Is American politics reaching a breaking point? A recent study by researchers from Brown and Stanford Universities certainly paints a grim picture of the state of the national discourse. The study attempts to measure “affective polarization,” defined as the extent to which citizens feel more negatively toward other political parties than their own, in nine developed countries, including the United States. The study authors concluded that affective polarization has risen much faster and more drastically in the United States than in any of the other countries they studied (figure 1). They then speculated on possible explanations of increasing polarization, suggesting that changing party composition, increasing racial division, and 24-hour partisan cable news are convincing possible causes. Notably, the research was completed before the coronavirus pandemic or the police killing of George Floyd, two events that have only deepened political division.
While the study is interesting and well written, the authors completely fail to consider a more fundamental potential explanation of increasing polarization, one that is likely to be understood well by libertarians and federalists, who have long railed against the trend toward ever more usurpation of local and state sovereignty in American politics. I propose that the real culprit behind worsening polarization is the gargantuan federal government that has turned the entire country into an unceasing political battleground. When virtually all political issues are settled at the national level, the whole nation becomes a source of potential political opponents. the real culprit behind worsening polarization is the gargantuan federal government that has turned the entire country into an unceasing political battleground. When virtually all political issues are settled at the national level, the whole nation becomes a source of potential political opponents. Centralization changes the scale and with it the locus of political debate and conflict. For the average political participant, it is probably true that people with differing ideas live near you, in your city or state, but the mathematical reality is that the vast majority of your political opponents live relatively far away (spread throughout the rest of the country) and thus have no material connection to your life or your community. Political opposition becomes just numbers on a cable news screen: 49 percent for this, 51 percent for that. Sixty-two million votes for one candidate, 65 million for another. These numbers, without names or faces, become simple objects; some are pawns to be moved around, while others are obstacles to be pushed aside. This is not just speculation: previous research has indicated that partisanship is correlated with the use of tactics to dehumanize political opponents. Centralized political decision-making amounts to a systematic dehumanization of anyone who might participate in the political process.
The effects of such a disastrous form of organization are already evident. Political polarization is not confined to academic papers, but has now manifested in the streets of Kenosha and Portland. As the 2020 election approaches, politically charged killings between members of rival factions will only become more likely. What was formerly a central promise of democratic politics—the peaceful transfer of power—has been abandoned in favor of direct action and blood.
If centralization is the cause of our problems, then decentralization is the cure. Pushing decision-making power down to state and local levels as much as possible, closer to the people actually affected by the decisions, is the only way forward. Of course, it will not solve all the problems of political culture today. Policy debates and disagreements could still be just as intense at the local level as at the federal. But it is harder to dehumanize someone who might be a part of your community. Those numbers on the screen are on your local news now, not the national news. Those percentages and vote tallies might include your neighbor down the street, your Uber driver, the person ahead of you in line at the grocery store, or the old man you saw out walking his dog this morning. Technically, this has always been true, and we would do well to remember the humanity of the people we disagree with even while political focus is at the national level. This fact is simply harder to ignore when the primary nexus for political decisions is more immediate and local.
Admittedly, I do not know exactly how decentralization can happen. There is no magic blueprint. Maybe the worst pessimists are right, and we are doomed to fight some sort of second civil war before we remember that those with whom we disagree are people too. I think the future is brighter than that. Perhaps, as Mises Institute president Jeff Deist has pointed out, de facto decentralization has already begun. Fortunately, nobody has to know exactly what the new political structure will look like, and—arguably the best part of decentralization—it does not have to look the same everywhere. Both major parties, and people of all ideological persuasions, will probably have to give up some preferred victory or vanquishing of the “other side.” Many Democrats would love to prevent all abortion laws in the state of Georgia for the rest of time. Some Republicans would love to lock down California’s southern border with an airtight seal. A new era of decentralization means that neither of these things can be accomplished by federal imposition, and their proponents are not going to be happy about that. The task ahead is to demonstrate that whatever the sacrifices required to achieve more localized decision-making might be, centralization is too dangerous to continue.