Ohio State University

Are We Losing Federal Checks in the Midst of Polarization? By Melissa Ma @ Ohio State University

I, along with hundreds of thousands of elementary school kids, habitually stood in front of the American flag and recited the “Pledge of Allegiance.” Moving into middle school, we were taught that democracy was fair and balanced; essentially, the purest form of moral governance. Throughout high school, I was educated on the checks between the levels and branches of government. No one tried to taint my blank mind with the true problems and potential overhalls of this federal system. Towards the end of high school, I asked myself, where are the checks?

The public, through organized, activist resistance, has a duty to combat democratic erosion and put checks on the federal government in the face of a polarized society.

To experience a glimpse of the workings of democratic activity, Planned Parenthood hosted an Action Forum at my local Columbus library. During the event, it was clear that this organization goes beyond the aims of providing affordable reproductive healthcare. Instead, the group was focused on Federal resistance, grassroots mobilization, community commitments and diversification.

Since the inception of the Trump administration, Planned Parenthood has been under attack, while also losing federal funds. Recently, President Donald Trump has stated that much legislation that protects Planned Parenthood, and other abortion services, on the state level will be discarded. The leaders of this Action Forum disclosed the urgency of aggressive resistance to this type of legislation both federally and, specifically, in the state of Ohio. John Kasich, the current governor of Ohio, has already passed 20 different pieces of legislation that limits access to abortions and reproductive healthcare. Additionally, Rob Portman, one of Ohio’s senators, holds a strong anti-reproductive rights stance.

These health restrictions infringe on the fundamentals of basic human rights; so the question becomes, what can we do?  During the course of this Action Forum, the leaders gave us tools to organize, whether that be through petitioning, attending local school or government meetings, volunteering at a statehouse, or running for office. However, I pose another question: are the demands of activist groups salient in the midst of a polarized political climate? In other words, will the courageous steps these activists are taking going to make a difference?

The answer is difficult. In a polarized society, identification is at the forefront of people’s minds. As Arlie Hochschild, explains in Stranger in Their Own Land, two groups become increasingly intolerant of each other; essentially, this leads to complete distrust and hatred builds. The politicization of reproductive health rights is not new; however, the polarization pits pro-reproductive rights Democrats against anti-reproductive rights Republics.

Heather Gerken believes that uncooperative federalism is the Progressives’ solution to combating federal attack in a polarized society. She argues that states have the ability to fight against federal legislation that, for instance, defunds Planned Parenthood and other abortion clinics. States have the ability to not implement legislation passed in Congress; however, this puts power in the hands of state officials.

As previously mentioned, a polarized society creates a break between two groups: the Democrats and Republics. In the state of Ohio, republicans hold the majority in the House, the governor is republican and the state as a whole voted for Trump in the 2016 elections.

With this in mind, the question to ponder within a state is whether polarization is more powerful than their own constituents’ activism. Erica Chenoweth argues that activism, and protest in particular, has the ability to overhaul the federal government’s agenda. She explains the conditions of positive, influential protest; actions that I believe Planned Parenthood is doing exceptionally well. For instance, diversity and mass mobilization are amongst the most important. At the Action Forum, the leaders focused on intersectionality within the organization. The focus on advancing minority goals and creating a cohesive unite against a common enemy, the Trump administration, has mobilized hundreds of thousands of people. Chenoweth notes that this mobilization in mass quantities indicates a movements success. In addition, any activist group must have the support from a large amounts of people, preferably million, to change the loyalties of adversarial groups.

The ability to tap into the opponents sympathizes, to gain support domestically and abroad, and to incorporate a diverse set of people, has the potential to usurp the salience of polarization in the state legislature. Planned Parenthood, through these Action Forums, works exceptionally hard to accomplish these goals. By focusing on specific campaigns aimed at Senator Rob Portman and Governor John Kasich, the organization has the ability to counter the Trump administration through uncooperative federalism.

It is my belief that activist groups, working from the grassroots up, can counter democratic erosion through the checks they place on the federal government. In the face of such a polarized political climate, one must attempt work with a community, mobilize its citizens, gain oppositional loyalty and work to counter the system. Only a strong, diverse activist movement will be able to overcome polarization in the modern era.



    March 11, 2018 at 11:56 pm

    You raised the question asking if a state’s polarization is more powerful than a constituent’s activism? I would answer this question no to a degree which coincides with your claim that activist groups can counter democratic erosion through checks that they can place on the federal government.
    I think it is important to look at what group polarization is and why it occurs. When like-minded people discuss political issues together it leads to homogeneity and extreme perspectives. This occurs because of three mechanisms; firstly, people learn more information about an issue through discussion. Secondly, through discussion people gain confidence that their own opinion is correct. Lastly, during a discussion an individual will compare their opinion to others and might become afraid that their opinion will be judged, consequently they will change their opinion to fit the majorities.
    Large groups of moderates who don’t have polarized views are very important to prevent leaders from being able to move away from their states democrat ties. The ballot box can be viewed as a way that a civilian can check on the power federal government. When a non-democratic leader runs for office until he or she is able to gain power and completely remove elections, an initial election must happen where the undemocratic leader wins. If this group of non-polarized moderate voters hold a large amount of the vote they could prevent a non-democratic ruler from obtaining office.
    When discussing the polarization of reproductive health rights, I think it is interesting to take into account a case study discussed in Cass Sustein’s Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide. In this study done on federal court judges it was found that in the area concerning abortion the judge’s opinions were not affected even if they were in the minority or majority party of the panel. While in all other areas of interest when the panel held three Republican or three Democratic judges the polarization of their behavior on decisions was extreme. Although pro-life vs. pro-choice opinions can be identified with a specific political party’s policy, opinion on the legality of abortion is usually not affected by the group polarization of political parties.


    March 15, 2018 at 5:27 am

    I find your argument that uncooperative federalism can be a mechanism of protest against the government pretty interesting because it seems counter-intuitive that the state government would refuse to work with its federal counterpart to prevent democratic erosion. To this end, I think it might be worth discussing at what point would too much uncooperative federalism be bad for democratic values. Some examples of uncooperative federalism being used to harm democracy might be when the rise of using uncooperative federalism matches a rise of authoritarianism/populism or when uncooperative federalism is being used to oppose another existing check embedded in the democratic system. I’m also curious as to why you might believe that a “diverse activist movement” might have a positive effect by helping the US overcome its polarization. Specifically, the “diversity” aspect here is rather questionable. On one hand, it is possible that a diverse activist movement could encourage a plethora of views to speak out and decrease the homogeneity that occurs with group polarization. But on the other hand, a diverse activist movement could undermine the activist movement itself, leading to lack of cohesiveness when the diversity of views disagree on how to address specific issues. Thus, it’s questionable, in my opinion, that a diverse activist movement is an answer to help polarization. Instead, we might look at driving factors that polarize, such as increases in dinner table conversations between people with the same views, and discourage those factors by encouraging more conversations/media interactions with people with different views.

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