On December 7, SPN’s Executive Vice President Tony Woodlief published a new book that challenges the age-old narrative of a polarized country on the verge of collapse. I, Citizen: A Blueprint for Reclaiming American Self-Governance paints a picture of hope for those who want to make their communities better without more intrusion from the federal government in our daily lives. The book has been featured on C-SPAN, Newsweek, National Review, Fox News Radio, and the New York Post.
In the below Q&A, we dive into key themes of the book and why working on the state level is critical to a more prosperous future for the country.
I spent a lot of time digging into public opinion data, and some things jumped out right away. First, a lot of surveys have an ideological agenda. They aren’t trying to understand what people really believe but are instead trying to muster the case for a policy they want. If you look at long-standing, well-run surveys out of places like the Universities of Michigan and Chicago, they ask people where their values lie, leading to insight that’s more nuanced.
Most Americans are not very ideological, and they tend to be center-right, somewhat conservative, but not libertarian, and they don’t much care for politics or ideologues. They tend to vote for candidates they rate as least ideological. The picture that pundits like David French or Ezra Klein paint—that we’re almost on the verge of civil war—is just not true. It may feel that way, but that’s because social media and news reverberate the opinions of the loud and extreme. It’s the ugly stuff that sells papers and gets clicks. While the parties may have gotten more extreme, the people have not.
When you go out and talk to people in districts and ask them about policies (healthcare, the economy, crime, taxes), they don’t disagree that much. We all want better, more thriving communities. We all want to send our kids to good schools, make an honest living, and get access to what we need when we need it. Realizing what we have in common also illuminates our common enemy—a DC-based political class that perpetuates the myth of a divided America to justify centralizing power in the hands of unelected federal agencies and judges.
I would try to view it this way: The battle shouldn’t be between Team Red and Team Blue. In Washington, even Team Blue doesn’t represent their own constituents anymore. The real crisis in our country is having a political class in DC whose members think they know what’s best for every state, city, and neighborhood, and who have no regard for what the Constitution says about where authority is supposed to reside. All this power, over time, has accumulated in DC, and most of it resides in unelected, unaccountable bureaucracies. We must push back on them vociferously. Odds are if you approach your neighbor who is of a different political leaning than you, they probably don’t like it either.
Nothing has changed today because we’re losing time, and all signs point to more and more attempts to grow the federal government’s influence on our daily lives. You look at all the big spending in the name of COVID flowing to the states—so much they don’t know what to do with it all. I wouldn’t expect the agenda for the next few years to make DC any less powerful.
The vision of the Founders was that people would come together in their communities, reason together, and arrive at a set of choices they can mostly agree on and move forward. Instead, we’ve taken all those choices out of communities and stuffed them into the eager hands of DC politicians and bureaucrats…into the hands of people who mostly do not share our values.That is why it is important for us to preserve the protections the Founders put in place in the Constitution through the states. The states were meant to serve as that critical balance of power.
What we know is that when you ask large samples of Americans who they trust and who they don’t trust, you see that more decisions should be made closer to home. Trust has fallen through the basement floor with Congress, and meanwhile, people say they trust their state and local governments more than the federal. We as humans are hierarchical whether we want to admit it or not, so the question is where you want to center that leadership. Can we recenter and redistribute power so you have more local and accountable leaders? The reason for doing so is that these folks are closer to you and if the day comes when your town council is corrupt, you don’t have to drive too far to let them know what you think. Just look at this playing out in real time with parents in school board meetings.
There are two key things the state groups in our Network primarily deal with. First, they are working hard to protect federalism at the state level. You see wins like the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL) making it no longer possible for the governor to use a veto as a form of policymaking. Or the Empire Center exposing corruption in the Cuomo administration, or the Mackinac Center in Michigan reigning in governors who exercise imperial powers. These end up being complex legal matters, but they are important for maintaining separate powers at the state level. Think tanks are vital if only to make it harder for politicians that shirk their responsibilities to work their way up towards Congress.
Second, we’ve seen state groups work together to stop bad nationwide policies. Whether it’s Tarren Bragdon at Foundation for Government Accountability and their multistate efforts to stop the welfare state from destroying human creativity, or the multistate coalition that undid dues skimming that stole millions from healthcare workers and put it in the pockets of union bosses. SPN is often the lead connector between people in DC and those on the ground in states with experience and ideas they need to hear.
One thing we’re really focused on at SPN is developing a “diagnostic mindset”—which means we do not want to wade into where we think we see suffering with some textbook that already has the answers. Instead, we want to embrace what economist Friedrich Hayek called “local knowledge.” You go in listening to find out the reality of the problem. That understanding has a substantial impact on how you craft a solution, how you talk about it and implement it, and what partners you have along the way. There are times when a policy win might happen, but we don’t turn around to see if people take advantage of this freedom we helped them get. You have to spend time understanding these folks to offer the best solutions.
I want them to smile. They are inundated with messages that the country is going to Hell. Know that the people who voted for Biden did not all vote for single payer. They didn’t vote for the disaster in Afghanistan. They didn’t vote for the package they got, they mostly voted for the guy they didn’t like less. Most of us want the same things—good schools, safe communities, meaningful work. Therefore, we ought to be pushing power back down to communities. Not just because the Constitution requires it, but because that’s the path for creating real, lasting change.
Learn more and purchase you copy today at icitizenbook.com using the discount code “SPN” when you check out at Encounter Books.