In Defense of Grassroots-Powered Progressive Federalism

This piece is part of a collection on “progressive federalism,” which addresses the conditions under which American federalism advances and hinders the interests of democratic political movements. Other contributions can be found here. If you are interested in participating in the discussion, join us on Twitter at @lpeblog.

Annelise Orleck –

Over fifty years ago, Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward suggested that poor people’s movements take to the streets as their only lever for influencing public policy. But as the 1960s welfare rights movement they were advising soon showed, and as the modern living wage and labor movements have demonstrated, “progressive federalism” can enhance the power of poor and working people. Rather than serving as an obstacle to progressive change, the diffusion of power and resources across federal, state and local governments has allowed poor people’s movements to turn to federal authorities at times when local governments have been conservative and resistant and vice versa. Today, progressive federalism has allowed community-based organizations and poor people’s movements to expand the political class—making successful runs for elected office and pushing through local ordinances that become models for other city, state, and federal governments.

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Federalism is unlikely to save progressive politics

This piece is part of a collection on “progressive federalism,” which addresses the conditions under which American federalism advances and hinders the interests of democratic political movements. Other contributions can be found here. If you are interested in participating in the discussion, join us on Twitter at @lpeblog.

Lisa L. Miller–

Can federalism work for progressives? Since the election of Donald Trump, left-leaning scholars and political activists have increased their focus on state and local governments as potential venues for progressive policies. Legal scholars Heather Gerken and Joshua Revesz championed the use of federalism’s multi-layered venues as an opportunity for progressives to “resist Washington overreach, shape national policies, and force the Republicans to compromise.” Because state and local governments are often “led by dissenters and racial minorities,” they argue, progressives have little to fear from the old days when white supremacists used state and local governments to oppose civil rights. In their view, “This is not your father’s federalism.

The problem with this argument is that it lacks any account of power, that is, how the structure of American federalism shapes and channels political activities in ways that are more advantageous to some interests than to others. American federalism is not neutral. In fact, federalism’s many venues generally disadvantage groups with comprehensive, progressive policy aims for several reasons: first, federalism does not just create political opportunities but also limits them; second, state and local governments  are poorly situated to solve national problems; third, jurisdictional boundaries can be remade in ways that disadvantage progressives; and finally, contestation itself over which level of government should perform which activities harms progressive causes.

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