The US Election and Ongoing State Formation
The US election has shocked outsiders, especially those who live in stable, Western European democracies like Germany and France. Looking at the US election from Western Europeans’ point of view, they see a transatlantic failure of the left and the rise of right wing populism flanking them from Turkey, Hungary, and Poland on one side and Donald Trump’s recent win on the other side of the Atlantic, not to mention Brexit and Italy’s looming referendum. As much as Americans have also understood this election result as the failure of the democratic party to reach working class voters, especially because the party has done little to challenge the orthodoxy of neoliberal economics and so-called free trade, there are other dynamics at play. What is at stake here is the ongoing formation of a spatial order, which is often poorly understood from a European perspective, although the problematic might shed light on discussions of multilevel governance in the European Union and the discussions about the future of Europe. Looking at the history of the two-party system, the basis of this system lies in the rather weak nature of the coalition of semi-independent states that make up the United States in comparison to other Western European countries, even federalist states like Germany. While in Germany, voters are aware of where decisions are made, this spatial organization and logic as such is not called into question during elections.
In contrast, altering the territorial formation of the US is on the ballot in every election. It is not only a question of do we want mandatory and paid parental leave, but do we want the federal government to mandate it? Republican-run states could, in theory, implement such a policy at the state level while remaining against such a policy on a national scale. For example, the 12-week parental leave granted in California has not been undone under a Republican governor’s control, and Mitt Romney is well-known for having implemented a state-wide healthcare system in Massachusetts while opposing “Obama Care”, which resembled Romney’s state-led design, on a national scale. It is not only a question of what kind of policies each party stands for – often construed on the basis of a political left and right – but on which administrative level these policies should be decided.
The various political parties that have constituted US history have largely been dominated by a variety of different debates about the administrative level on which laws and policies should be based. This is also closely associated with the history of racism and other forms of discrimination in the US. This loose federalism allowed landowners in Southern states to continue holding slaves without dismantling slavery on a federal level until the American Civil War (1861–1865). It later allowed Southern states the ability to segregate African Americans and to deny them the right to vote until the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The fight has constantly been dominated by two parties (sometimes a third), one of which is in favor of a “closer union”, while the other fights to maintain “states’ rights”, and the possible discriminatory practices associated with those rights.
To complicate matters further, while historians try to understand the US and its continued expansion as an imperial formation, these questions indeed play out in the last few elections in votes in Puerto Rico and in Washington DC to be granted the right to be US states, neither of which has yet been approved by congress. This is important for their political representation because of the especially undue influence the US Senate gives to small states with low population levels. As a post-election New York Times commentary notes, while 62.7 per cent of the US population lives in urban places, these major cities constitute only 3.5 per cent of the US land area, which is equally represented relatively in the US Senate and is weighted heavily in the Electoral College system, the system that elects the president. On top of that, primary election candidate selection allows rural, low-populated states to vote first, giving them more influence in initial candidate selection. As much as we can talk about “global cities” and “state rescaling”, at the level of the US national election, this rescaling in other policy areas has not resulted in giving more political weight to urban centers where most Americans actually live and where all major government and cultural institutions are located.
Of course, none of these words are comforting in the quickly approaching Trump era. However, it is important to keep in mind that the formation of the US is an ongoing and constant project that has remained flexible for exactly this reason. States like California will try to implement more policies on the state-level, just as many “Red states” did under the Obama presidency. And in two years, Americans will again have the chance to alter or reconfirm this political mandate in the House of Representatives and the Senate. They will also be deciding, as in every election, not only which policy areas are important to them but on which administrative scale these policies should be decided.
Image source: Personal (2 January 2017)