Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Living Under Someone Else's Law (continued): Why Self-Rule Isn't a Democratic Trump Card

Heather K. Gerken

Yesterday I argued that the near-universal condemnation of spillovers is a bit of a mystery given their near-universal presence in our system. Spillovers are a natural consequence of integration, and the price for preventing them is too high.

In a new piece in the Democracy Journal, which builds on a piece in the Michigan Law Review, James Dawson and I argue that while spillovers undoubtedly involve real costs, they in fact generate substantial democratic benefits. To be sure, spillovers require all of us to live under someone else’s law, which violates the deep-seated democratic principle of self-rule. But democracy isn’t only about self-rule; it’s also about ruling together. Given our impulse to retreat into our all-too comfortable red or blue enclaves, it’s very useful for our worlds to collide now and then. Those collisions give us a chance to see how other people live, to live under someone else’s law, to try someone else’s policy on for size.

Indeed, as James and I explain in detail, spillovers force us to engage with our opponents and search for common ground. They tee up national debates and prevent politicians from leaving all the hard questions to the states. They help us overcome gridlock by shifting the burden of inertia and pushing both sides to engage. They prod state lawmakers to cross party lines and broker a compromise solution. Spillovers, in short, force state and federal officials to do what they are supposed to do: politic, find common ground, and negotiate a compromise that no one likes but everyone can live with.

Spillovers matter even at democracy’s most granular level: the habits of everyday citizens. Political enclaves are a too easy a solution for political elites, but they’re also too easy for the rest of us. Spillovers enlist everyday citizens in the practice of pluralism. At the very least, they prevent us from being oblivious. Indeed, spillovers ensure that those least likely to be receptive to an idea—those nestled in enclaves with the opposite policy—confront that idea directly. They help us sort out annoying differences that prompt little more than a collective shrug from genuinely deep disagreements that require our collective attention. Spillovers can thus tell us a great deal more than polling or voting about whether a modus vivendi can be had. In an era defined by polarization, in short, spillovers can help mitigate the big sort-ing of America.

 Put differently, spillovers cause political friction, and friction has its uses in a political system. The reason that the discussion has been so one-sided thus far is that the arguments against spillovers—rooted as they are in the principle of self-rule—are so intuitive. But it’s worth remembering that while our democratic commitments may begin with self-rule, they should not end with it. Democratic self-rule is often played as a trump card, but it isn’t. Every community would like to live by its own lights. Every person would like to live by his own lights. But we quickly learn that our preferences differ. Democracy requires us to do just what spillovers require us to do: Work it out. Sometimes we work it out directly. Sometimes we need a referee. Sometimes we just take our lumps and live under a policy we don’t like. And we do so for a simple reason: We’d rather live with other people than without them.

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