April 2, 2021
As President Joe Biden rolls out a proposal to spend an additional $2.3 trillion in taxpayer dollars (beyond $1.9 trillion in COVID relief spending) on infrastructure and other items, national opinion writer Rich Lowry questions whether it will amount to much in terms of long-lasting change. The civic realities of governing in America point to the likelihood that whatever change is brought about by the Biden administration’s new spending will not be broad or long-term.
The United States is a large and diverse nation: the third largest in the world by both land area and population, with the latter becoming more diverse racially and ethnically. The only other country in the top 5 in both measures is China, whose population is significantly less diverse than America’s.
This unique combination of size and diversity means that the realities of governing in the United States are unlike the realities of governing anywhere else. Local conditions and people in one area of the nation can be dramatically different than conditions and people in another area of the nation. This is part of the reason why the United States has a federal system in which the federal government and state governments have their own constitutions and sovereignties, and there are constitutional and practical limits on the powers of the federal government vis-à-vis state and local governments.
These realities often stifle radical change in government or public policy.
For instance, the contours of local culture can place limits on how far substantive policy changes can realistically go even in areas dominated by the political left. Ezra Klein wrote a New York Times column noting how his native California is “often symbolically liberal, but operationally conservative,” placing limits on how workable progressive policy ideas are in even the bluest of blue states.
Economic conditions can similarly place practical limitations on what change is possible. Politico recently reported on the story of the progressive mayor of Jackson, Mississippi. He promised in his campaign to make Jackson “the most radical city on the planet,” but “the problems are so basic and so deep, the city so poor” that the mayor has had to spend most of his time fixing practical problems (e.g., filling potholes) instead of pursuing radical changes.
Political differences can often stymie dramatic change coming from Washington, D.C., as well. For instance, Utah recently enacted a new law directing that any state or local government employee or entity refuse to enforce any executive order from the president of the United States that is declared to be “an unconstitutional exercise of legislative authority” by the recommendation of a state council and the determination of Utah’s attorney general. Time will tell how impactful this new law will be and whether the political will exists to follow through on it, but it illustrates how states can blunt change flowing from the federal government.
For all of these reasons, the Biden administration’s new spending seems unlikely to drive broad and lasting change in the United States. Cultural disagreement with the goals of spending in the new COVID relief law and the infrastructure proposal will not likely shift simply because money is being spent. Some economic limitations may be overcome by federal funding (e.g., the lack of city revenue for a lower-income city like Jackson, Mississippi) but the broad swath of problems that typically attend widespread poverty will not magically disappear with a federal check. And political differences might intervene to stymie or even completely overturn policy change intended in federal spending laws.
Will the COVID relief law and the infrastructure spending proposal mark a sea change in American life and government? Probably not. This is not to say that they are not important policies to debate, but rather just that they are not as important as some on either ideological extreme might believe.
That’s a good thing. It means that whatever happens in Washington, D.C., in the short term, America will remain America. If the United States changes dramatically in one direction or another, it will be because it changed first in its homes, businesses and communities. What happens at the federal level is a reflection of change, not a primary driver of it – and that is how America is supposed to be.
Good civics education policy already exists in the law. Let’s look locally to determine how well our schools are teaching what is required of them by law.
The last year has been dominated by concerns about health – not only from the COVID-19 pandemic, but also from the effects on well-being and mental health due to the social isolation the pandemic response has sometimes required.
This latest expression of federalism continues what the data suggest may be a new trend in American governance and civic affairs, illustrating that federalism remains alive and well in America.