simply makes it appear that way.

In his new book, Polarizedpolitical scientist James Campbell develops a theory of revealed polarization which holds that the American electorate is highly polarized and was not always so (53). Polarization may have increased recently, but Americans became highly polarized in the mid to late 1960s. The parties began to polarize in the late 1970s to early 1990s and it has only gotten worse, but they are merely coming to reflect long-existing divisions among the general public.

If Campbell is right, Americans disagree with each other a lot and have for fifty years. Our disagreements are long-standing and they aren’t going away. And since we disagree, and suffer from in-group bias, our tendency will be to see those who disagree as alien and different and insist that they have nasty motives and suffer severe cognitive deficits. Of course, this perception is partly driven by the fact that many red tribers and blue tribes have nasty motives and grave cognitive deficits when it comes to political matters. But complaining about that isn’t getting us anywhere either.

In my book, I argue that our deep disagreements about the good and justice are often reasonable, and are likely to endure. In light of that, I argue that we can establish a morally valuable kind of social trust across our ideological differences through several institutional reforms, and most of them involve the decentralization of power. Our polarization is socially destructive because we insist on making decisions collectively when we can’t even begin to agree on what the collective decision should be.

Decentralization Through Freedom of Association

I argue that freedom of association is absolutely critical to sustaining relations of social trust across difference, even if it allows people to retreat further into their echo chambers. This is because our attempts to control each others’ forms of association are a source of severe conflict. Attempts to ban same-sex marriage have created huge ill-will, as have attempts to compel religious organizations to recognize same-sex marriage. Attempts to force religious organizations to provide contraception has helped to make religious liberty, once a widely affirmed liberty even twenty years ago, into a partisan issue. I fully expect universities to come under renewed scrutiny under a Trump administration, and I fully expect universities to continue to exclude diverse viewpoints from campus, and to stigmatize conservative and religious organizations on campus.*

Freedom of association allows people with deeply divergent values live out their conceptions of the good and justice in peace with one another. Attempts to restrict this liberty create division and distrust. If we decentralize more power to associations, we can reap the benefits of social peace.

Decentralization Through Federalism

I also argue that federalism is a critical mechanism for reducing division. In some parts of the country, the red tribe and the blue tribe live in close proximity. But in some states, one tribe is dominant. It is better, on balance, to let each tribe dominate in those locales rather than trying to defeat one another at the national level. Healthcare policy has proven incredibly divisive, even hateful. Education policy creates increasing division. Drug policy has been a disaster. If we make decisions at the state or local level, we will have more flexibility in figuring out how each tribe wants to govern itself, such that they will have less of a stake in trying to govern and control the other tribe.

That’s not to say that we should do nothing federally. Foreign policy is invariably national, and racial policy should remain national. But we can do much more at the state and local level. I argue this would help depolarize us without eliminating our ongoing disagreements.

Potential for Abuse

Of course, both freedom of association and federalism can be abused. As Jacob Levy has reminded us, decentralization can make us vulnerable to bigotry and local tyranny. Yet we can nonetheless err too much in the centralist direction. I think it’s clear that we have swung too far in the centralist direction. Presidents have so much power that the red tribe and the blue tribe should fear government by the other.

But if we are prepared to give up some of our power over one another, we can live together better. We will, of course, still have our disagreements. But freedom of movement between different communities would allow people to self-sort and form communities with the like-minded without having to despise and rage against their red or blue overlords.

Centuries ago, we had similar fights about religious establishment. Protestants and Catholics feared that the other group endangered the eternal salvation of millions. And yet, after lots of awful conflict, they figured out a tolerant solution that decentralized religious establishment. Neither side liked the solution at first. But over the centuries, both came to accept and cherish their religious freedom. But if we are willing to trust one another enough to decentralize power, we don’t have to agree about how to live; we need merely agree about the level at which collective decisions must be made. That agreement is surely more practical and moral than what we’ve been doing for the last few decades.


We can heal, but to do so, we must decentralize power. To live together, we must do less together.


*I am not arguing that governments should restrict universities’ right to exclude those who disagree with their values. That’s part of their freedom of association. But I also think that universities should cut it out.

  • Fritz

    Now is the time to call a constitutional convention. Its purpose
    wouldn’t be to change the meaning of the original Constitution (the
    real Constitution) but to reaffirm that meaning, express it more
    clearly, and provide more safeguards to prevent its corruption. The
    revised Constitution would expressly require the central government to
    devolve most of its arrogated powers back to the States, where those
    powers belong. It would leave a lot of room for States to do what the
    central government is now doing, so that devolution would be attractive
    to those who believe in such things as single-payer health-care, carbon
    taxes, etc. Voting with one’s feet would then have real meaning. There
    would be States with minimalist governments and States that try to
    maintain the entire apparatus of cradle-to-grave welfare and heavy
    regulation. I know which States would gain population, and which would
    lose it — the Blue Model would die in a flaming death spiral. Anyway,
    here’s my post about it: https://politicsandprosperity.com/2016/11/09/polarization-and-de-facto-partition/. And here’s the proposed rewrite of the Constitution: https://politicsandprosperity.com/a-constitution-for-the-21st-century/. Comments are welcome.

    • Sean II

      Terrible idea. If we had a new constitutional convention now, it would culminate in 1,200 page document packed with minutiae like:

      “Article XXIV: Every American child deserves the right not to be bullied or exposed to peanut allergens…”

      • Farstrider

        Agreed. Look at California’s Constitution for a real life example.

  • Theresa Klein

    Personally, I believe that the electoral college system, with the winner-take-all allocation of electoral votes helps drive polarization into two parties. The entrenchment of the two-party system in American politics over the last century and a half has fostered the growing tribal identification with political parties.

    I do not believe it is the ONLY thing driving polarization. Human nature tends towards tribalization. There will always be political parties, two-party polarization might still happen.

    However, if there was one simple thing we could do to fix the broken two-party system, it would be to abolish the electoral college. It’s the single biggest-bang-for-your-buck change we could make. Absent the electoral college, third parties would not play as much of a spoiler role, and much more importantly, Presidential campaigns would be based on appealing to a majority vote, rather than gaming the system to win the electoral college.

    • DST

      The electoral college seems irrelevant to polarization. Eliminating it would change the tenor and strategy of the presidential campaign, as candidates would emphasize the needs of swing states less, but it wouldn’t do anything to bring the red and blue tribes together, swing state or no.

      • Theresa Klein

        I think it might. The thing is that the winner-take-all nature of more state electoral college votes means that it harshly punishes voting for a third party. There’s a disproportionately large impact of voting third party if it swings the entire sates vote total, versus jut the popular vote count. This causes the tribal red/blue people to more forcefully avoid and denounce third party voting than they otherwise would.

        • DST

          That’s a fair point, but I think that even without an electoral college, third parties can take the blame for being spoilers in elections. I’m thinking, for example, of the rise of the SNP in UK 2015 elections, which primarily took votes away from Labour, and helped the Conservatives gain an outright majority in Parliament (seats, not votes). Even if you got rid of the first-past-the-post system in the UK, and moved toward a more proportional system, second place finishers would still blame the third- and fourth-place finishers. In fact, smaller parties like UKIP would have benefited greatly from such a more proportional system.

          Regardless of the mechanics of the system, the larger parties are always going to feel entitled to the votes going to smaller parties, and so there’s always going to be pressure to glom onto larger parties. That being said, I still don’t understand why the duopoly is more monolithic in the US than in other countries. It could honestly just be that US parties are more pragmatic, and are more willing to abandon principle to go after underserved constituencies in the face of changing voters and voting habits.

        • Lacunaria

          On the contrary, without the electoral college, every third party vote is a spoiler. With the electoral college, spoilers are limited to the potential swing states.

    • Lacunaria

      No, the electoral college not only serves states rights, but also eliminates spoilers in solid states, allowing the losing party to expand the field for future elections. For example, no one leaning Republican in CA, NY, or IL should have voted for Trump. Their responsibility was not to pick between Clinton and Trump, rather their responsibility was to pick the best third party candidate. The fact that people do not see or understand their own power is the problem.

  • johnbarri

    so in your ideal society, the reds can criminalise abortion and the blues can lionise it as a basic woman’s right, the blues can impose health insurance on all in their societies while the reds can outlaw the provision of a universal health care system. How does that work? IM not so HO, I think the Swiss canton system is about as good as you get. I think of it as centralisation by consensus of the electorate, not of and by the politicos.

    Perhaps while these sorts of debates occur the US of A should be looking at a different sort of electoral system. As Trump himself has observed, the electoral college is a disaster for democracy, to which I would add, so is the party funding system. That is me speaking as a democrat ( but not in the party political sense)

    • Kevin Vallier

      It’s not my ideal. It’s just an improvement from what we have now. The way it works is how it works in countries with more federalism, like Canada and, as you mention, Switzerland, and how lots of other issues work at the state level.

    • IceTrey

      The electoral college being a disaster for democracy was the intent.

  • Sam Schmitt

    This is really interesting, Kevin. It is interesting, I respect you, and nearly all my intuitions drive in the opposite direction. This is part of why I am borrowing some books to learn more about libertarianism. In any case, I am pretty driven by ideas of civic responsibility, a high value for hearing others’ opinions (especially when they disagree with me), and for shared work with people who believe differently. And, I don’t think that sort of experience should be exceptional, but that it should be common to all in America. The trouble is, I don’t know how to move toward that kind of culture without radically altering primary education (to include more civic education)–and that entails not only a more powerful state, but the content of that education would not be ideologically neutral (at least it seems difficult to imagine such an education being ideologically neutral). Anyway, I see what you are saying–and I see why you are saying it. However, it runs counter to my desire to be with and amongst those with whom I disagree deeply. Not sure what to do with that.

    • DST

      What do you make of the fact that during the past few decades government involvement in education has stayed relatively flat at the state level, increased at the federal level, has become more ideological, and yet has become *less* oriented toward teaching civic responsibility? It seems that if you want the kind of education you’re talking about, you would favor a system of less government interference, even if if takes away your ability to impose your preferred curriculum on others.

    • Theresa Klein

      The content of education is not ideologically neutral right now.
      I’m not sure how old you are, but my memories of primary education involve a great deal of “civic education”, mostly with a left-liberal bent (with the exception of the “don’t do drugs” part). For instance “history” and “social studies” classes are full of lessons about racism, sexism, civil rights, multiculturalism, the environment, climate change etc. – a laundry list of progressive agenda points. Most school districts (wrongly in my view) even requires student to volunteer with a charitable group to graduate.

      • Farstrider

        Are you saying that racism, sexism, civil rights, climate change, etc. do not exist?
        Or that they should not be taught?

    • Blue Republican Minnesota

      There is a growing movement of classical schools both public that seek to teach kids how to think not what to think using a “real” liberal arts approach via the trivium- grammar, logic and rhetoric. So by the time kids are in high school ( school of rhetoric) kids are using primary sources and making their own arguments based on tools of logic etc…. It’s not perfect but it goes a long way…

  • stevenjohnson2

    Federalism may be the opposite of centrallzation but the division of property is a major cause of strife and its attendant bitterness.. A polarized society is the opposite of a centralized one. Freedom to exclude is the opposite of freedom of association. The OP is grossly confused at a fundamental level.. Also, no religious organization has been forced to “recognize” gay marriage any more than they’ve been forced to recognize divorce. No religious organization has been forced to provide contraception. Muddled values, nonsense metaphors, unsound reasoning, false facts…

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  • j_m_h

    Interesting that thee tag is Toleration but few seem to make comments on that theme.
    In any case I have sympathy for the sentiments expressed in the post and wonder about your thoughts on the following. I sometimes wonder if the Civil Right Act has ended up doing more harm than good. It seems that law has largely set the framework, or such framework has evolved around it, whereby lacking specific protection the subgroup lacks any legal protections from discrimination leading to an ever increasing list of protected classes rather than a single standard that simply applies to all. So we end up with a view that “we” must establish our right with special mention and “they” who attempt this are just taking things away from us.

  • IceTrey

    Trump is over 35, 14 years a resident and a natural born Citizen. He’s totally qualified. Obama now, not so much.

    • Farstrider

      Obama also met the constitutional minimum for the office, plainly.

      • IceTrey

        His father was a foriegner which brings doubt to his status as an nbC because there is no legally recognized definition of the phrase. My opinion is that it means born in a country to citizen parents based on the SC opinion in Minor v Happersett. Before you say there is a definition make sure you have a cite and link to it. It must also contain the words “natural born”.

        • Puppet’s Puppet

          I think that the alleged implicatures, from the passage usually cited, that the decision is setting out a juxtaposition of “natural-born citizens” and “foreigners,” with a buffer of neither in between, are not nearly as strong as implicatures of the earlier passage suggesting that “natural-born citizens” (specifically citing the Presidential eligibility clause) are all those who attain their citizenship by birth rather than naturalization. Which also happens to be the most straightforward plain-language reading of the article.

          But I strongly agree that it has been very shameful and disturbing, and very typical of the sort of asinine overreach that has caused so much frustration, to have the message constantly said that the very idea of contemplating this question is racist or disloyal. It is a legitimate judgment call. (That said, it should have been brought up with the first questionable major-party nominee, John McCain; and it’s a bit suspicious of the country as a whole, so to speak, that it was not made a big deal until Obama. Of course, as with everything having to do with “cultural” or “institutional” racism, it’s hard to move from this to indicting a specific case. An individual could certainly question Obama’s eligibility, having earlier questioned McCain’s, or simply not thought that the Canal Zone’s status as part of the USA was as questionable as the matter of foreign parentage.)

          • IceTrey

            If they meant citizenship by birth why doesn’t it just say born a citizen? Natural born has to be some subset of born citizens.

  • Irfan Khawaja

    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 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. 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 in federal receivership 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 70% 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. 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.

    • Irfan Khawaja

      There’s a mistake in my post: I said that some sanctuary cities are “in federal receivership.” As implied a few lines later, I meant that they’re under federal consent decree, not in federal receivership.

  • Counsellor

    In another perspective this election might
    be seen as the publics choice in dealing with two similarly disliked and
    distrusted political party oligarchies, rather that choosing between two “candidates.”

    Over 100 years ago Robert Michels set out the term and operation of “The Iron Law of
    Oligarchy,” which can give us a different perspective on the implications of
    the recent election.

    Both parties (and most Unions) have become oligarchies (in their power structures).

    The Oligarchy (popularly “the Establishment”) of the Republicans was first
    fractured (but not fragmented) by the
    2009 Tea Party movement, which not only diverted conservative voters (and
    public) from the oligarchs, but actually displaced many of them completely;
    probably due to the regional, less centralized nature of the Republican Party
    Oligarchy. That fracture opened a wedge (as the conservative “establishment,”
    or oligarchy, lost cohesion – still not recovered).

    Meanwhile back at the Democrat ranch, the trends, sensed by Senator Underwood in
    “Drifting Sands of Party Politics,” took form in the art of James A Farley, as
    a party of coalitions of constituencies, with predominant but dispersed
    oligarchies (originally city “machines” and Southern regional interests). As
    the varieties of particular interests grew (and constituency building with it),
    the constant adding on of constituencies apparently led to the need for
    centralization of the oligarchical powers, and that party became dominated (in
    its recent end) by a centralized oligarchy whose internal relationships (for
    position and power) detached them from sufficient relationships with the
    memberships of original constituencies (who have now turned elsewhere to have
    democratic effects).

    The highly centralized Democrat Party Oligarchy is now adrift, having been somewhat
    fragmented by the fragmentation of what were its constituencies – many of the
    members of which have now “invaded” the territories of the Republican Party
    oligarchies, and taken over that party’s capacities to direct the course of
    politically determined actions.

    This may be a corollary to, or have a corollary in, Pareto’s “Rise and Fall of

  • Farstrider

    Decentralizing through federalism does not work because the strongest, if not the strongest, predictor of voting is not the state. Instead, it is population density. Taking the 2012 election as an example, in counties with more than 800 persons per square mile, about two-thirds voted for Obama; in counties with less population, two-thirds voted for Romney. I would expect the same to be true this year, once all the dust settles. This also explains why no cities in the top 5 by population voted Romney, and only one in the top 10 (Phoenix, which was very close), two in the top 20 (PHX and Fort Worth), and 3 in the top 100 (PHX, FW and OK). You have to go down to number 124 to find the fourth red city, Salt Lake City. Unless your state has no substantial cities, federalism will not work as a means of decentralizing, because the real dispute is between urban and rural voters, not between the states.

    I’ll not remark on the freedom of association point other than to note that it is a pipe dream. The true believers are generally not happy letting others make their own decisions – they would much rather dictate their neighbor’s decisions. We saw this in the Hobby Lobby and gay marriage debates, both of which involved religious groups forcing their views on others who did not subscribe to them.