Social issues such as gay rights and gun control divide America so sharply largely because no one has found a single solution for them equally acceptable to both churchgoing conservatives and secular liberals. The first step toward resolving these disputes may be to recognize that the search for a single solution has itself become part of the problem.
More than any other 2008 presidential hopeful, former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani has grasped that insight. Giuliani is mostly running for the GOP presidential nomination as a warrior against Islamic terrorism. But his most innovative domestic idea casts him as a peacemaker on the social issues that have divided the nation since the 1960s.
Giuliani argues that the best way to reduce tension about social issues is to allow states, rather than the federal government, to take the lead in responding to them. That would allow socially conservative and liberal states to each set rules that reflect the prevailing values inside their borders. Rather than perpetual combat in Washington, he insists, the nation could reach a new equilibrium as different states gravitated to different solutions.
In an interview last week, Giuliani said the key to resolving cultural arguments “where our society on a national level ends up being very divided” is to apply the “principle of federalism.” Questions on topics such as gun control, gay rights or aspects of abortion, he continued, “are issues that I think the founding fathers would say should be consigned to state and local governments, experimenting, deciding, having different views, and the federal government having a more limited role.”
That perspective leads Giuliani toward positions uncomfortable for both left and right. As mayor, for instance, Giuliani supported President Clinton’s nationwide ban on semi-automatic assault weapons. But President Bush allowed that ban to lapse, and now Giuliani (in a view many gun-control advocates consider impractical) says decisions on whether to ban such weapons should be made “on a state-by-state, almost
Conversely, although Giuliani opposes same-sex marriage, his federalism perspective leads him to also oppose conservative calls for a federal constitutional amendment to ban it. “The way we should deal with it now is let states decide
do they want to have some sort of domestic partnership or civil union?” he says.
Even under a federalist strategy, abortion remains the most intractable social dispute. A purist federalist approach would argue for overturning Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision guaranteeing a nationwide right to abortion, and allowing states to decide whether to ban or permit the practice. But that would ignite political warfare across the 50 states likely to inflame rather than extinguish the conflict about the issue.
Giuliani, who supports abortion rights, doesn’t urge Roe’s repeal and insists that he can’t predict whether the “strict constructionist” justices he’s pledged to appoint would vote to overturn it. But he argues that even if the Supreme Court reverses the decision, the nation could “get through it” by allowing each state to “come to a different decision” about whether to legalize abortion in the aftermath. For now, he says, states should maintain flexibility on whether to publicly fund abortion through Medicaid.
Giuliani applies his federalist perspective far beyond social issues. He says his next step on healthcare would be to encourage more state experimentation with expanding coverage. Likewise, he would delay any national requirement to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to give the state experiments with limits underway in California, Florida and elsewhere “more time to play itself out.”
Even with this strong preference, Giuliani says “you can’t be a rigid slave to federalism.” Disappointing conservatives, he says he’s inclined to retain the nationwide educational testing requirements Bush imposed (though he would seek greater incentives for private school choice).
Nor would he “absolutely rule out” federal legislation on assault weapons if the state action he prefers proves insufficient. Disappointing liberals, he says he might eventually support a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage if too many states approved it, especially through the courts.
Federalism serves Giuliani’s political interests because it allows him to reconcile his generally moderate social views with his socially conservative party. But he’s also right that federalism can serve society’s interests by allowing “a lot of room for difference” in a diverse country.
Federalism isn’t a panacea. On regulatory issues such as global warming, both environmentalists (who want concerted national action) and business (which prefers consistent rules) often find it unsatisfactory. Nor is either side in the culture war likely to abandon its effort to impose its vision on the entire society.
But over time, federalism might drain some of the fervor from that fight by allowing both cultural conservatives and cosmopolitans to control the rules in their communities on these difficult issues -- at the price of allowing the other side to do the same.