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Siemens ’21: California’s laboratory of democracy

It has been a historic session for the California legislature. The state’s Democratic lawmakers and its newly minted liberal governor have staked out their positions in a political war between the nation’s most progressive state and a conservative president.

California has frequently attracted headlines in the national news — and in President Trump’s indefatigable Twitter feed — in recent months for its rapid enactment of a defiant legislative agenda.

Though some legislation would have earned the state notoriety regardless of its relationship to Trump (such as the recent bill that would make it legal for college athletes to receive compensation), California’s leftward shift has national significance because it directly impugns the Oval Office’s aggressive deregulatory agenda, one unparalleled since the early years of the Reagan administration.

Over the past two years, Trump has done away with federal regulations of every stripe: those addressing worker protections, fair housing standards, access to affordable healthcare, public assistance program requirements, financial sector transparency and fiduciary duties, gender equality requirements in education, agricultural safety and — most alarmingly — Bush- and Obama-era environmental protections. The president and his cabinet often justify such maneuvers to the public by invoking the old platitude of “states’ rights.” By dismantling these regulations, the current executive branch is supposedly correcting the Obama administration’s rampant federal overreach. Conservatives have lauded Trump for bringing about a “renaissance” of federalism.

But California is challeging the maxim that “states’ rights” carries with it conservative policies.

The Golden State’s 2019 legislative session delivered milestone victories for progressives. Included among the 2,600 proposed laws were triumphs in securing rights for “gig economy” workers such as Uber and Lyft drivers, limiting rent increases and predatory lending practices, giving the right to compensation for college athletes whose images are used for promotional purposes and protecting the state’s existing environmental and climate policies.  All the while, California’s Air Resources Board doubled down on its cap-and-trade plan and Attorney General Xavier Becerra joined 21 other state attorney generals in suing the Trump administration for the right to keep independent gas emissions standards waivers, which the president himself had revoked just days prior via executive Tweet.

California’s progessive legislative spree is driven by concern for its constituents — the hallmark of an effective federalist system that bestows responsibility to state governments. The state’s leadership on environmental regulations, though it can be seen as a rebuke to Trump’s climate policy, is nonetheless pragmatic in nature. For example, its need for stricter vehicular tailpipe emissions standards is as practical as it is ideological: Nearly 36 million vehicles were registered with the California DMV as of last December, meaning that the impact of uncontrolled air pollution on the state’s 40 million residents could be especially dire. Most Californians view such “progressive” environmental policies not as partisan posturing but as essential measures to protect their own health and safety.

The Trump administration’s reaction to California’s climate policy amounts to a blatant violation of states’ rights. The administration has vowed to fight back against California’s independent emissions standards — all while threatening to withhold federal funding until the state addresses the “environmental crisis” created by its large homeless population. Such actions neglect the bedrock principles upon which the U.S. government was formed.

State-specific policy challenges, such as those which California’s authorities have sought to address this year, are the reason why the nation’s founders established the United States as a federalist republic rather than a centralized monarchy. The framers recognized that the political flexibility needed to address regional concerns — for instance, tailpipe emissions in a state with nearly twice as many automobiles than any other — is not always nationally scalable. State-specific policy priorities frequently slip off of the federal legislative agenda, not for their lack of importance but because many of California’s problems are simply irrelevant to Alabamians and Kentuckians.

Former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously wrote that American federalism envisions states as “laboratories of democracy.” He was right. States remain uniquely suited to experimentation with bold new policy projects, which — if unsuccessful — pose a lesser risk to the country at large compared to failed national experiments. Trump and his Republican allies would do well to recall their party’s time-honored overtures to states’ rights. After all, Democrats certainly have.

Olivia Siemens ’21 can be reached in Washington, DC, where she is spending the semester with Brown in DC, at Please send responses to this opinion to and op-eds to



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