Monday, May 21 , 2018, 7:31 pm | Fair 64º


Tam Hunt: The Midterm Elections and the Silver Linings Political Playbook

The Democrats got crushed in the midterm election. Everyone acknowledges that. Why they got crushed is more debatable, but I’m not going to debate that here. What I am going to discuss is how we can transcend the politics of the moment and look to the longer-term politics and policy that can actually help us to improve as a country.

I’m a long-time liberal Democrat but I am a “left libertarian,” more specifically, and my libertarian side has been growing in recent years. So I’m an uncomfortable Democrat.

I agree with conservatives that government should be as small as possible (though the “as possible” part is highly debatable), and I fully agree that matters that can be decided at the state level without harm to other states should be handled at the state level or lower. This makes me a states’ rights left libertarian who has generally voted Democrat.

Yes, I’m a bit weird. But I feel like I’m not that weird given the long-term trends we’re seeing among people my age and younger people coming into their political consciousness now. Most younger people nowadays are socially quite liberal (me, too). Most younger people are pro-technology and efficiency (me, too). Most younger people dislike party politics (me, too). Most younger people have a high concern for the environment (me, too).

A recent trend uniting left and right is a renewed realization that indeed all politics is local, so why not work actively to devolve policy topics that should be handled at the state or lower level? The goal should be a better balance between federal and local power, and the timing now is good for this discussion.

This is where I see the Democratic drubbing in Congress as a silver lining. On balance, I would far rather see Democrats control Congress than Republicans because I’m more aligned on more issues with Democrats than with Republicans. But there are some issues where I agree with Republicans, and this includes a weaker federal government and devolution of power to states and lower levels of government.

The one thing we can be sure of over the next two years is that not much will get done at the federal level. The Republican Congress will send a ton of bills to the White House and President Barack Obama will veto the vast majority of them. The next two years will largely be about positioning of each party’s candidate for president in 2016. What fun.

Obama has vowed that he will take executive action independent of Congress on some issues, like immigration. But incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., already has warned Obama not to “poison the well” by using executive action, so we’ll see how that unfolds.

If gridlock will be the reliable pattern for the next two years, what are we to do in the meantime? Here’s the silver lining: states, counties and cities can step up in a big way now and start enacting their own policies without relying on the sprawling federal government to do things that should be done at the local level. What does this mean? Well, here are a few ideas.

End Drug Prohibition

One of the more encouraging outcomes of the midterm election for libertarians like me was the success of recreational marijuana ballot measures in Alaska, Oregon and Washington, D.C. The fact that pot use is illegal in most states and under federal law is a strange anachronism of racist-tinged policymaking. We should expect a ton of additional states in the next couple of years to also legalize recreational marijuana.

This has impacts far beyond pot smokers and their rights. It goes to the heart of the debate about the power of government and our ability to make our own decisions. Why the hell does the government have any right to tell me that I can’t smoke a naturally occurring plant? There is certainly a reasonable government role in regulating some harmful substances, but the long history of drug prohibition shows that U.S. efforts to limit the harm from using certain drugs generally just backfires and causes more problems.

Expand Marriage Equality

The marriage equality war is almost won, but we’ve still got a ways to go. Thirty-two states now allow gay marriage and this shift occurred mostly in just the last few years. The only states that don’t allow gay marriage are in the South and Midwest. It seems likely that by 2020 all or almost all states will allow gay marriage, and the next couple of years could be a good time for advocates in the remaining states to work hard on this issue.

Again, marriage equality is about far more than being able to love who you want regardless of gender, and being able to be recognized legally in doing so — it’s also about the appropriate role of the federal government vis-à-vis states’ rights. Marriage equality seems to me to be a great example of an area in which the federal government should have no role. It should be the business of each state alone as to whether gay marriage is allowed.

This is a complex debate but my feeling is that on social issues like gay marriage, abortion, etc., federal constitutional issues shouldn’t be implicated. An appropriate federal government should be involved only in areas that can’t reasonably be handled by each state alone. I don’t see gay marriage, abortion, gun control, etc., inviting a federal role. (Many traditional liberals will disagree with this distinction but that’s part of what it means to be a left libertarian).

Expand Cost-Effective Renewable Energy Mandates

Twenty-nine states and Washington, D.C., have some type of renewable energy mandate. Many of these mandates require only cost-effective renewables to be procured, which means that there can be no net cost. The remarkable feature of today’s renewable energy market is that wind power, solar power, biomass and geothermal can often be cheaper than the fossil-fuel alternatives of natural gas and coal. The study linked to found that solar energy, for example, has declined in cost 80 percent over the last five years alone.

So if clean renewable energy can be had at costs equivalent or lower than the fossil-fuel status quo, why wouldn’t states require utilities to do so? I’ve argued for some time now that states should enact robust and cost-effective feed-in tariffs, which allow anyone to sell power to the grid at a set price under a long-term contract, as the best procurement mechanism.

I don’t oppose a federal role in this area, as I do for social issues like marriage equality or abortion, because the impacts from, for example, one state’s decision to rely on coal for most of its power leads to significant air pollution in neighboring states. So on environmental issues that can “leak” into other states there is a good reason for federal involvement. But states can and should do a lot on their own, and most federal environmental and energy laws leave much discretion to states.

Expand Direct Democracy

Perhaps the most exciting long-term issue concerns the big picture of how we govern ourselves. The Internet, along with its many other marvels, can now be a very powerful tool for expanding direct democracy. Ultimately, we could “disintermediate” politics by getting rid of politicians entirely. People are famously averse to politicians, generally because politicians as a group generally lack authenticity. The job seems to almost require inauthenticity and this is inherently unattractive to most people.

So why not get rid of politicians entirely? Well, the Internet and expanded direct democracy could eventually allow this major change in how we govern ourselves.

Just as getting rid of the middlemen makes many businesses today more efficient and a better deal for consumers, we can make government more efficient, more transparent, more responsive, less corrupt, and maybe even more fun, by allowing direct voting on a far larger number of issues than is currently the case in most states.

Voter turnout was at record lows this year, apparently because many young and minority voters didn’t feel strongly enough about the issues to get out and vote. And many now argue that they feel their vote doesn’t matter because nothing really changes when different parties take power.

Well, through expanded direct democracy and disintermediation of government decision-making we, the people, can make whatever changes we want to make.

The United States is unfortunately behind on this issue, for a variety of reasons. But we can and should take best practices in this area from around the world and let crowdsourcing work its magic in government as it already has in business and academia.

There are many other areas that are ripe for more robust state-level attention, including campaign finance reform, transportation policy, minimum wage laws, etc., but the above list would be a great start toward a better balance between federal and local control.

— Tam Hunt is a Santa Barbara lawyer and writer. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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