Given the earnest threats and Facebook pledges, you might expect Democratic parts of the country to be vacant by now, all residents having decamped to Canada. But liberals aren’t fleeing in the wake of Donald Trump’s election; instead, many are preparing to fight what they see as the historic danger of a Trump administration.
Among their sharpest tools: state and local policy. Washington may be all red, with Republicans in control of Congress and soon, the White House. But blue cities and states around the country can still work mightily to frustrate conservative plans through local politics and policies. For example, if Trump weakens the Environmental Protection Agency, California can tighten its regulations that aim to combat climate change. If there are cuts to federal housing subsidies, cities could create more affordable housing.
Here in Massachusetts, defiant liberals will have many chances to push an anti-Trump agenda: lawsuits to safeguard civil liberties, new spending to secure the social safety net, even a kind of health care time-machine designed to replace Obamacare with the old, effective, insurance program introduced under Mitt Romney.
In the end, it probably isn’t possible for liberal locales to stop the conservative wave altogether — the reach, power, and wealth of the federal government are simply too great. But in the 18 states and dozens of big cities that didn’t vote for Trump, there are lots of ways for local governments to limit the impact of his policies.
It’s too early to know what Trump’s immigration policy will amount to, but if you take him at his campaign word, it could well include a border wall and large-scale deportations. Perhaps the best way for states to resist these moves lies in their ability to be deliberately uncooperative.
On its own, the federal government just doesn’t have the manpower to deport millions of Americans. They need help from state and local police. So when cities and states refuse to cooperate, deportations get a lot harder.
Several Massachusetts cities have embraced this defiant approach, joining the ranks of so-called sanctuary cities. Boston itself has taken a big step in this direction, with a bill that prevents local police from detaining people merely on immigration charges. But this effort carries some real risk: Trump has threatened to withhold all federal funding for sanctuary cities, a prospect that Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh called “disastrous.”
If the state as a whole wanted to do more to protect the due process rights of unauthorized immigrants, it could also take a page from a pending bill in California, which would fund legal services to help fight federal deportation orders.
Senate Republicans have already introduced a bill to begin repealing the Afordable Care Act — despite the fact that there’s no plan to replace it. Looking ahead, it seems that almost anything is possible, from a Republican-branded “Obamacare lite,” to a dramatically curtailed version that leaves tens of millions without health insurance.
Whatever the outcome, Massachusetts is relatively well positioned. After all, we built our own mandatory insurance program before the term Obamacare was ever coined.
But here’s the rub: When we enacted that comprehensive insurance program under Governor Mitt Romney, we got a lot of financial support from the federal government. And if we hope to reinvigorate Romneycare, we’re going to need a similar infusion — hardly a guarantee.
US House Speaker Paul Ryan favors a system that would reduce funding for states over time, which could leave Massachusetts with a good health insurance plan, but no reliable source of long-term funding.
Given that Trump has proposed massive tax cuts and increased military spending, it’s virtually inevitable that he’ll have to cut programs that help the poor and struggling, including things like housing vouchers, school funding, and workforce training.
Blue states like Massachusetts will be able to offset some of these cuts if they choose, because America’s safety net is largely a partnership between Washington and the states. When Washington throttles back, individual states can boost support for higher minimum wages, cash assistance, food stamps, and beyond.
There may even be a clever way for states to raise the necessary money. What if they increase state taxes a little, at the same time that the federal government cuts them a lot. That way lawmakers could fill state coffers while ensuring that most residents still end up with a net reduction in taxes.
Massachusetts’ proposed millionaires’ tax would fit the bill — as would an increase in the Massachusetts estate tax, timed to match the expected reduction in the federal estate tax. Either way, it would depend on the willingness of lawmakers — and residents — to buck the tax-cutting trend.
Limits of local action
All this remains highly speculative. With Trump’s plans still evolving, and the priorities of Congress uncertain, it’s hard to say exactly how blue swaths of America can respond to the era of Trump.
Plus, there are some areas where an effective liberal response may not be possible.
Consider the Supreme Court, poised to be reshaped by Trump’s appointments. More specifically, the future of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 abortion case that guaranteed a woman’s right to choose.
Trump’s position on abortion has shifted wildly over the years, but during the campaign he committed to appointing conservative justices and suggested he’d like to see Roe v. Wade overturned.
The question is, then what? Conventional wisdom has it that in a post-Roe world, abortion would be regulated by the states. But that’s not necessarily true.
Some far-right legal thinkers argue that Congress could pass a national abortion ban — ending choice across every red and blue corner of the country. And while it’s true that this theory is controversial, a Supreme Court conservative enough to overturn Roe v. Wade might also be conservative enough to affirm the legitimacy of a nationwide ban.
And really, that’s just one of many issues where liberal states might find themselves outflanked. There’s also foreign policy, monetary policy, trade rules, antitrust policy, and union rights — all of them set by Washington with little space for outside interference.
In those cases, blue America may have just one option: defy by example. Even on the losing side of history, liberal cities and states can hold tight to their priorities. Perhaps Boston will once again fashion itself as the “city upon a hill,” an example for what the whole country might look like with a more progressive view of public policy.