By Michael Tessler
With a Congress that fails to do its job, a Supreme Court that has become increasingly politicized and a president who can only pursue his legislative agenda by bypassing the legislature, we have effectively compromised our federal government. “Checks and balances” have been replaced with bounced checks and a political game of seesaw — one wherein achieving compromise is near impossible. Lobbyists have procured tremendous power as the American people have all but ignored the huge significance of local and state elections.
So let’s break down some numbers. Back in 2014 voter turnout in New York was only 28.8 percent. We were not just electing a governor but also filling all 27 of our congressional seats. That same year, roughly 6,730 miles away the Afghan government held its election. People risked their lives going to the polls. Throughout their nation the Taliban led attacks on polling stations. Voters ran the risk of having their finger removed if they were found by the Taliban and identified as a voter. So what was their turnout? 58 percent. That’s right folks. In a nation where you could literally be dismembered for voting, they achieved a turnout rate 29.2 percent greater than our own here in New York. So what’s our excuse? Fear of parking tickets? We can do better.
This issue isn’t just isolated to New York. All across the nation we ignore the importance of our local and state government. Why? It’s extremely boring. You don’t see Martin Sheen or Kevin Spacey going around accepting acting roles as a county treasurer or state assemblyman. Media has romanticized the presidency. We’ve made it our central focus to the point where all other offices fall to the wayside.
To understand the significance of state government, look no further than the collapse of every major world superpower from the Egyptians to the Romans, to the Ottomans, to the Soviets. What makes us different isn’t the fact that we have a democracy: 123 countries have democracy. What makes us different is our unique system of federalism. Now I know what you’re thinking. “This is the most boring thing I’ve ever read. Please make it stop.” No, I can’t. It’s just too important.
So I’m sure somewhere deep in your subconscious you’re asking yourself, “If federalism is so great, why doesn’t everybody use it?” That’s a great question. Just look to our friends in the European Union. They’re attempting what I call reverse federalism. They’re struggling to achieve the unity that our system has had for over 200 years.
Our founders were brilliant in that they had the foresight to create a centralized government to unify us financially, militarily and culturally. Europe has had literally thousands of years of internal strife that makes genuine friendship difficult for many of its member states (e.g., thanks a lot, Germany). Just imagine how difficult the job of our government would be if suddenly California decided it wanted to opt-out of the dollar in exchange for its own currency.
Europe, try as they may, will likely be unable to recreate what we have here. Our union was forged during our revolution and with each conflict that followed (with the uncomfortable exception of the Civil War).
Federalism ensures the survival of this great American experiment because the likelihood of 50 self-sufficient states collapsing simultaneously is slim to none. We have to remind our politicians that our power does not come from the top but from the bottom. If our federal government fails in the task of governing, their gridlock should not deter the whole union. Unfortunately, there is yet a political party that has seriously adopted this policy in the 21st century.
We don’t need big government or small government. We need smart government. For example, in terms of health care, one size doesn’t fit all. The health care needs of New Yorkers will be different than the health care needs of Floridians (well actually most Floridians are New Yorkers so this might not be the best example, but you get my point). We shouldn’t pretend each state is the same. Nor should we pretend that the federal government can pass a budget let alone manage a national health care system (e.g., the genius who built HealthCare.gov). Surely, the best hope for America is one that has been there all along. So this election vote not from the top down but from the bottom up.
Trump Notes: Civility cannot exist when Americans confuse bigotry with bluntness. We aren’t perceived as weak because our military isn’t big enough. We’re perceived as weak because we’ve allowed our sacred institution of democracy to become a warm-up act for the Kardashians. This vitriol incites violence. Now more than ever we need national conversations, not national disagreements.
In brighter news: I’m a Jew who gave up pizza for lent. If that doesn’t make America great, I’m not sure what will. Looking forward to writing more. Share your thoughts with me at MJT[at]TBRNewspapers[dot]com.
Michael Tessler is the Special Projects Manager for TBR News Media, a founder and former political consultant for the Continuum Group firm, and the former President of the International Youth Congress.