Officially, a big part of the federal government shut down late last month. In important ways, however, America’s government went AWOL almost two years earlier, when Donald Trump was inaugurated.
After all, politicians supposedly seek office in order to get stuff done — to tackle real problems and implement solutions. But neither Trump, who spends his energy inventing crises at the border, nor the Republicans who controlled Congress for two years have done any of that. Their only major legislative achievement was a tax cut that blew up the deficit without, as far as anyone can tell, doing anything to enhance the economy’s long-run growth prospects.
Meanwhile, there has been no hint of the infrastructure plan Trump promised to deliver. And after many years of denouncing Obamacare and promising to provide a far better replacement, Republicans turned out to have no idea how to do that, and in particular no plan to protect Americans with pre-existing conditions.
Why can’t Republicans govern? It’s not just that their party is committed to an ideology that says that government is always the problem, never the solution. Beyond that, they have systematically deprived themselves of the ability to analyze policies and learn from evidence, because hard thinking might lead someone to question received doctrine.
And Republicans still control the Senate and the White House. So even when (if?) the shutdown ends, it will be at least two years before we have a government in Washington that’s actually capable of, or even interested in, governing.
But not everything is on hold. For America has a federal system, and the 2018 elections set the stage for a wave of actual governance — of real efforts to solve real problems — at the state and local levels.
Until recently Republicans had a virtual lock on state government. Almost half the population lived in states with Republican “trifectas,” that is, G.O.P. control of both houses plus the governorship. Democrats had comparable control in California, and pretty much nowhere else.
But elections since then have transformed the picture. New Jersey and Washington went full Democratic in 2017, and six more states, including Illinois and New York, flipped in November. At this point more than a third of Americans live under full Democratic control, not far short of the Republican total.
These newly empowered majorities are moving quickly to start governing again. And the experience of states that already had Democratic trifectas suggests that they may achieve a lot.
Consider the experience of California, where Democrats took full control in 2011. Conservatives lambasted Jerry Brown’s increases in taxes, spending and the minimum wage, declaring that the state was committing “economic suicide.” In reality, the economy boomed, while California’s enthusiastic implementation of health reform brought the uninsured share of the population down from 18 percent in 2011 to just 7 percent in 2017 — almost twice the reduction in the U.S. as a whole.
Or consider New Jersey, where Democrats took control last year and used that control to implement a series of measures — including reimposing the requirement that individuals buy health insurance — that reversed many of the Trump administration’s efforts at health care sabotage. The result was a sharp drop in insurance premiums, which are now among the lowest in the nation.
Now that Democratic control has expanded, we can expect to see more of this kind of activism.
Gavin Newsom, California’s new governor, has proposed further action on health care, including a New Jersey-style state-level mandate and expanded subsidies for the middle class. Washington’s governor is proposing creation of a public option, a state insurance plan residents can buy into. And New York City’s mayor is proposing measures that would, he says, guarantee coverage for all New Yorkers, including undocumented immigrants.
And health care isn’t the only front for new action. For example, Newsom is also proposing major new spending on education and housing affordability. The latter is very important: Soaring housing costs are the biggest flaw in California’s otherwise impressive success story.
Now, let’s be clear: Not all of the new Democratic policy proposals will actually be implemented, and not all of those that do go into effect will live up to expectations. There’s no such thing as perfection, in policy or in life, and leaders who never experience failures or setbacks aren’t taking enough risks.
The point, however, is that newly empowered state and local politicians do seem willing to take risks and try new things in an effort to make progress against the nation’s problems.
And that’s a very hopeful sign for America, because their example may prove contagious.
Justice Louis Brandeis famously described the states as the laboratories of democracy; right now they’re the places where we’re seeing what it looks like when elected officials try to do what they were elected to do, and actually govern. If we’re lucky, two years from now that attitude may re-establish itself in the nation’s capital.
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Paul Krugman has been an Opinion columnist since 2000 and is also a Distinguished Professor at the City University of New York Graduate Center. He won the 2008 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his work on international trade and economic geography. @PaulKrugman
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