What were the original assumptions in the Constitution about state-level loyalty versus national government loyalty?
It's a good question. The Constitution is now far enough back in our collective memories that I think it's really valuable to start by having some sense of what the U.S. was like at the time. There were some scholars who argued that the Constitution is well understood as a peace treaty between sovereign states about how they were going to govern their affairs.
In 1776 and even in 1787, when the Constitution was drafted, the U.S. was a collection of 13 quite different colonies. It took the Georgia delegation six weeks to travel to Philadelphia in order to participate in the Constitutional Convention. Different colonies had very different economies and different religious heritages. This was a quite diverse country and, thus, the Constitution was designed to protect substantial levels of state-level autonomy. I think it is really important to recognize that at the time, many of the people thought of themselves as Americans, but also to a certain extent, as New Yorkers or Virginians or Pennsylvanians.
When do you start to see a shift towards politics in the U.S. becoming more nationalized?
To some degree, it's an ongoing process that has unfolded in fits and starts over our 200-plus year history. I do think that the Civil War is a critical turning point. In the run-up to the Civil War, you see many more implications of state-level identities. I'm a Georgian, I'm a Virginian. And obviously, the Civil War pitted state against state.
It's generally been the case that the Republican party has been more likely to invoke federalism. Of course, the exemplary issue is the issue of civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s. Even in more recent times, the Republican party has advocated for there being less of a role in the federal government asserting itself to protect the rights of African-Americans, especially, but not only in the South. I think it's fair to say that if you've heard a state rights argument in the last 50 years, it's more likely to be coming from the Republican party.
There's also an element in which as power shifts, we see changes. When the Republicans control the federal office, sometimes it's Democrats who say, "Hey, it's important to let California write its own laws with respect to clean energy or car emissions standards." At the same time, the extent to which we see Republican states moving to block sanctuary cities, for instance, is surprising.
If you're a principled federalist, then presumably cities shouldn't be punished for diverging.
In general, I see very few principled federalists in American politics. I think that all too often in contemporary American politics, federalism is just the clothing we use to dress up certain arguments instead of being a principled approach to a range of policy problems.
What factors contribute to a nationalized political landscape?
I actually think there's a relationship between the transformation of campaign finance, the transformation of voting, and the transformation of what's getting covered in our newspapers. There's a unifying element to all of this.
Let's look at campaign finance first. In many of the most competitive 2020 Senate races, large majorities of money came from out-of-state donations. What does that do to the candidates, and how does that affect the way constituents perceive elections?
I think that the nationalization of the campaign finance structure is an example of our nationalized set of divisions. What we're trying to do is refract these highly nationalized divisions through our federalist system. And the result often distorts representation in critical ways. One of the key facts about campaign finance has been that as late as 1992, two-thirds of all donations to federal candidates, to members of Congress, were coming from within the state that they represent. 20 years later in 2012, only one-third of all dollars were coming from the states that people represented.
The danger is that the representatives and senators increasingly have one constituency where they get their votes, but a separate constituency from where they get their money.
That is not how our system was designed to work. It was not designed for members of Congress to spend four hours a day raising money from people who are not their constituents.
And simultaneously, there has been a collapse of local media. I wonder how the decline of local news plays into this landscape?
When the internet first became a sizable presence, there was a hope that it might actually lead to a proliferation of local news. With the internet there are very, very low production costs, so, theoretically, I could put up a newsletter about my neighborhood. But in fact, as you said, the rise of the internet and the rise of cable television led to this dramatic concentration of our attention on a very, very small number of nationalized news sources. Partly that's because the news media would target us based on where we lived. The Philadelphia Inquirer targeted a set of people who wanted to know about life in and around Philadelphia.
But more recently we instead see that the business model for many media companies is to compete based on who voters are and who readers are and who consumers are, rather than where they live.
Rather than providing me with information specific to Philadelphia, they will identify me as someone who likes the National Football League or cares about politics.
That has led to the fragmentation of our media environment. One of the real losers in this has been people's attention to state and local politics. State and local politics have never been on the top of people's priority lists. It used to be that if I were reading the Philadelphia Inquirer, as a by-product of learning what the Eagle's score was, I also learn a little bit about who my mayor was or who my governor was. And nowadays, since I can go right to ESPN or I can go right to Fox News, I can skip over all that state and local information.
In a world where state and local politicians want to be well-known, they're much more likely to attach themselves to a lightning rod federal issue than they are to actually dive into the challenging, complex issues that face their local community.
Which really allows issues to be manipulated. When we focused on immigration, something I found interesting was how much immigration was used as a campaign tool in Ohio or Maine. It’s easy to make a border terrifying when you don’t live near one. Do you feel like campaigning has changed based on the ability to take issues that don't have anything to do with your constituents, but are made to look like they have everything to do with constituents?
Yeah, absolutely. One of the real challenges with a nationalized political environment is that it encourages attention to issues that are evocative and emotionally charged and often have to do with specific groups of people, but ultimately do not have clear policy effects. I think one prominent example of this is not long after President Trump was elected he attacked football players who refused to stand for the National Anthem. I think it's a very instructive case because he wasn't proposing any policy. This was purely about symbols.
I worry that in the nationalized political environment, it's very hard to put together a political coalition that speaks to auto workers and nurses in the suburbs of Detroit, and retirees in Maricopa County. This is a very diverse country. One of the easier ways to knit together a political coalition is to reach for these divisive, identity-oriented issues, even if that's not actually what's going to motivate the policies that you're proposing.
I do think that there's been a real connection between the way in which our politics has nationalized and the way in which our politics has become more identity oriented.
It's these kinds of identity charged issues that can have an intuitive meaning to people in places from Montana to North Carolina.
Has your work clarified your opinion about how national politics should work? What do you advocate for moving forward in terms of policy and campaigning?
I certainly think that voters do better when they have the information that they need, and I think that we are missing an opportunity to really use our federalist system, because there are so many different kinds of issues that face the different communities in our country.
If we are trying to force all of those issues onto a single divide between Democrats and Republicans, we're going to miss a lot of critical issues.
I think some of the disaffection with contemporary politics stems from the fact that many of us deal with problems in our day-to-day lives that are not represented by the Republican-Democrat divide.
I do want to be wary of nostalgia — or suggesting that some earlier period of history was markedly better. Yes. I worry a lot that today's voters just don't know much about state and local politics, but state and local politics wasn't always vibrant and democratic in previous generations, right? As a social scientist, I think part of my job is to lay out trends. I do think that nationalization is something that we should forecast as being a major part of our politics moving forward.
I also think that there are some policy changes on the edges that I would advocate for that I think would help reinforce the connections between places and voters, and to make better use of our current federalist system. For instance, I think campaign finance matching, so that every dollar you get locally is amplified, is a great idea. I think that could encourage politicians to lay down roots in the specific communities they represent and to spend less time trying to raise money from Manhattan or Dallas.
I think we should also do everything in our regulatory capacity to help promote, protect, and foster high-quality, non-partisan coverage of states and localities.
As a country that is hemorrhaging reporters who cover states and localities I do think that given how many important decisions are made at the state and local level, as a society, we have a real stake in the quality of local news media. There are fewer statehouse reporters, there are fewer city hall reporters, and there are fewer people who are tracking state and local politics to hold our politicians accountable. I think that has been underappreciated, and one of the real dangers in contemporary American democracy.
Jecorey | I’ll just start at the beginning. I announced that I was running for Louisville Metro Council at Simmons College of Kentucky, the HBCU that I teach at. I was inspired by the fact that the HBCU should be the center of the Black community, and I wanted to bring people to that school. Little did I know that our local NPR station released a 2,500 plus word hit piece about me, calling into question whether Simmons had contributed to the campaign illegally. In the end, everything was cleared. But this hit piece was kind of a culture shock for me. That was my introduction to the world of campaign finance: getting hit with allegations of criminality.
I wasn't overly energized about raising funds. When I think of money, I think of service. I think of exchange. I think of contracts. If you're going to give me money, you need to get something in return. That is not the case with campaign finance.
When the pandemic hit, we stopped soliciting donations.
I did not ask for a single donation publicly from early March for the rest of the campaign. It felt criminal or tone-deaf to be begging people for money for your campaign when they're living through the nightmare of COVID-19 and all the uncertainties that came along with it. At the time, people were rationing toilet paper and bottled water. We didn't ask for donations.
Then Amaud Aubrey was killed. George Floyd was killed. Breonna Taylor was killed. Everything that I had been talking about in my campaign had already been amplified by COVID-19, and my message was further amplified after these murders. We saw a reflection of how America treats Black people. I became a voice for racial justice in the local movement, and, honestly, I didn't have to ask for money. People heard me talking about these problems and introducing solutions to those problems, and they wanted to get behind what I was doing.
This was the first time I ever dealt with campaign fundraising, but, in a way, it came naturally to me because I believed in producing something for people that I wanted to serve.
We utilized our funds to get community members PPE, and it wasn't some marketing scheme where you got a mask that says 'Vote for Jecorey.' It was just a solid black mask. We raised over $40,000 in a local race. To put that in perspective of another city council race in 2016, there was a three-way race, and the current councilwoman raised over $80,000.
frank | You're one of the first people I've spoken to who has said, I can't believe the audacity of these candidates and institutions, raising hundreds of millions of dollars, continuing to ask people for money. Do you feel like you have a conversation about the ethics of that with other people in politics or with people around you?
Well, I've had that conversation a number of times. It's really criminal when you think about it. Let's say you put together all seven candidates in my race alone, and let's say we raised a quarter-million dollars. In the end, only I won my race. Everyone else just wasted $210,000. You wasted space on that billboard. You wasted these yard signs – yards signs that I am pissed politicians still aren't picking up. Amy McGrath lost to Mitch McConnell and she still has yard signs throughout the West End of Louisville, the blackest area in this region. We got your yard signs everywhere, but you lost your race by like 20 plus points.
Amy McGrath raised over $74 million and only 3% came from inside the state. There is, as you say, the physical residue of that loss: yard signs on your constituents' lawns, but the non-physical component is that all that money came from people who will never have to bear the burden of that loss.
Amy McGrath is a perfect example of what I'm about to say: I don't believe we should give candidates money unless they have a proven track record to back up their platform. When I talk about creating jobs, I have already been doing that through my business and through arts organizing. When I talk about education, I've been to over 120 schools out of the 150 schools in this school district. I have already been doing education work. When I talk about housing, it's rooted in my lived experience. And some of that experience is personal, some of it is professional.
Mitch McConnell said this about Amy McGrath, and some people thought it was funny and some people thought it was kind of sexist, he said, you ran on a platform of being a mother and being a Marine. I was already saying that before McConnell.
You can't talk to me about racial injustice as a white woman who lives far removed from what I'm going through if you have never worked on racial justice or racial injustice. You can't talk to me about how to deal with this pandemic if, at the bare minimum, you have never worked with aging healthcare facilities, worked with healthcare facilities in general. You've never volunteered. You've never spoken up and advocated for them.
She was selling hopes and dreams, and if I have no reason to believe that you are going to make my hopes and dreams come true, I shouldn't give you money. You don't deserve my money. You gotta know what you're paying for. Would you go to a restaurant and give them your money if they had an F health rating? Well, McGrath basically had no rating at all. She had no experience.
Do you think you need to raise that much money to be competitive in congressional and Senate races?
If I had a burger, and instead of being made out of beef, it was made of feces, it does not matter how much money I spend on marketing. It is still going to be a feces burger no matter what. In the case of that race, you had a Democrat with a nothing-burger. Meanwhile, Kentuckians were starving. We didn’t really know what she stood for until the end.
And that raised another question of, do you really care about serving people?
Do you care about this platform? Or are you just running a vanity project?
I mean, she had a decent amount of money left over and I think she made a PAC. Was it ever about the people you're supposed to serve? How much of that money have you pocketed? We have to raise these questions.
How do you begin to change the narrative that raising this much money is a democratic success?
Organizing. That takes us away from the politician, and it takes us to the people.
Organizing is the way that we counter this, and we change this mindset. There are 26 Metro council members in Louisville, Kentucky, and all 26 of them have 26,000 constituents. There are way more of the constituents than politicians representing those constituents. What would happen if all 26,000 of your constituents organized around an issue?
What does that look like to a representative? On average, in my city, you might get hit up a few times a week, maybe dozens of times. But if you get thousands of calls for justice on a specific issue, that level of political engagement is going to cause change. The president at the HBCU I teach at, Dr. Kevin Cosby, says that politicians don't change because they see the light, they change because they feel the heat. And over the summer we thought we felt some heat, but I truly believe if we were organized, that was just preheat. And we were only going to turn it up.
I was impressed with the level of political engagement when these protests were at their peak. People were watching council meetings and disappointed that it took so long. People were engaging in politics when before they never even knew who their city councilperson was. I was so impressed, but you have been living in the city for many decades, and you're just now getting politically engaged in a process that controls your life?
I’m surprised people aren’t rioting more, and over other issues, like poverty.
A lot of people just don't know the numbers. Or, if they do know the numbers, if the people in power know the truth — they just hide it, ignore it, or perpetuate it. What we as the people have to realize is that politicians do what we allow them to do. And if we're not organizing around issues, it's almost like some of those protests happened in vain. It's almost like Breonna Taylor died in vain. It's almost like Dr. Martin Luther King died in vain because we did not have the amount of care that it took to continue fighting.
Of course, it's going to get cold. Of course, it is going to be hard. Of course, there's going to be so many hurdles and obstacles and battles on the way, but we ain't free yet. There's so much left to do. And people were having parades and brunches when Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won.
I don't think people are serious about freedom. I don't think people are serious about change.
I think we use the word change all the time and people really don't mean it. It just sounds cute.
People aren’t serious, period. I was on Twitter earlier, watching this debate happen because some woman calling the GOP “fuckers”. No serious person could possibly think this mattered.
Yeah. They're unserious.
Yeah. It just feels like some sort of dishonesty that people are contributing to in order to participate in the game that they know is a game.
Yeah. I'm constantly disappointed in some of our adults. It's crazy. I mean, even over the summer, some of these people’s whole lives and whole identity were centered around protesting. A protest is just a tool, but what are you doing now?
Voting is a single tool. Calling your elected official is a single tool. A protest is a tool. We need to look at protests as marketing for an issue, but people began to see the protests as the issue.
It makes me wonder, how long has it been this way? And when will we see some actual uprising and some seriousness in terms of change? Because right now, people aren't serious. It's very disturbing.
I was just on a call earlier about housing. There's this woman who was in charge of an office that they were essentially trying to discredit by saying she doesn't do her job. Their solution was to create other initiatives that basically did her job for her. Well, okay, but she makes over a hundred thousand a year and you help pay for her salary. Instead of calling her and emailing her and pulling up on her and making sure she is doing her job, you're going to try and do her job, halfway? While taking donations from poor people to do it? No. Don't let these people off the hook.
Don't ever let the government off the hook. This is the one single government that we have. Make them work for you. They are supposed to work for us.
That's it. That's the reminder. People just need to go spend one day in like dingy Congress to get rid of this idea that they know better than you. They don't know better than you. They know what you tell them is the truth.
I alluded to this earlier, but I want to really say it plainly: because of our wealth position, our interests end up not really being represented in government. It takes so much work on the back end to get politicians to commit to our needs. The average Black family is worth $1,700. We aren't going to max out on our campaign contribution if we even donate to campaigns.
Of course, it is illegal for favors in exchange for campaign contributions to exist, but they definitely exist. And if you have a group of people who aren't involved in campaign contributions at all, you have to ask, is that why we're not getting our needs met?
The National League of Cities, released an agenda of what they would like to see from Biden and Harris. And the Black Caucus, might as well have not contributed to it at all. It had no value to us, and no reflection of what we're going through.
It makes me wonder, how do we expect politicians to have our interests at heart, when they just catered to their donors?
And on the flip side, how engaged are we? I'm not even in office yet, and I get emails and phone calls every day from some group wanting to talk to me about funding something, or acquiring some building, or getting my support on something. And these are all white groups with interests that have nothing to do with Black people in our city. Politicians need to be held accountable, and we also need to be held accountable. We can't just engage during the election cycle; we have to engage all year around because they are making decisions to impact your life all the time.