Sunday, January 30, 2022

America's Civil War: Provincial Lesser-Rich vs. Urban Mega-Rich

tabletmag | But what of the states and the federal government? These two tiers of the U.S. constitutional order are merely the battlegrounds on which the intra-elite feuds of the American metro areas are fought.

In states like Texas, in which Republicans control the state government while the big cities are controlled by the Democratic hourglass coalition, there is a constant game of cat-and-mouse between progressive city councils that enact left-wing policies and right-wing legislatures passing legislation to overrule them. The Texas state legislature has used state law to annul ordinances of the far-left Austin City Council ranging from plastic bag bans, to enabling an explosion of homeless encampments in public spaces, to declaring Austin a “sanctuary city” whose police officers would be ordered to refuse to collaborate with federal immigration authorities.

The state usually wins, because under our constitutional system the policies of cities, counties, and local governments under most state constitutions can be overruled in many areas by the state government. In this way, metro area conservatives, having lost city councils to progressive Democrats, can use allies in state government to defeat their enemies downtown.

But the downtown Democratic coalition has allies of its own in the federal government. Beginning in the 1960s, Democrats—by then having become the urban party they are today—discovered that by means of federal “grants-in-aid,” they could circumvent state legislatures and go directly to Congress. According to one estimate, in 2018 federal aid to state and local governments, taking the form of grants to specific programs in areas from K-12 education to environmental policy to transportation and infrastructure, amounted to $697 billion, doled out via 1,386 separate programs that bind localities to the federal government.

As a result of all of these targeted federal spending programs, about one-third of state spending actually comes from the federal government.

This in turn means that a substantial number of state and local government employees are in effect paid by the federal government, either to administer grants or to ensure compliance with the many complicated federal regulations attached to the grants.

Many of the “culture war issues” that divide left and right are provoked by the metro area left’s attempt to use federal regulations to impose policies that could not be passed by the city council or the state government. The threat that the federal government would cut off aid to colleges and universities was used to intimidate them into compliance with controversial leftist sexual harassment policies denying due process to the accused under the Obama administration. Also in the Obama years, the federal government used the threat of cutoffs of federal aid and civil rights lawsuits to bully state governments and local school districts into letting biological boys and men compete in female sports teams and use female showers, locker rooms, and restrooms. In the case of the latter controversy, the federal government’s pressure on state legislatures and local school districts was reinforced by extortion from “woke” national and multinational corporations, which fund Democrats.

When federal grants-in-aid and corporate blackmail are understood as weapons of the downtown Democrats, the power of Republican red state legislatures to override blue city ordinances looks less impressive. While targeted grants-in-aid may benefit only a few state citizens, it is the noisy few who will fill up the phone lines to state legislators if the federal government threatens to cut them off as part of a progressive blackmail campaign. Democratic legislators have also found ways of tying more popular forms of federal aid—for transportation, housing, and schools—to more arcane priorities in cultural areas, forcing localities to choose between embracing Democratic ideas of race, gender, and sexual orientation or risk losing federal funding for schools and highways.

Even more intimidating is extortion by left-leaning corporations. Particularly in poorer, more working-class Republican states, the state economic development strategy often involves luring major national or multinational corporate investment. The socially (though not economically) progressive Democrats and liberal Republicans who run corporate America can insist that the states competing for their money not only shower them with tax breaks but also write New York and Bay Area social values into state law, or suffer an investment boycott.

 

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