Should Washington, DC be a State?

25 April 2021

The possibility of making Washington, DC, a state has been a simmering desire on the political Left for decades.  Now, suddenly – in the aftermath of the fiasco that was the Trump administration, in the aftermath of the most recent failure of Democrats to win a clear Senate majority despite Trump’s defeat, and in the context of continuing Republican efforts to fortify their structural electoral advantages through selective curbs on voting –– it is no longer being held to a simmer but is rolling at a full boil.  It is the talk of Democratic politicians and of the political press.  And the House of Representatives just voted out a bill to make it happen.

The ostensible logic behind the idea is that the citizens of DC lack – but deserve, as do all other citizens – a voice in national governance.  However, the practical popularity of the idea has historically been largely political, not ethical: it was and is viewed as a counter to the nominal electoral advantage that small, rural (and, presumably ‘conservative’) states hold in the Senate.  DC, as a state, would be a small, urban (and, presumably, ‘liberal’) balance to correct that imbalance.

In the cultural imagination, rather than in the halls of Congress, it is the former logic, not the latter, that stirs passions and transforms the notion from political stratagem to righteous cause, from a simple ploy to realign political influence into a progressive struggle to empower a community perceived to be unfairly and illegitimately deprived of its right to the franchise.

And, now, because that community is largely African American in an era of seething racial tension, that righteous cause has been, itself, further recast as the latest front in the war on an ugly resurgence of Jim Crow.  As Robert Reich asserted in a much-reproduced tweet:[1]

D.C. is 46% Black and has 0 senators

Wyoming is 1% Black and has 2 senators

D.C. has 120,000 more people than Wyoming.

Opposition to D.C. statehood is racist. Period.

Is that even remotely true?  Is it either accurate or fair to say that there is not, and cannot be, any reason to object to statehood for the nation’s capital that doesn’t drag in racial antipathy and civil rights recidivism?

No.  Statehood for Washington, DC, is a troubling prospect.  And, it is troubling for reasons that have nothing to do with race.

 

“But DC isn’t a state!  It’s a city!”  That is perhaps the most common, and also the weakest, argument against statehood for DC.  But the argument is not entirely hollow and is not, therefore, one we should dismiss, presumptively and without due consideration, as irrelevant or malicious or ridiculous.

We routinely use a hierarchy of words to describe the escalating scales of political jurisdiction and the escalating scopes of political authority by which we organize governance.  Neighborhood.  Borough.  Village.  Town.  City.  County.  State.  Nation.  We understand those words to describe different things, and not merely because they most often correspond directly to some formalized legal charter.  A nation is not a neighborhood.  A village is not a state.  Yes, the boundaries between adjacent levels are inexact and subjective, just as they are with other words that describe a rough ordering along a continuum: decoration/craft/art; destitute/poor/comfortable/rich.  But that merely means they overlap somewhat at the edges, not that they are either indistinguishable or meaningless.

What is a “state”?  As with Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s infamous proclamation about pornography, we may not be able to define it with precision but we, nonetheless, know it when we see it.  And, by that standard, many people – perhaps most people – are at the least somewhat uncomfortable with the notion of elevating what is clearly a moderately-sized city to the level of eminence and authority conferred by “statehood”.

Common word usage, and our own intuition, tells us that “statehood” is not merely a matter of raw population.  It is true that, though most states are significantly more populous than Washington, DC, not all are.  Both Vermont and Wyoming have fewer people; several other states have numbers roughly equivalent.  Were it only a matter of population, however, one might argue that there are many other cities with far larger populations that might, therefore, themselves deserve statehood even more than DC[2].  New York City, for example, has 10 times the population of DC; four of its five boroughs also, individually, have at least twice that population[3].  LA has 4 times the population.  Chicago and Houston both have 3 times the population.  Even relatively modest cities like Charlotte, NC, Columbus, OH, Austin, TX, and Jacksonville, FL have larger populations than DC.  If a population of rather fewer than a million people is sufficient grounds for declaring statehood, perhaps we should create 400-some-odd additional states instead of just one.

Or perhaps not. None of those have ever been mentioned seriously as candidates for statehood.

And for good reason.  There is more to a “state” than a modestly large population.  Geography, in many ways, determines demographics and culture and commerce, and a common characteristic of states is that they also have a relatively large geographic extent, which brings with it a relatively large geographic diversity along with  some degree of related economic and social diversity.  Geography, as many people are wont to point out, is not directly relevant to governance.  Governments govern people, not acreage.  But every state – even the most sparsely and the most densely populated – contain both rural and urban enclaves along with the suburban borderlands that tie them to each other.  Although a few states are dominated by a single major industry, most play host to a variety of greater and lesser economic interests driven, at least in part, by the variety of natural resources and transport options and population densities that geography provides and supports.  Geographic size and diversity insulates a state from being an economic and cultural monolith because its social and economic structures result from negotiation and compromise among different groups that are physically separated from each other, with different histories and with different cultural and economic priorities.

Moreover, geographic and cultural diversity – along with sheer physical distance – drives a correspondingly distributed arrangement of political authority.  That is, a “state” is not a unitary political unit.  It is, rather, an aggregation of disparate ones: the state, itself, but also its various constituent counties and their constituent cities and towns, with overlapping but separate jurisdictions and with a corresponding tradition of shared sovereignty, dispersed authority, and negotiated public policy.  That, perhaps more than anything else, is the defining element that transforms a region into a “state”.

Those various types of diversity also, to at least some extent, constrain political partisanship.  Yes, some states are notoriously partisan in one direction or the other.  But in the last Presidential election, as bitter and divisive as it was, only 16 of the 50 states were split in their votes by more than a 20% margin either way; and only 7 of those provided as much as a 30% margin for the winner[4].  Even in the two most partisan states – Wyoming and West Virginia – more than 30% of the votes went to losing candidates, a ratio of just over 2:1 in favor of the winner.  And, in the case of one, West Virginia, its political leanings have evolved fairly recently: it has voted for Republican candidates in the last 20 years but, prior to that, gave its support fairly reliably to Democrats.

Washington, DC, by contrast, is an outlier even among outliers.  In the last Presidential election, the Democratic candidate won by a margin of more than 17:1 – and that margin has not been less than 12:1 for the last four presidential elections in a row[5].  In fact, DC has given the Democratic candidate more than 74% support in every Presidential election since its citizens were allowed the vote 60 years ago, and more than 80% in all but two of them.

Political partisanship is not, of course, on its face a reason to deny statehood to a region that otherwise deserves it.  Given the opportunity, Puerto Rico – another perennial nominee for such elevation – would almost certainly post a reliably Democratic vote for the Presidency and send a reliably Democratic delegation to the Congress; but it has, nonetheless, all the attributes we would normally associate with a “state”.  Should its own citizens ever agree that statehood is what they want, then its presumed partisan political stance ought not to interfere with it achieving that status.

But the extremity of the partisanship in DC politics is yet another piece of evidence – added to its utter lack of geographic size or diversity, to its uniformly urban character and culture, and to the unitary nature of its governmental authority – that its claim to the status of “statehood” may not align well with the common understanding of what that word means and entails.

It also seems likely that the extremity of its partisanship is a prime reason that proponents of statehood for DC dismiss that evidence out of hand – and dismiss, in the same way, the entire notion that statehood might best be withheld from a mere city – as being either overtly political or, worse, overtly racist.

Had DC voted 80% to 90% for Republicans in the last 15 presidential elections in a row,  I suspect I would be able to count on one hand – quite possibly without even opening my fingers – the number of Democratic partisans supporting statehood for the city.  And, under the same circumstance, support for statehood from the current mass of obdurately averse Republican partisans would almost certainly be, to the contrary, legion.  One cannot, of course, prove a counterfactual conjecture.  We cannot claim to know with certainty what any individual or any group would do in some hypothetical situation, and especially in a situation that is far afield from reality.  Nonetheless, we can often make plausible arguments from analogy and reasonable extrapolations from experience.  And, on that basis, I don’t think I would be far out on a limb to suggest – and I expect anyone who considered it honestly and without the filter of political desire would, of need, concur – that the zealotry of Democratic support for DC statehood would evaporate into a mist of hostile ambivalence if the city had proven itself, over the last three generations, to be an extreme and reliable redoubt of Republican sentiment.

At least to some extent, then, and perhaps to the greatest extent, the current push for DC statehood is, as it was at its genesis and as it has always been since, a political maneuver – albeit, a political maneuver garbed in the trappings of a moral crusade.

 

But what of that moral crusade?

Begin by discounting accusations of racism.  Many of those accusations are hyperbolic and disingenuous, condescensions designed to preempt discussion more than to depict a genuine sin.  Why take on the heavy lifting of refuting an argument if you can, instead, convince everyone to ignore it by proclaiming it to be manifestly contemptible even before it can be made?  Why bother to engage in debate at all if you can, instead, shame your opponent into a self-abnegating silence?  Such declarations amount to low blows in a political brawl, not serious moral judgements.

But even sincerely felt accusations of racism on this subject are, nonetheless, inaccurate and unfair.  One of the flaws in modern American racial discourse is the insistence on ascribing to “racism” effects that can be perfectly well explained by other causes and that would almost certainly still occur even if happenstances of racial dichotomy were eliminated.  Accusations of racism in the debate over DC statehood follow that pattern.

Yes, a few people will, as one might expect given the demographics of the city and the current lilt of cultural conversations on the Trumpian Right, craft some explicitly and some subtly racist arguments against statehood for DC.  You might hear those arguments if you frequented rallies and social media accounts run by the Aryan Nation or the Boogaloo Boys or like-minded groups.  And, those arguments will filter upon occasion into the cesspool that is the Twitterverse, where they will be awarded more attention than they deserve and will pollute the national conversation to the extent of that attention.  But few outside that cloistered clique give them much credence.  They are all but irrelevant to the debate that will be waged on the topic within the Congress and among the majority of American citizens.

There are, however, also legitimate arguments against statehood for DC grounded in political theory and historical experience and the text of the American Constitution, arguments that would be no more and no less valid – and people would have no more and no less cause to take them seriously – if the population of DC were entirely white rather than predominantly African American.  The arguments, themselves, are raceless.

No doubt, America’s ignominious history of racially-demarcated political repression invites skepticism about hidden motives and duplicity whenever political disputes touch upon the interest of an African American community. We all have right and reason to be suspicious.  And, no doubt, there are some people who will find legitimate arguments against statehood for DC more congenial than they otherwise might because denying DC the privilege of statehood for other reasons would also prevent a modest increase in the political and social power of its African American residents.  Some others will find those arguments less congenial than they otherwise might, and for the same reason.  It is always easier to find an argument convincing if the consequence of accepting that argument happens to include side-effects you desire, rather than ones you would prefer to avoid.

But the fact that some bigots (or partisans) believe a thing doesn’t automatically mean that only bigots (or partisans) can or should believe that thing.  And it doesn’t, therefore, follow that believing that thing makes you, by definition, a bigot (or a partisan).  As Freud is reputed to have demurred, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

More to the point, the fact that an action might, by an unfortunate alignment of circumstance, adversely affect one racial group more than another doesn’t automatically imply that its purpose was to do so; and, critically, it doesn’t prevent that action from also providing intentional and more consequential results that are genuinely and generally beneficial.  Racial equity is important, and its importance is magnified by America’s shameful history on the subject.  But, as important as racial equity is, it is not the only important thing in this imperfect world we inhabit.

The fundamental moral argument for DC statehood has nothing to do with race.  Statehood is conceived as a remedy for disenfranchisement generally: the citizens of DC – of whatever race they may be – are denied a voice, through Congressional representation, in the legislative processes of American governance; and statehood would give those citizens – of whatever race they may be – that voice.

Arguments, both moral and practical, against statehood for DC also have nothing to do with race.  The question we must ask when we consider that remedy – or, indeed, when we consider any remedy that involves a dramatic change to the status quo – is not merely whether the remedy will solve the particular problem at hand.  We must also ask what other old problems the status quo is designed to curtail and what new problems the proposed remedy might create.  We must ask whether those problems, both old and new, are more or less onerous than the one we intend to fix.  And we must ask whether there is some less dramatic remedy that might provide similar relief at lesser cost.

And, in general, to answer those questions, we must first understand how severe the problem is and why it – and the status quo that creates it – exists in the first place.

The residents of Washington, DC, are, to some extent, disenfranchised with respect to the Federal government.  That is a fact: they have a say in the choice of the Executive but they do not have representation in the Legislature; they have a say in how laws are to be enforced but not in what those laws are or ought to be.  If we believe in the moral basis of representative democracy – that governments “derive their just powers from the consent of the governed” – then we must consider that an authentic problem.  And we must wonder why it exists and why it has been allowed to persist throughout the several centuries of the American experiment in democratic rule.

 

Unlike nearly every other metropolis in the history of the world, Washington, DC did not sprout gradually and organically from the gathered seeds of individual initiative.  It was never a self-organizing cluster of pioneers taking advantage of some local geographical bounty like a lively millstream or a fertile meadow or a sheltered harbor or a rich mineral seam or a natural crossroad or a defensible boundary.  It never evolved through ordinary stages of growth, from outpost to village to town to city.  It never grappled with and integrated competing notions of social spirit and practical purpose from successive waves of immigration and enterprise.  It never built its population or its influence upon a foundation of past economic and cultural success.  It never competed with other cities for its share of prosperity and prestige.

Rather, Washington, DC, was conceived and constructed as a mature cosmopolis, abruptly and in toto and by a conscious act of human will, in order to fulfill a declared, dedicated, specific, and narrow administrative purpose: to provide an autonomous zone within which the American Federal polity could exist and operate untrammeled by the geographic and political jurisdictions of any of its constituent sovereign states.  That purpose, and the rules by which it was to be sustained, was established at its creation without regard to who the inhabitants of the new District were and might be – without regard to demographics, racial or otherwise – before, in fact, there were any inhabitants at all and at a time when it would have been reasonably presumed that any future voters that might move to and reside within such a District, and that would, therefore, be required to live with those rules, would all be white men.  And, in the 220 years since its creation, that purpose has remained constant: The District is a vessel for political authority as much as it is a city, a vessel which exists expressly and exclusively to play sequestered and neutral host to the Federal government.

That the Federal government might require such a host, and the reasoning behind why that host should be detached from and independent of any individual state, was prescribed by James Madison in The Federalist No. 43 as part of the original debate over what form the Federal government should take.  And, as Lee Casey, a lawyer at the Heritage Foundation, noted in a report on the founding and status of the nation’s capital[6], the belief in that need was based not merely on political theory but on hard experience:

Madison’s concerns about insults to the “public authority” were not speculative. In June 1783, several hundred unpaid and angry Conti­nental soldiers had marched on Philadelphia, menacing Congress in Independence Hall itself. Pennsylvania refused all requests for assistance and, after two days, Congress adjourned. Its Members fled into New Jersey.

Indeed, the need was considered so obvious and so important by the founders that it was written into the Constitution, itself, in Article 1, Section 8, Clause 17 which stipulates that:

The Congress shall have the power to… exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the Acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of Government of the United States….

That is, from the very beginning, the nation’s Capital was intended and designed to exist outside the system of Federalism that balanced the needs and prerogatives of the individual states against those of the nation overall.  It was and is, in modern cultural phrasing, a “safe space” for the Federal government where the President and his Cabinet, the Congress, and the Justices of the Supreme Court could perform their duties without threat of being either held hostage to or harassed by the authority of an individual state that might disagree with their policies, their methods, or their decisions.

That, then, would be the direct and immediate cost of statehood for Washington, DC: the Federal government would lose its geographic autonomy and become subject, in some significant measure, to the jurisdiction and, therefore, to the singular influence of one particular state out of the 51 that it nominally governs.

We may debate whether or not that is still as much a problem now, after more than 230 years of growth in the size, scope, and authority of the Federal government, as it was when the Federal government was newly formed.  But it is a legitimate question, worth a debate.  The answer may very well, yet, be “yes”.

And, if the answer is, “yes,” then we must ask how much moral benefit we are actually offering to the citizens of DC in trade for that real practical cost.  How big is the problem of disenfranchisement for the citizens of DC that we are trying to solve?  And, is statehood the least disruptive solution to that problem?

 

On its face, and in theory, “huge!” is the reasonable answer to the question of how big the problem is.  Nearly ¾ of a million people live in DC.  Nearly ¾ of a million people are, therefore, denied the benefit and the dignity of participation in choosing the laws they must live by.  But, it is also reasonable to ask what that theoretical denial of the franchise looks like in practice.

The city of Washington, DC, is very small: it is 10 miles wide and only a little more than 5 miles deep.  There is, literally, no one in the city who lives more than 2¾ miles from the city boundary.  There is, literally, no one in the city who could not gain the franchise immediately by moving 2¾ miles or less – a bit under an hour’s walk at a comfortable pace – across a state line into either Virginia or Maryland.  We might suppose, therefore, that it should be possible to grant the franchise to the city’s citizens in a way that is less disruptive to Federal autonomy than elevating its status to statehood.

Consider, in particular, a few more detailed demographic markers.  According to the DC Policy Center, an advocacy organization with the self-declared mission of “advancing policies for a strong and vibrant economy in the District of Columbia,” over 70% of the voting age population of Washington DC was not born there[7].  That is, over 70% of the residents of DC are disenfranchised because they chose to be – because they moved, knowing what the rules were, from some other place, where they had the franchise, into DC, where they don’t.  Presumably, they did so because they valued whatever other advantages living in DC gave them more than they valued their franchise.

Moreover, according to the same policy center, of the remaining 30% or so – of those voters who were born in DC and did not willingly disenfranchise themselves – more than 80% of them live in the neighborhoods that cluster along the northwest and southwest edges of the city, directly adjacent to the Maryland border.  Taken together, than means the vast majority of people in DC who are truly disenfranchised could gain the franchise by moving, on average, a bit more than a mile from where they currently live.

Moving is a burden.  But, it is a burden a great many Americans – including nearly everyone and, in particular, nearly every resident of DC at least once in their life, when they make the transition from their parents’ home into adulthood – take upon themselves routinely and with equanimity and for a variety of economic, cultural, emotional, and political reasons.  We might well ask, then, why the least disruptive solution to the disenfranchisement of DC’s citizens might not simply be to encourage and to help them to move the mile or two across the state line.  Imagine, for example, a small but well-funded federal program that provided such encouragement and assistance.

Or, if you find that notion imperious and offensive, or if you find it economically impractical, why we might not, instead, simply move the state line the mile or two across them by returning sovereignty of those few neighborhoods back to Maryland, whence they originally came.  There is precedent for that: the bulk of the land originally ceded to Washington, DC from Virginia was returned to that state in 1847 when it became clear that the Federal government was not making any good use of it.

Moreover, for the first few years after DC was originally chartered, its citizens had voting rights in Congressional elections – in the state (either Virginia or Maryland) that had originally held jurisdiction over the land they were occupying[8].  Perhaps, instead of moving either people or boundaries, we could simply re-establish that original political arrangement.

Doing any of those things would enfranchise the citizens who live in DC and, yet, still preserve enough of the city for the original and intended use by the Federal government that its leaders could retain the option to live and work there without subjecting themselves to the jurisdiction and authority of any state.

 

The most compelling reason, however, to oppose statehood for DC is not that a city isn’t really a state, though that is true.  And it is not that DC statehood has the real potential to interfere with the autonomy of the Federal government, though that is also true.  And it is not that there are simple and practical remedies to the disenfranchisement of DC’s citizens that fall short of outright statehood and that would not, therefore, threaten Federal autonomy — though that, too, is true.

No.  The most compelling reason to oppose statehood for DC is that DC is a company town.

Washington, DC has only one industry: Federal government.  That is its lifeblood.

That doesn’t mean nothing else goes on in DC.  Congressman Jody Hice was memorably and justifiably chastised for arguing against DC statehood on the grounds that it had no car dealerships[9], as if that were either true or relevant.  DC has a relatively vibrant private economy.  It has car dealers.  It has restaurants.  It has hotels.  It has grocery stores and drugstores and department stores and boutiques and barbershops and dentists and theaters and taxis and anything else you would expect to find in any modestly sized city.  It has those things because people live and visit there and because, on average, the people who live and visit there have quite a bit of money to spend.

But, just as Detroit’s robust and varied economy, nonetheless, ultimately depended on “big auto”, so DC’s robust and varied economy, nonetheless, ultimately depends on big government.  That’s where the money comes from.  That’s why people move to and live and visit there.  That is the engine that drives both its economy and its culture.

When the Federal government becomes larger and employs more people, that benefits DC.  When the Federal government spends more money, that benefits DC.  When the federal government exercises more authority and influence over the rest of the country, that benefits DC.  What benefits the Federal government as an organism – by helping it to grow, keeping it nourished, and increasing its power over its environment – benefits DC.  And those benefits accrue to DC regardless of whether that increased scope and increased wealth and increased authority is good or bad for the nation overall.

The partisanship DC expresses when it votes is qualitatively different from the partisanship in the rest of the country because its preference for bigger government has little to do with whether bigger or smaller government is in the national interest.  It has little to do with whether bigger or smaller government is more effective at achieving its ends.  It has little to do with whether bigger or smaller government is more a threat to or a defender of individual liberty.  Bigger government is in DC’s interest.  Smaller government is not.  Its preference for bigger government is about bigger government as an end, not as a means.  It votes for Democrats because Democrats want more government.  Why Democrats might want more government – and why Republicans might want less – is, in large measure, irrelevant to that.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Bob Dole, of Kansas, was sometimes referred to with disparagement as “the Senator from Archer Daniels Midland” because positions he took in the Senate so often aligned with policies ADM advocated through its lobbying efforts.  It was not a mystery why that might be the case: ADM was among the largest employers in Kansas and was, to a large degree, linked inextricably to the Kansas economy.  In most cases, what was good for ADM was also good for Kansas.  And, as a Senator, Bob Dole’s job and his responsibility was to represent the interests of Kansas.

For the same reason, if DC were to be granted statehood, the Senators it would send to Congress would be, for all intents and purposes, “the Senators from the Federal Government.”  That has nothing to do with corruption.  It would be their job and their responsibility to represent the interests of DC.  To do otherwise would be to fail in their duty to their constituents.  And, in most cases, what is good for the Federal government is also good for DC.

And that is a problem.  It is, quite simply, a terrible idea on its face to give a government any significant role in defining its own purposes and in choosing its own methods and constraints.  It is a terrible idea on its face to allow a government to govern itself.  That would be a conflict of interest at the most fundamental level and an assault on the very idea of government that is controlled by and accountable to its citizens.

And that is why DC should never be a state.

 

[1] https://twitter.com/rbreich/status/1374045726792056836

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_United_States_cities_by_population — 2019 estimates from U.S. Census Bureau: Washington, DC: 705,749; NYC: 8,336,817; LA: 3,979,576; Chicago: 2,693,976; Houston: 2,320,268; Charlotte: 885,708; Columbus: 898,553; Austin: 978,908; Jacksonville: 911,507.

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boroughs_of_New_York_City

[4] https://www.cnn.com/election/2020/results/president

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_presidential_elections_in_Washington,_D.C.

[6] “The Constitution and the District of Columbia”, by Lee Casey, The Heritage Foundation, 22 Mar 2007 (https://www.heritage.org/the-constitution/report/the-constitution-and-the-district-columbia)

[7] https://www.dcpolicycenter.org/publications/which-areas-have-the-highest-share-of-d-c-born-residents/

[8] https://dcist.com/story/19/09/18/the-past-present-and-potential-future-of-d-c-statehood-explained/

[9] https://www.cnn.com/2021/03/22/politics/fact-check-jody-hice-car-dealerships-dc-statehood/index.html

© Copyright 2021, Augustus P. Lowell

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