Jean-Claude Juncker welcomes Biden (then VP) to the party (Photo credit should read EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP via Getty Images)

May 18, 2021   6 mins

For many liberal Americans, the European Union is the perfect elite model: a non-elected, highly credentialed bureaucracy that embraces and seeks to enforce the environmental, social and cultural zeitgeist of the urban upper classes. It is, as the establishment Council on Foreign Relations puts it, a “model for regional integration”.

Now that “progressives” have returned to the White House, aping the EU has become a national policy. Taking his cue from his party’s Left, President Joe Biden has already sought to federalise many functions — from zoning to labour laws to education — that historically have been under local control.

But while Biden’s administration has been embraced by the Eurocrats, Americans would do well to consider the EU’s remarkable record of turning Europe into the developed world’s economic and technological laggard. Overall, nearly a third of Europeans consider Brussels an utter failure; half admit the EU’s pandemic response was inadequate. Indeed, while the American media was busy denouncing the US response to Covid under Trump as the “worst” in the world, the EU was showing them how it was done: of the 15 countries suffering the highest fatality rates, 13 are European, of which nine are in the EU — all worse than the US.

The US may always have had a “Federal Government”, but the notion of dispersed power gained approval from many on the Left only after President Trump’s election, as many Democrats looked to local government as a means of fighting back. Cheerleaders for Barack Obama’s imperial presidency, such as The New Yorker, started to embrace states’ rights with an almost Confederate enthusiasm.

But once the Democrats won back the House in 2018, the appeal of total central power became irresistible, with leading Democrats competing for who could most expand DC’s remit. Kamala Harris, now Vice President, demanded Washington give teachers across the country a federally funded five-figure pay rise, while Beto O’Rourke and Julian Castro sought to hand over local planning and zoning powers to the DC bureaucrats.

President Trump, for what it’s worth, had little interest in such issues — though even he made a point of trying to overturn states’ laws  when it suited his agenda, particularly with the border wall and his attempts to crack down on radical education policies. In many ways, Trump’s authoritarian brand of Republicanism was always going to express an interest in an expanded federal role.

Yet in looking to expand federal power, Biden is picking up the mantle of President Obama, regarded by Republicans as one of the most prolific authors of executive power in US history. During its first six years, the Obama administration put forward more than twice as many major rules as George W. Bush’s government during the same period, focusing largely on issues such as climate change and immigration.

Of course, the notion of decentralised control — and the benefits associated with it — predates America. Ancient Roman cities enjoyed particular autonomy from central control, while the great Italian and Dutch cities of the early modern period developed extensive forms of self-government and, in some cases, functioned as independent states. Indeed, born out of Enlightenment ideals about limited government, the US Constitution lays out a system of dispersed power, creating in localities “the habits of self-government”.

In some cases, however, federal action was necessary; for example, to end the abomination of slavery and keep the Republic safe from European encroachments. And of course, some local governments continued to pass detestable laws, such as Jim Crow segregation in the South — though states also innovated in a more positive direction, providing models for other jurisdictions. For example, western states less tied to parochial ways of thinking — such as Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, Washington and California — introduced female suffrage well before the federal government. New York built the earliest welfare state, while my adopted home of California invested heavily in roads, schools, universities and technical training, leading to its remarkable boom in the late 20th Century.

States, as progressive Supreme Court Judge Louis Brandeis noted, were “laboratories of democracy”, places that experimented with policies that, when they were successful, would be adopted by others, and sometimes the federal government. In contrast, Europe’s bureaucratic meddling has served to keep wealth concentrated, as it has been for centuries, in places like Germany, the Netherlands and Scandinavia, while the south and east lag perpetually behind.

Back in the US, federalism has shaped another seismic shift, as New York, California, Illinois and New Jersey lose out to less regulated states like Texas, Arizona, Nevada and Florida. These lower-tax administrations were gaining ground in terms of jobs and population before Covid; and as the pandemic weakens, they are also rebounding faster.

Indeed, it’s hardly surprising that most Americans favour decentralisation; more than 70% of them trust their local governments more than their national institutions. Even in deep blue California, 70% of adults think local communities should have more of a say. And these attitudes are even shared by the generally Left-leaning millennials; fewer than one-third of them favour federal solutions.

In order to justify centralisation, US Governments have always relied upon a perception of a common crisis that requires a unified response. Certainly the Great Depression, World War Two and, to some extent, the Cold War required national and even multi-national action. But the current drive to centralise coming from the Biden Administration has strikingly little to do with what used to be considered national security. Rather, it is justified by a new wave of “crises”: ranging from race and gender to immigration and the pandemic.

But by far the most powerful lobby for centralisation is climate change. By ramping up hysteria, the Left has created the logic for ever-more control over daily life — essentially by establishing impractical steps to replace fossil fuels. Overall, President Biden has promised to spend $500 billion each year on abating climate change — roughly 13% of the entire federal revenue.

Yet just as the EU’s overzealous federalism is starting to face criticism, so too does Biden’s climate change agenda risk becoming seriously unpopular, particularly in Middle America. For example, among the President’s first actions was to cancel the construction of the Keystone Pipeline system across to Canada, with a potential loss of upwards of 10,000 jobs. Meanwhile, attempts to ban fracking could also cause major job losses: in Texas alone, as many as a million good-paying jobs would disappear. As for Biden’s promise of “green jobs”, it’s unlikely they will lure the oil riggers, geologists, welders, haulers and machine tool operators now thriving in blue-collar America; typically, these jobs pay far lower salaries, are usually shorter term and far less likely to be unionised.

As for working-class consumers in California, which has been running its own Green New Deal for a decade, we have already witnessed the rapid expansion of “energy poverty” — meaning that they spend 10% or more of their income on household energy costs. Already the situation is strikingly similar to countries in the EU; as a result of Brussels’s own strict green policies, a quarter of Germans and three-quarters of Greeks have had to cut other spending to pay their electricity bills.

Likewise, in both the EU and the US, it’s often rural communities that pay the price for federalism. In Germany, for example, a recent study concluded that green energy policies hit rural communities much harder than cities, even though they are “on a par” with big cities in terms of greenhouse gas production. Similarly, under the new federal diktats, much of the American countryside — from the California desert to the East Coast — could be transformed into wastelands to accommodate solar farms and legions of windmills: one study by the Carnegie Institution for Science and Stanford University suggested that building enough solar power to reduce US emissions by 80% by 2050 could require more than 27,500 square miles of space, destroying both farmland and unique natural habitats along the way.

Faced with policies totally inimical to their core interests, it is hardly surprising that many American states and localities are already mobilising, challenging Biden’s ban on the use of Covid funds to lower taxes — a critical part of their recovery strategy. Meanwhile, a number of states are already pushing back on Biden’s new environmental rules, with future lawsuits likely to focus on other issues such as affirmative action, gun rights and labour laws.

And so it seems that, ultimately, imposing unanimity will be difficult in a country considerably more divided on cultural issues than their European counterparts. To date, things are yet to turn ugly. And for the moment at least, it is unlikely that we will see open secession — though I wouldn’t rule out a series of mini-Brexits as states challenge, ignore or even defy federal rules. Even if these challenges fail, and the progressive hold on Washington lasts for a decade, these political divides could metastasise into something more serious.

Faced with the “EU-isation” of their country, Americans, whatever their politics, need to understand that by copying Brussels, the current Government risks sacrificing the fundamental principles of their country: that wherever it is feasible, control of daily life should be left to local communities, and even individuals. The American system may not be perfect. But the current shift towards a Brussels model won’t cure it of its deficiencies — it will only make them worse.

Joel Kotkin is the Hobbs Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and author, most recently, of The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class (Encounter)