Smoke in the Kitchen? Call Up the Army?


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Photo by Somchai Kongkamsri on

Our multi-level system of government is complicated—with townships, villages, school boards, cities, counties, regional planning agencies, states, and the federal government. Above that level, there is a semi-organized system of international treaties and organizations to handle problems that are too big for any one nation–like the Law of the Sea.

Each level has its role and the system usually works to deliver what we need, where and when we need it. We expect the federal government to maintain an army that protects us from foreign invasion. But we call the local fire department when we smell smoke in the kitchen. We know the guys in the fire department would not be much use repelling an enemy invasion, no matter how many hunting rifles they could muster, and the army is not going to put out our kitchen fire. There is a practical role for each of these levels of government.

Sometimes, it goes wrong. The individual rights of African-Americans were systematically denied for a century in the name of “states’ rights,” so the federal government had to step in as the guarantor of every American’s civil rights. On the other hand, many believed the federal government overstepped its role in trying to reform local school systems with the Bush Administration’s No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 and it was subsequently repealed and replaced.

The heritage we leave for the next generation of Americans and their life chances partly depend on us making the right decisions about which jobs we assign to each level of government. I thought two recent articles from the Progressive Policy Institute did a good job exploring that issue.

The most topical is Democratic candidates should talk flexible federalism by Dane Stangler. He writes that the 23 Democratic candidates for president are mainly proposing massive new federal programs at a time when most Americans distrust the federal government and it is hamstrung in starting new programs by partisan deadlock and huge budget deficits. Furthermore, many of the initiatives they are discussing like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal could better be handled in cooperation with state or municipal governments rather than a “one size fits all” national program. Overlooking the contribution that state and city governments can make is puzzling because 15 of the 23 candidates have experience at those levels. It is a thought-provoking article.

A more general article on the problem of putting government functions at the proper level is Going Local: Progressive Federalism in the 21st Century by Will Marshall. This article puts our division of governmental responsibilities in an historical context from the 19thto the 21stcenturies and includes five reasons why today’s progressives should  focus less on the federal level of government and more on the state and local levels.

The Progressive Policy Institute is one of my favorite think tanks because they are not tied to either the left or right wings of our politics. It came out of the New Democrat movement in the 1990s with a free enterprise and pro social mobility orientation. They look at each issue in a logical way that, in their words, is “radically pragmatic.” The articles are both a quick read and it is worth poking around in their website to see some of their other unconventional policy ideas.


What Will Our Grandchildren Wish We Had Done to Change Our Toxic Politics?

How is our generation doing at managing the democracy we inherited? Every year Pew Research, Gallup and others ask representative samples of Americans: “Do you trust the government in Washington to do the right thing.” The percentage answering “always” or “most of the time” sank to 17% in recent years from a high approaching 80% in the late 1950s. Who can blame us for being skeptical? We have–

  • No comprehensive immigration reform.
  • A federal debt that continues to swell.
  • The projected bankruptcy of Social Security and Medicare trust funds during most of our lifetimes.
  • Crumbling infrastructure.
  • Four decades of growing income inequality.
  • Persisting ethnic, racial and gender disparities in opportunities.
  • Climate change and the accelerating cost of natural disasters.
  • The ineffective and hugely expensive war on drugs, drug abuse, and opioid deaths.

Who would not agree the federal government should address at least some of these problems—and the sooner the better? Yet they remain unresolved decade after decade.

Ideally, democracy is the way we solve big problems that cannot be handled by the private sector, but the founders of our American Republic, fearful of a government that trampled on people’s rights, purposely made it hard to get big things done without a broad consensus. The founders succeeded in their goal of making it difficult and these days only 3% of the bills introduced in each session of Congress are enacted into law. Many that pass concern trivial matters like the naming of post offices rather than addressing the problems and trends that could seriously affect our children’s future.

It is easy to obstruct bills on the important matters. Committee chairs can refuse to hold hearings, majority party leaders can refuse to let a bill come up for a vote, 41% of Senators can block a vote through the filibuster, party leaders can penalize members of Congress who work with members from the other party, and the President can veto. With all these obstruction points, large majorities can agree that “something must be done” about a looming problem, and yet nothing happens. The only way a system this complicated can function is for people to work together despite political differences.

In the rare times when members of the same party occupy all the obstruction points and have a similar attitude towards an issue, a bill can be enacted without bipartisan cooperation—as happened with the Democrats’ Affordable Care Act and the Republicans’ Tax Cut of 2017. The majority party can brag about getting a big problem solved, but these are temporary victories. Because members of the other party have no stake in the legislation, they begin chipping away at it as soon as they are in the majority.

Bipartisan cooperation is the only way we can address America’s biggest issues under our Constitutional system, but many forces are working against it. We live in an era of negative campaigning when candidates create fear of the other party and deny them credit for their accomplishments. In many cases, special interests have captured elected officials and prevent them from working with members of the opposite party. Members of Congress who do work with the other party are often denied appointments to their preferred committees and may be “primaried” by their own party. Wealthy donors and Super PACs can launch advertising campaigns against candidates that are too bipartisan in their approach. Leaders of parties discourage their members from developing personal relationships with members of the other party, the type of relationships that are helpful in the give and take of legislation. Partisan voters are often caught up in information “echo chambers” that turn them against the idea of compromise with the other party.

Taking a long view that considers the future of our children would challenge all these forces by assuming:

  • Many social and economic problems have the potential to grow and seriously disrupt the lives of our children in the future.
  • Many social and economic problems will not solve themselves without the help of government problem solving and bipartisan compromise.[1]
  • The value of passing on an effective democratic system of government to our kids is more important than the result of any one election or legislative battle.
  • For our system to function, our two political parties must cooperate as well as compete.

Cooperation along with competition may seem strange, but we see it all the time. Baseball teams compete to win a pennant, but also cooperate to make baseball fun and fair so fans keep coming. Businesses compete for customers, but cooperate in trade organizations to strengthen their industry. What would cooperation with competition mean for politics? I believe it would mean:

  • Political parties working together to protect the integrity and perceived fairness of elections.
  • Candidates competing on ideas, values, and record rather than scaring voters about the intentions of the other party.
  • Voters getting out of their echo chambers and electing candidates with proven competence at reaching across the aisle to solve problems.
  • Leaders of parties actively encouraging their members to build relationships with members of the other party in search of bipartisan solutions.
  • Congress considering bills under its “regular order” of committee hearings so both parties can participate in their development.
  • Legislators fashioning bipartisan agreements on big issues, in which both sides can claim a part of the victory.

Could it happen? Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton both came to Washington by appealing to values and with big ideas about how to address the nation’s problems. Both worked to build bipartisan majorities to get their ideas passed. Neither was afraid of compromise if it moved the nation’s business forward and both got Congress to enact most of their agenda for the nation. They achieved this record with Congresses controlled by the other party. The fact that it happened within our constitutional system proves it can happen. If our children and grandchildren look back on the present day from the vantage point of 2040 or 2050, what will they wish we had done to repair our toxic politics?


“The 2018 Long-Term Budget Outlook.” Washington, DC: Congressional Budget Office, 2018.

Cannon, Lou. “Ronald Reagan: Campaigns and Elections.” Miller Center.

Desilver, Drew. “For Most U.S. Workers, Real Wages Have Barely Budged in Decades.” Pew Research Center,

“Fourth National Climate Assessment.” Washington, DC, 2018.

From, Al, and Alice McKeon. The New Democrats and the Return to Power.  New York: Palgrave, 2013.

Hetherington, Marc J., and Thomas J. Rudolph. Why Washington Won’t Work: Polarization, Political Trust, and the Governing Crisis. United States: University of Chicago Press, 2015.

“Infrastructure Report Card.” Reston, VA: American Society of Civil Engineers, 2017.

McCarthy, Justin. “Immigration up Sharply as Most Important U.S. Problem.” Gallup,

Noël, Reginald A. . “Race, Economics, and Social Status.” Bureau of Labor Statistics,

Pearl, Betsy. “Ending the War on Drugs: By the Numbers.” Center for American Progress,

Wike, Richard, Katie Simmons, Bruce Stokes, and Janell Fetterolf. “Globally, Broad Support for Representative and Direct Democracy.” Pew Research Center,

[1]Of course, many minor problems and some major problems will solve themselves without government intervention. If we have good evidence that a major problem is growing and will have a negative impact on our children and grandchildren, the burden of proof that a problem will solve itself should be on those who advocate doing nothing.