As a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand, I began to understand the differences between a centralized national government and one that split powers between the national government and the states.
In Thailand, everything was centralized in Bangkok. There were provincial and local governments but they were controlled by Bangkok. All government professional positions - in schools, hospitals, police departments, courts, etc. - were controlled by Bangkok.
This means if you run afoul of your employer in one province, you're screwed in every province.
If someone had issues - i.e. disagreed with the actions of the headmaster of the school she was teaching at - they couldn't just go to another school district and apply for a job. There was, essentially, just one school district, administered in Bangkok. If you vocalized your disagreement and irritated your boss enough, you might find yourself transferred to a distant part of Thailand while your spouse, say a doctor in the hospital, was not transferred there (and couldn't get a job there without official sanction.) An indirect, but very effective way of keeping employees in line.
My mother was 17 when she escaped Nazi Germany. On more than one occasion told me that "the same thing could happen in the US," I have always wondered about that.
In Thailand I began to understand that the US structure, with powers divided between the states and federal government, would make it harder for an autocrat to seize control of the US.
Yes, local schools and police departments get federal funding, and Washington can threaten to withhold that funding. But, a local police department is independent of the FBI and other federal law enforcement agencies. They can tell them to go to hell if they find an order distasteful or out of sync with local values.
So the other day when I heard the police chief of Santa Cruz declare their department would
take a long hard look on whether to cooperate with Homeland Security in the future, I thought about this structural benefit of our government.
In Hitler's Germany, Berlin was similar to Bangkok. All power was centralized there. But here, the Santa Cruz police chief can tell Homeland Security to go to hell without losing his job.
As we figure out how to deal with the reality of most divisive and abusive president in American history, I can take some solace in this division of power between the feds and the states.