This week, the United States Senate decided the will and opinion of approximately 90 percent of the American people didn’t matter and did not pass a measure that would have vastly expanded the background check system for purchasing firearms. It is not the first, nor will it be the last time, that Congress disappoints its constituents, but there is a larger trend emerging here. From the strong possibility of striking down the Defense of Marriage Act to not enforcing new gun laws, the federal government appears to feel less able to take any position on social issues and prefers neutrality over either pleasing or angering its base of voters.
All of this has not caused a lack of new social policy laws, however. Activism on issues such as same-sex marriage, abortion, gun regulation, etc. is still very strong and pushes through laws aimed at advancing a position on those issues. The difference is that those new laws are not coming from the federal government; they’re coming from the state governments.
For example, the states of New York and Connecticut, the scene of the Newtown massacre in December, have passed some of the strictest gun control legislation in the nation in the past few months. Arkansas and North Dakota have passed some of the most restrictive abortion legislation in the country recently. And as for the issue of same-sex marriage, the Supreme Court itself may rule that it is an issue for the states to decide individually, declaring that the federal government should provide marriage benefits based on each state’s definition of marriage, not a national definition.
Despite close to 250 years of the federal government’s growing more influential relative to the states, it is remarkable how much control each U.S. state has over its local affairs. In the last couple of decades, state autonomy appears to have had a revival. The federal government has not shown the social activism that it once did back in the 1960s and 70’s when it was one of many proponents of the Civil Rights movement, for example.
One boring, yet not to be forgotten, fact is that the United States has gotten a lot bigger since that time. As our friend Bill Nye reminded us on Friday, the country has added more than 100,000,000 people since the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. It has become increasingly difficult for the central government to accommodate the interests and desires of an increasingly larger and more diverse population. To add on to that, interest groups and lobbyists have become very strong as they have better resources, otherwise known as billions of dollars, at their disposal to influence national policy.
Interest groups can, of course, influence state policy as well, but one of the things that a state has going for it that the entire country doesn’t is that it has a more concentrated population that tends to share similar views. Of course voters within each state have differing views, but voters in solid blue or red states tend to be generally more in line with one another on social policy within their states than with other parts of the country.
To offer examples of this, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, formerly a Republican, is an advocate for same-sex marriage and addressing climate change, and Democratic U.S. Senator Joe Manchin from West Virginia is a guns rights advocate and has received a high rating from the National Rifle Association. These men have been consistently gotten re-elected, so they must be doing something to please their voters.
A lot of Democrat and Republican voters will vote for Obama and Romney, respectively, but for the candidate of the opposite party for senator or congressman. This is because someone may agree with the Democrat or Republican Party on a national level but be relatively liberal or conservative within their own state. To continue with the example of Senator Manchin, he may be a Democrat, but he’s a West Virginia Democrat that has many of the social views of the majority of West Virginians.
To return to the first point, the sclerosis and incompetence of the federal government to put together any coherent social policy has forced states to make their own efforts. Voter confidence in Congress has sunk to pitiful levels, but their approval of state governments remains relatively strong.
As the federal government appears unable to put forth the policies that voters think are essential to maintain the public good, they will increasingly turn to their state governments to at least win the policy war at home if not for the entire country. Ultimately, given the system we currently have, this might be the most sensible solution. One would have to fundamentally reform the way the federal government works and is elected if they wanted it to be a more efficient and effective entity.