Exit, Voice, and Loyalty Revisited (or: So Much for Federalism, Part 3)
I am tempted to say that Attorney General William Barr’s tagging of Seattle, Portland, and New York as “anarchist jurisdictions” was a tipping point for me. Except: that point had tipped some time ago. Still, it is yet another sign that the experimental federalism behind the US Constitution has given up the ghost.
I visited NYC for the first time in six months last weekend. Parts of it — Times Square and the theater district — were empty, more like something out of the Twilight Zone than an anarchist free-for-all — and others — Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum — were as ordinary as imaginable, except for the masks. Calling NYC “anarchist” is nothing more than political vindictiveness against a place that knows Trump for what he is, and all too well. And it is more than a little hypocritical given Trump’s calls for violence to his base, and his plea for armed goons to “liberate Michigan”. But by now it’s apparent that Trump and his administration do not see themselves as an executive branch for the nation as a whole, any more than Congress sees itself as legislating for anyone but their donors. So much for Federalism, again.
The “deal” with Federalism is: the States have their bailiwick, and the Federal government its own, but the States can count on the Feds to fulfill its part of the contract and treat States and their citizens evenhandedly. So… Federalism, on any plausible interpretation, is dead. Full stop.
I keep thinking of the economic historian Albert O. Hirschman’s classic book Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. Hirschman tried to generalize the ways in which actors involved in all sorts of institutions — governments, states, businesses, markets, churches, etc. — can deal with situations where the institutions fail to address the needs and legitimate expectations of those who participate in them. “Exit” is one option: leave your employer, find another brand, join another party, emigrate. “Voice” is another: try to change that institution from within by making noises and being heard. To the extent that “voice” does not get heard, “exit” becomes a more attractive option, the only mitigating factor being “loyalty” to the institution. But loyalty is not limitless. Striking some kind of practical balance between exit, voice, and loyalty constitutes the dynamics of institutional change, preservation, and collapse.
I do not like to draw this conclusion, but the grounds for loyalty to the federation called the USA are disintegrating by the day — certainly for those locales that the Trump administration is hell-bent on punishing. If voice continues to fail, and loyalty gets one nowhere, exit becomes the sole reasonable option. Unless you are a one-percenter, the Federal government is not just useless: it is actively harmful, especially to your health with 200,000 dead from COVID, and no national policy given Jared-the-ghoul’s religious devotion to the free market. We are literally on our own now.
Many of those on the Left dismiss this conclusion as a form of Liberal-Centrist insularity: one does not get what one wants, politically, so one excoriates the red-states whose fealty Trump nurtures, in return for acknowledging their submission as sub-fiefdoms. And what this quickness to embrace exit shows is a snobbish disdain for all those trapped in red-states (which are, like all states, actually varying shades of purple) who suffer mightily at the hands of their Trump-cowed masters — the poor, minorities, the immigrants, the outsiders.
There is more than a little justice to these charges. But what is at issue between “anarchist jurisdictions” and the red-state oppressors of the proletariat is not just terrible policy but democratic reality. The Republican party is “republican” in name only; it is not loyal to liberal-democratic-republican ideals and principles, but is a Schmittian cult of power, enthralled by politics as a war between one’s friends and “the enemy.” Those in states and localities that have been identified by Trump and Barr as “enemies within” face an additional problem to those understood to be “friendly territory” but which also suffer from the regime’s policies. The “anarchist jurisdictions” are also being deliberately marginalized from the democratic process. Exit is never easy, and always the last resort. But if one’s voice is stifled, and one’s loyalty is put under unbearable stress, what resort remains?
We are indeed on our own.
Whether “we” encompasses the States, or a smaller political unit, or the citizenry en masse, will be determined in the next few months. Exit is never an attractive option, but, in a sense, it seems like it’s being forced on us, and the form it will take is that of Yeats’s “rough beast, slouching toward Bethlehem, to be born.” Whatever ensues, it will not be pleasant.
Joe Biden better be prepared to recognize this: it is either rebirth or endgame for the USA.