Seeing Red, Blue States May Want to Think Local

It’s national navel gazing time, and the chattering class is trying to divine what George W. Bush’s victory means.

The spinning and counterspinning is dizzying, and the national unity both Bush and John Kerry called for seems increasingly out of reach.

Several commentators claimed that in this election, as author and lifelong Democrat Ben Wattenberg (search) once put it in a book title, “Values Matter Most”. Over 20 percent of ballot punchers cited “moral values” as their primary concern in selecting a president. Former Secretary of Education Bill Bennett announced in National Review that “ethics and moral values were ascendant” on election night.

The president’s critics seized on this factoid to claim that fears of a Godless pledge of allegiance, gay marriage and abortion rights were the values that motivated Bush supporters. Best-selling novelist Jane Smiley (search), writing in Slate magazine, blamed Kerry’s loss on the “unteachable ignorance of the red states.” Gary Wills, another best-selling writer, fretted in the New York Times that this values vote meant the United States was no longer an “enlightened” country.

But before that conventional wisdom congealed, efforts to debunk it emerged. Yes, values were important, but not all important. The Washington Post’s respected columnist E.J. Dionne (search), a Bush critic, admitted that “moderates, not moralists” won the election for Bush. “John Kerry was not defeated by the religious right,” he said. In the New York Times, David Brooks (search) harpooned the “values-vote myth” and cited Pew Research Center (search) election data to bolster his case. It wasn’t haters in the heartland that put Bush over the top, Dionne, Brooks, and others said. Instead, Bush helped voters feel safer in the post 9/11 world and was rewarded for that.

Who knows, next week there might be a new conventional wisdom. Economists reported strong jobs numbers right after the election, with 337,000 jobs added to U.S. payrolls in October. Maybe, a la Bill Clinton in 1992, it was “the economy, stupid” that gave Bush a second term.

Whatever the reason for Kerry’s loss, you can’t blame Bush critics from feeling particularly bitter. They had a strong, smart, experienced candidate to back. They were extremely energized and had tons of cash. If they couldn’t beat Bush playing that hand, it’s possible they could never beat him. And so even though John Kerry called for uniting the country in his concession speech, and even though George Bush professed his wish to do the same, unity is going to be difficult in a nation that just doesn’t seem to want it.

But is that such a bad thing? Maybe not. In a democracy, where 50 percent plus 1 takes home all the political marbles, there are bound to be people who strongly dislike political outcomes. In a nation as large as the United States, that means millions and millions of people won’t like the outcome.

There is a way around the disunity problem and it’s a solution the nation’s Founders devised. It’s called federalism (search) — devolving political decision-making as close to voters as possible, to the states and local municipalities. It’s an old idea, but one that might be rejuvenated in the wake of this election.

Consider the big blue state, California. A majority of California voters favored John Kerry in this election and Al Gore in the last election. So are Californians condemned to suffer in Bush’s red America?

Not exactly. Consider the issue of embryonic stem cell research (search). President Bush is against federal support for the creation of new embryonic stem cell lines. The president’s position was attacked by Senator Kerry in the campaign. California voters, favoring Kerry’s position, worked around Bush’s ban on federal funding — by funding it themselves! Voters supported ponying up $3 billion for embryonic stem cell research.

During the 20th century, political liberals have generally opposed federalism and devolution, preferring Washington and the federal judiciary to impose liberal policies on the entire country, from abortion rights to environmental policy to gun control laws. That’s fine for them when liberals are in power. But what about when conservatives become firmly entrenched?

George Mason University economist Don Boudreaux put it this way recently: “Uncle Sam is more and more influenced by red-state values — now that both houses of Congress have been in GOP hands for 10 years, and now that the GOP is ascending throughout the nation… centralization of power surely must seem less appealing to modern liberals.”

He’s right. Under current political circumstances, expect federalism to start looking good again. The Founders would be pleased.

Nick Schulz is the former Politics Editor of and currently edits, a science, economics and politics website.