Second-Order Diversity: An Exploration of Decentralization's Egalitarian Possibilities

28 Pages Posted: 12 Nov 2016

Date Written: November 11, 2016


Academics routinely equate federalism and localism with racism and assume that national politics will cure what ails us. That is a mistake, as the 2016 election has reminded us. The decision to decentralize, after all, is itself a sign of weak national normal; it signals a willingness to tolerate precisely the shortfalls that egalitarians mourn. Rather than condemning federalism and localism for weak national norms, we should focus on whether federalism makes it easier or harder to change those norms. We should focus, in short, on whether decentralization helps us get from “here to there” with the equality project.

Decentralization has its costs, to be sure. But it also ensures that decisionmaking bodies will be “second-order diverse,” with national minorities constituting local majorities and decisionmaking bodies varying dramatically in their composition. In a system that is second-order diverse, racial minorities can rule and not just be ruled. They can speak truth with power, not just to it. They can “dissent by deciding.” An individual can experience a variety of participatory opportunities over the course of her civic life, with different parts of her identity coming to the surface at different moments. The mistake we’ve made is in damning decentralization as cause without considering its possibilities as a cure. We must recognize that decentralization can beget centralization, and that states and localities are crucial drivers of the process by which we forge robust national norms. The aim of the paper isn’t to insist that decentralization is a cure-all, but simply to show that it can be a tool for change as well as preservation.

Keywords: race, dissent, federalism, localism, decentralization, equality

Suggested Citation

Gerken, Heather, Second-Order Diversity: An Exploration of Decentralization's Egalitarian Possibilities (November 11, 2016). Yale Law School, Public Law Research Paper No. 591. Available at SSRN: or

Heather Gerken (Contact Author)

Yale University - Law School ( email )

P.O. Box 208215
New Haven, CT 06520-8215
United States

Register to save articles to
your library


Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics