Inefficient, inequitable, and maddeningly slow, America’s fragmented administrative institutions are saving the Republic before our eyes.
The American administrative apparatus is an astonishing jumble. Scores of federal agencies, fifty states (plus D.C.), 14 territories, hundreds of tribes, and tens of thousands of local governments share responsibility for domestic public policy in the United States. Beyond its inelegance, this mind-boggling fragmentation is a recipe for waste, confusion, and contradiction. No sane person would design a system like this if the goal was efficient, equitable regulation or delivery of public services. It’s a hot mess.
But by brilliant design or happy accident, America’s confusing and convoluted administrative institutions simultaneously allow for and defend against electoral abuse. The slow-rolling drama of this year’s federal elections is a dramatic case-in-point.
Federalism—a model of governance that shares authority between a central government and regional subunits—gets a pretty bad rap in political science and economics. Federalism generates inconsistent, often contradictory policies. The whole apparatus is inequitable, as citizens in different parts of the country experience government in very different ways, often with troubling racial or ethnic biases. Administrative systems are redundant, bloated, and sometime work at cross-purposes. Our system of government isn’t Schoolhouse Rock, it’s a Hieronymus Bosch painting.
Every time I move from one state to another and wait in line at the DMV, I wonder: does America really need more than fifty driver’s licensing regimes and insurance regulators? Do we really need to track births, deaths, marriages, and land ownership through 3,000 county governments? Does it really make sense to parcel out responsibility for firefighting and law enforcement and education and health care and trash disposal across tens of thousands of governments?
Brilliantly efficient policies conceived on drawing boards in think tanks, seminars, and congressional hearings slam into this amorphous, chaotic intergovernmental blob. Look no further than the COVID-19 vaccine administration to see what I mean.
Baffling, byzantine, brilliant elections
Disorder and fragmentation also afflict American democracy. Election administration is intensely local in the United States. Elections in this country aren’t run by the Federal Election Commission. In most of the U.S., county and town governments organize and administer elections with state oversight. The work of issuing and counting ballots falls to tens of thousands of local officials and poll workers. Votes are cast and counted with a bizarre mish-mash of technologies. Vote counting is slow, reporting of results is haphazard, and when presidential elections are close, the delays are maddening. Even worse, all this fragmentation can allow state or local authorities to make voting difficult when it’s politically advantageous. Our country has a troubled history of voter suppression and disenfranchisement. The 1965 Voting Rights Act was a landmark step toward addressing those problems, and over the years there have been calls to nationalize voting administration completely.
But ironically, fragmentation of our electoral system is also a safeguard against tyranny. Over the past month we’ve seen a remarkable federalist drama play out in Georgia. Georgia’s top election official and Secretary of State have publicly clashed with President Trump’s obdurate refusal to accept the outcome of the Peach State’s elections. The audio recording of Trump’s phone call with Georgia Secretary of State Raffensperger leaked last week is a testimony to the surprising strength of the nation’s fractured electoral systems.
Raffensperger, an elected official and life-long Republican, steadfastly refused to use his administrative authority to change his state’s election results, despite the President’s cajoling and vague threats. Raffensperger could show this kind of fortitude because he was selected by and is responsible to the voters of Georgia, not to the President of the United States. Raffensperger works in Atlanta alongside other Georgia officials; to capitulate to Trump’s demands would be to dishonor the public servants he sees every day. Just so, elections administrators in each of Georgia’s 159 counties are responsible to their own communities, not the President.
Hard to manage is also hard to hack
It is easy to imagine an alternative world in which Congress sets detailed rules for elections, the President appoints a Secretary of Elections, and a U.S. Department of Elections operates the whole system. Certainly, election administration would be more uniform, and we’d likely get results much faster. But uniform technology for casting and counting votes would make our elections far more vulnerable to electronic mischief. Whatever its other drawbacks, the Rube Goldberg Machine that is our election administration system is reasonably immune to concentrated attack. No vast right-wing conspiracy is possible, no deep-state conspiracy is possible, no national electoral conspiracy of any kind is really possible because our nation’s whole electoral apparatus is so convoluted.
Most of all, locally-managed elections form an inelegant but potent check on executive power. A U.S. Department of Elections staffed by presidential appointees would be glaringly vulnerable to presidential meddling. Would a U.S. Secretary of Elections appointed by President Trump resist manipulation the way that Georgia’s Secretary of State did?
As I write this, Georgia is in the throes of managing its special senate election. The polls suggest a close race, so it’s likely going to take elections officials a while to complete and validate everything. Angry, impatient cries will erupt from every ideological corner, just as they did in the ten days after last November’s federal elections. That’s OK. Our crazy quilt electoral system isn’t pretty, it isn’t quick, and it isn’t particularly fair; but it’s awfully hard to break. At a moment when our institutions are under stress, that is some comfort.
Confluence. [kän-flü-ən(t)s]. n. A coming or flowing together, meeting, or gathering at one point.
More evidence that, in a politically divided nation, water unites
Last month I argued that water ought to be the centerpiece of the Biden Administration’s environmental policy. President-elect Biden has announced climate change as the main pillar of its policy agenda, but the nation is deeply divided on climate, and so lasting progress will be difficult or impossible on greenhouse gasses. Meanwhile, protecting water is one of very few significant areas of public policy where the country is united, not polarized. That gives the president-elect and congressional leaders from both parties an opportunity to build a coalition for significant legislation on water. The idea seems to have struck a chord with many folks*, and it's picked up some momentum. More and more voices joining the call to rally to water policy when the new Administration and 117th Congress take office.
Encouraged by the response to my last post, I went casting about for more recent data on broad public support for water policy (my Texas A&M data were gathered in 2015). Happily, the 2020 Value of Water survey (VOW) by the U.S. Water Alliance asked about both climate and water. The national poll let respondents express their attitudes on a four point scale from “extremely important/concerned” to “not too important/concerned.”
The results are remarkably consistent with my earlier findings:
N=454. Thin bars represent 95% confidence intervals.
Once again, there’s a familiar stark gap between Democrats and Republicans on climate, but virtually no difference on questions about drinking water and water pollution.** And again, respondents who identify as strong Republicans express very little concern for climate change, but very strong concern for both drinking water and water pollution.
City water, country water
More than twenty years of experience and gigabytes of data have also convinced me that water also can unite urban and rural interests for leaders who want to build political bridges. And what do you know? The VOW survey also gathered data on where respondents live:
N=499. Thin bars represent 95% confidence intervals.
Once again, we see a significant divide between urban and rural folks on climate, but virtual unanimity on water.*** Strident (and likely futile) efforts by the Biden Administration to push climate initiatives in Congress would only deepen the divide between rural and urban America. But initiatives to deliver safer drinking water and fight water pollution could bring together urban and rural interests.
Art of the possible
Meaningful, enduring public policies require building coalitions across diverse segments of the American public. If the incoming White House and congressional leaders are serious about solving problems, they’ll do well to work on water.† People across the political spectrum want safe, great-tasting tap water, and fishable/swimmable rivers, lakes, and oceans. The impact of good water policy is immediate and tangible. Landmark legislative wins are on the table for politicians with the vision and courage to pursue them.
But more than that, progress on water would help heal the nation’s political wounds, and demonstrate to a wary public that the institutions of the Republic can still fulfill the promise of a better life.
*I had a nice conversation on KJZZ in Phoenix on this topic.
**These relative partisan gaps remain in regression models that control for age, gender, race, and ethnicity.
***These relative urban/rural differences remain after controlling for party identification age, gender, race, and ethnicity.
†And remember: an awful lot of good water policy is also good climate policy. If you care about the planet more than you care about branding, talk less about CO2 and more about H2O.
Why water should be the Biden Administration’s top environmental priority
The Biden administration’s environmental policy priorities are likely to be quite different from the Trump administration’s, and the impending change at the White House has visions of sweeping new federal greenhouse gas policies dancing in environmentalists’ heads. But sober political observers know that the prospects of significant climate policy—let alone a Green New Deal—are virtually zero so long as Republicans maintain a majority in the Senate.* A trillion-dollar infrastructure and/or bailout package for local water infrastructure are also probably non-starters. Those are going to be bitter pills for many of the President-Elect’s supporters to swallow. It’s also why the Biden administration should make water, not climate, the centerpiece of its environmental agenda when it takes office in January.
Everybody cares about water
Once upon a time, environmental protection wasn’t an especially partisan issue. Indeed, most major milestones in U.S. environmental policy were signed into law by Republican Presidents.** But over the past 40 years environmental policy has become increasingly partisan at the national level, with Democrats widely perceived as more protective and Republicans less protective of environmental quality. Perhaps the most divisive environmental issue of all is climate change. When global warming entered the national political consciousness in the early 1990s there wasn’t much difference between partisans on the issue. A generation’s worth of general party polarization has changed all that, however, and today Democrats and Republicans are deeply divided even over the basic facts about climate policy. Today climate policy is nearly as divisive as abortion or guns in our national politics. Environmental activists clammor loudest for a big federal greenhouse gas program, but it is difficult to imagine any major legislation branded as a “climate” bill clearing the Senate’s 60 vote hurdle with so many red states lined up against it.
Water is different. It seems that radical polarization hasn’t yet contaminated our most essential resource. Unlike climate threats, where risks seem distant and causal linkages uncertain, risks to water quality are immediate, the causes known, and the effects tangible. It’s no coincidence that the partisan divide on water is much narrower than it is on climate. A few years ago, I helped the Texas A&M Institute for Science, Technology, and Public Policy run a national public opinion survey on environmental issues. We asked respondents to rate their level of concern about issues on a 0-10 point scale, with 10 meaning “extremely concerned” and zero meaning “not at all concerned.” As you’d expect, we found consistent partisan gaps across issues. But one really striking finding stood out to me and has stuck with me ever since. Check this out:
The public opinion gap between Democratic and Republican concern is greatest for climate change and smallest for water quality.† What’s more, the average Republican falls on the “not concerned” end of the spectrum on climate change (4.3), but well into the “concerned” range on water (6.4). On reflection, that result shouldn’t be surprising: Republicans like to drink water and flush their toilets just as much as Democrats do, and I’d guess that a good number of America’s hunters and sportfishermen tend to vote with the GOP.What’s more, the nation’s most severe drinking water, water pollution, and infrastructure affordability problems are in rural America. Big cities like Flint, Detroit and Newark tend to get the most attention from reporters and politicians, but the water challenges of rural communities are in many cases much more daunting.
Joe, Kamala, and the 117th
These political conditions are ripe for a bipartisan, urban-rural coalition to improve the nation’s drinking water and water quality. Rather than beating their heads against the stone wall of a GOP Senate in vain pursuit of climate policy, the Biden Administration ought to focus its legislative efforts on systemic reforms to improve the water sector. Vice President-elect Harris has been working on water issues actively since joining the Senate, so she’ll come into office with some expertise on the issue and is poised to be an effective champion. Major legislative victories in the 117th Congress won’t come easy for anyone, but water policy offers perhaps the best chance to get something big done on the environment.
And guess what? It turns out that lots of the things we do to protect water quality (e.g., aquifer protection, watershed management, wetland restoration, sustainable agriculture, etc.) also reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate climate change impacts. So a big victory on water policy would be a big victory for climate policy, too.***
*It’s technically possible for Democrats to pull even in the Senate with a sweep of Georgia’s special Senate elections. New Vice President Harris would then break the leadership tie and give Democrats control of the 117th Senate. My political science spidey sense tells me this is an unlikely scenario.
**Lincoln created the first national park when he signed the Yosemite Grant Act in 1864. Theodore Roosevelt established the U.S. Forest Service, signed five more national parks into law and established 19 national monuments. Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency and signed the Clean Air Act. Ford signed the Safe Drinking Water Act and RCRA, and Bush41 championed the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments that created the first cap-and-trade system for managing air pollution.
† These partisan gaps remain in regression models that control for age, gender, race, ethnicity, and income.
***Just don’t say that part out loud in red states.