Jerry Brown… Trump’s Biggest Opponent
Compromise sometimes seems next to impossible in today’s political climate. Increased teamsmanship makes gridlock seem inevitable. So, how can a political actor resist policies when the government is dominated by the opposing party?
In June, President Trump announced that he would be withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord, a document that pledges to lower greenhouse gas emissions and limit global warming to within two degrees Celsius. The United States and Syria were the only two holdouts opposed to the agreement, but as of last week that changed when Syria got on board. California governor Jerry Brown attended that Bonn Climate summit in Germany to voice his concerns about climate change, specifically under the Trump administration. He has been vocal about opposing Trump’s stance on climate change and proposal to defund NASA’s climate change research by even going so far to state, “if Trump turns off the satellites, California will launch its own damn satellites.”
By using federalism to his advantage, Brown can combat, or at least slow down, policies that he disagrees with. Professor Heather Gerken wrote an article for Vox that outlines methods that Brown can use. California’s economy is larger than Brazil’s or France’s. Therefore by regulating and setting their own statewide standards, companies that want access to that economy will accommodate California law. She writes that California sets national emissions standards, not the EPA. Through the use of this tactic California “can be a source of progressive resistance — against President’s Trump’s policies, for example — and, far more importantly, a source for compromise and change between the left and the right.” Democrats can withstand Trump by forcing his administration to compromise. If Brown wants real change, he must mobilize as many political actors that he can (on both sides) to join his fight because in federalist systems, there is power in numbers. Professor Gerken also proposes using federalism to “control over state and local governments to influence the national agenda, shape policy results, and encourage political compromise.”
But, is this a productive measure to prevent democratic backsliding, or a hinderance by creating more barriers and gridlock to actual progress? Brown has pushed other states to join his cause, and sometimes acts more like the leader of an independent country than a governor. In fact, he already has an alliance of 14 states and the island of Puerto Rico, agreeing to live up to the promises of the Pairs accord. He continued to pursue his federalist pressure from outside of the United States by broadening a non-binding pact that combats rising temperatures with 200 subnational governments in the German state of Baden-Württemberg. This divide can obviously lead to problems within the democratic system; we don’t have two presidents for a reason. As other blog posts have stated, the United States is at risk to be exposed to backsliding if no one tries to combat potentially detrimental policies. Federalism is a logical solution to make that opposition heard.
I think your post nods to an interesting dilemma between combatting “potentially detrimental policies” and undermining the power of the elected executive. But most policy issues are not objectively anti- or pro-democratic (with the exception of policies that have direct impacts on democratic institutions, like expanding term limits would). Thus, it is difficult to make the claim that lawfully passed legislation by democratically elected representatives would be detrimental to democracy without revealing some partisan bias. The leaked draft of Trump’s “Establishing a Government-Wide Initiative to Respect Religious Freedom” executive order provides just one example. While liberals and Democrats might be expected to express outrage over the anti-democratic nature of legalizing LGBTQ discrimination, conservatives and Republicans might laud it as a defense of the first amendment right of religious freedom.
“Uncooperative federalism,” as Gerken calls it, is especially problematic because it occurs in the implementation step, implying the policy underwent the legislative process and was confirmed democratically. How can local obstructionism then not be anti-democratic? Ultimately, I believe it is not so, but that it comes with some stipulations. Gerken mentions, for one, that it has the effect of forcing issues onto the national agenda that Republicans would prefer to altogether avoid. If uncooperative federalism indeed thwarts majoritarian barreling and brings new policy issues to the public sphere, it serves to promote democracy. Similarly, if the policy it seeks to undermine jeopardizes the rule of law, the same holds. I think even if the constituencies served by the politicians oppose the legislation, it is a manipulative and stealthy use of federalism, but legal and democratic nonetheless. Essentially, the characterization of uncooperative federalism as anti- or pro-democratic is dependent on the fundamental subversion of democratic principles by the policy it itself undermines.