Remember federalism? If you said, no, or what’s federalism, you are in elite company

28 Jun

If you ask many Political Scientists today, Federalism is just chapter 3 in their PS 101 textbook.  It is often just skipped for lack of relevance, dismissed as obsolete, or simply jumbled through by professors who frankly don’t understand it (they see it merely as a design feature born out of political pragmatism rather than a system of governance derived from a keen sense of human nature and conviction about how diverse societies might flourish).  A typical picture from an American civics text of how the constitution designs federalism is seen below (in reality, of course, through federal grant power, federal mandates, war-making, and executive branch decrees, the circle on the left is overlapping in practice, if not in theory or design, the circle on the right):

The founding fathers, and the framers of our constitution, sought to protect individual freedom and to keep representative government close to the people in two ways: the separation of powers and a federal system of government.  The idea behind federalism, where independent sovereign power is shared between the states and national government, is to bring unity out of diversity without uniformity.  This was the masterpiece and cornerstone of the American experiment, enshrined in our motto (e pluribus unum, ‘out of the many, one’).  States, which were prior to the national government and the formative components of it, were culturally and politically diverse and many feared that any move towards a stronger national government after the American Revolution could result in an uncontrollable monster doing the bidding of either a few entrenched interests or an unbridled popular will, both at the expense of the rights of individuals and the great institutionalized diversity of the states.  That is, they feared that a representative national government ever expanding in scope and strength over that of the states, would represent the great power centers of the nation as a whole, suffocating state identity and diversity, and they feared that the popular will expressed through national political power would unilaterally enforce a once-size-fits-all program of public policy upon the states, irrespective to state character.  (I know, I know, what about the federalists and the anti-federalists?  Yes, there were two camps in the early years of the republic who disagreed about the degree of centralized power America should have, but neither could be described as true or modern centralists.  As their names imply, some wanted shared power between states and the national government and some wanted the states to have all the power.  Almost no one defended with any standing the centralization of political power or “centralized federalism” as we have today.  And their leaders, Adams and Jefferson, represented by far the dominant view and the most centralist of the two, Adams, would probably be called a “states-rights zealot” by today’s standards.)

Politically, we are seeing this happen today, as federal power encroaches (that word is truly too weak these days) upon state authority in virtually every area of public life.  The usurpation of state authority is also part of our popular political culture.  Take same-sex marriage.  Everyone wants to know what the national opinion polls are on this issue.  What do most Americans think?  But why are we not ever told (or asked), contra our tradition and design of federalism, what most Americans within each state think?  How many majorities of state populations are on this side or that?  According to our system of federalism, it should matter, it should really matter, what most states think about an issue.  After all, they are the governments closest to the people, most responsible for representing the people, for keeping policy within the purview of the people.  If public policy is to be set nationally — and federalism, including the original Federalists themselves, suggests that it rarely should on most issues not clearly identified with national powers in the Constitution (remember that old 10th amendment thing?) — then the central question should be what is the popular position among the States, not just what is popular.  We are the United States of America, not the United People of America, and this is so by design for very good reasons.

Policy in-congruence occurs when governments enact laws, especially on “easy issues” (issues well-understood and salient to most folks), that are out of accord with the political culture.  Federalism is a way of preventing that, since each state can legislate freely according to their distinct political cultures.  But the usurpation of state authority creates the conditions for policy in-congruence, and therefore cultural conflict, because a government far away and far removed from local political cultures sets policy for us all.  Of course, citizens may not like what the majority of their citizens move their legislatures to enact in their state.  Well, part of that is the consequence of living in a democracy, but with federalism, one can ordinarily “vote with their feet” and move to a more politically culturally appropriate setting (California instead of Tennessee, for instance).  But without federalism, tough.  Every citizen, local culture, state, and region is bound to the “general will” (to use a Rousseau-an term), with no way to escape.  In essence, what we are seeing is the triumph of a “communitarian monism” as Robert Nisbet put it, envision by Rousseau, an “ideal commonwealth containing individuals and the State [alone], without communities or intermediate associations to mediate between them.”  In the American context, states are the political manifestations of those intermediate associations, joining local communities, churches, and above all, families, as the principle vehicles of a successful experiment in self-government.

Of course, political amalgamation, the imposition of the general will, the eradication of localism, wouldn’t be too troubling, I suppose, if the society were basically culturally homogenous.  But America has never been culturally homogenous, and it is especially not so today since the kind of cultural conflict we face strikes at our most basic foundational philosophical and religious convictions about morality, justice, and human flourishing.  Sadly, the founders solution to such a situation, federalism, continues to wither on the vine, suffering from both political attack and social amnesia.  And what follows from that usurpation and amnesia is what we are seeing today, a nation rich in diversity, being increasingly governed by the general will, with policy, even policy most sensitive to cultural diversity, being set primarily and unilaterally by a handful of mega coastal cities, leaving cultural conflict (not unity) in the wake.  Patrick Deenan talks about this in a blog post concerning James Madison’s premature confidence in a virtuous general will:

"James Madison argued that the political system produced by the constitution of 1787 provided for certain institutional impediments to the demands of the majority but that ultimately
the will of the people could not be stopped. As such, he argued that the virtue of the citizens was the primary bulwark against the usurpation of freedom. But
a common consensus about virtue (and about freedom) implies a common underlying culture that consists of more than demands for individual rights. If the sole
purpose of human existence is to liberate every desire, same-sex marriage is clearly a good thing so long as it is desired. If, on the other hand, there are
ends and means proper to human persons and we are obligated to conform our actions to these norms, then same-sex marriage may not be within the realm of
that which is morally good for human persons. It’s a question of culture that, as these questions do, goes to the heart of what it means to be a human. It is
a question that cannot adequately be answered by recurring simply to competing rights claims.
Madison could imagine a national community united by a robust conception of virtue. As we have grown larger and
more diverse in our thinking, that is no longer the case (if it ever was). We may generally agree on abstractions such as equality and individual rights but
that is not enough to form a coherent community. So we are left with an incoherent national community (did such a thing ever exist?) and the
possibility of more or less coherent communities of a smaller scale and even these will be difficult to maintain, for we all drink deeply from the fount of
a popular culture where the liberation of desire is the first fundamental of the faith."

So what are we to do, those of us falling farther and farther out of character with the popular culture?  I think cultivating localism among ourselves and our children is critical.  We have to reject radical individualism, something the Republican party frankly has helped to foster.  We have social obligations.  In that sense, we are communitarian (which I argue is a rather natural disposition for the Christian).  That doesn’t mean that our social obligations reach equally to all men without regard to blood or place.  We do not belong to an undifferentiated mass of people.  Rather we are persons with specific duties and loves, with our first obligations and attachments to those nearest us, our families, churches, and local communities.  We can promote not communitarian monism, but a kind of communitarian pluralism, to borrow from Nisbet again (though it’s true Nisbet spoke little about state governments in this regard).  God created humans in His image.  That means, like the Holy Trinity itself, we are communitarians at our core, we are one kind of thing but we are distinct in person, and attempting to eradicate those distinctions entirely ends in poor social health.  To belong to all men or to love all men equally is to empty the word belong or love of any real substance and reduce them to just nebulous abstractions.  Politically, perhaps the new strategy ought to focus less on moving national policy in there direction of the interests of traditionalists (now a minority in many ways), but rather trying to implement laws that serve to protect the natural sovereignty of social spheres (churches, local schools, families, states, etc.) from nationalization and political amalgamation.  Reinstituting (or reminding policymakers of) our doctrine of federalism is not just one way of doing that, but it’s also quite constitutional as well.

Oh, and Nisbet wasn’t alone.

James Madison argued that the political system produced by the constitution of 1787 provided for certain institutional impediments to the demands of the majority but that ultimately the will of the people could not be stopped. As such, he argued that the virtue of the citizens was the primary bulwark against the usurpation of freedom. But a common consensus about virtue (and about freedom) implies a common underlying culture that consists of more than demands for individual rights. If the sole purpose of human existence is to liberate every desire, same-sex marriage is clearly a good thing so long as it is desired. If, on the other hand, there are ends and means proper to human persons and we are obligated to conform our actions to these norms, then same-sex marriage may not be within the realm of that which is morally good for human persons. It’s a question of culture that, as these questions do, goes to the heart of what it means to be a human. It is a question that cannot adequately be answered by recurring simply to competing rights claims.

Madison could imagine a national community united by a robust conception of virtue. As we have grown larger and more diverse in our thinking, that is no longer the case (if it ever was). We may generally agree on abstractions such as equality and individual rights but that is not enough to form a coherent community. So we are left with an incoherent national community (did such a thing ever exist?) and the possibility of more or less coherent communities of a smaller scale and even these will be difficult to maintain, for we all drink deeply from the fount of a popular culture where the liberation of desire is the first fundamental of the faith.

– See more at: http://www.frontporchrepublic.com/?p=7063#sthash.43vdZNhK.dpuf

James Madison argued that the political system produced by the constitution of 1787 provided for certain institutional impediments to the demands of the majority but that ultimately the will of the people could not be stopped. As such, he argued that the virtue of the citizens was the primary bulwark against the usurpation of freedom. But a common consensus about virtue (and about freedom) implies a common underlying culture that consists of more than demands for individual rights. If the sole purpose of human existence is to liberate every desire, same-sex marriage is clearly a good thing so long as it is desired. If, on the other hand, there are ends and means proper to human persons and we are obligated to conform our actions to these norms, then same-sex marriage may not be within the realm of that which is morally good for human persons. It’s a question of culture that, as these questions do, goes to the heart of what it means to be a human. It is a question that cannot adequately be answered by recurring simply to competing rights claims.

Madison could imagine a national community united by a robust conception of virtue. As we have grown larger and more diverse in our thinking, that is no longer the case (if it ever was). We may generally agree on abstractions such as equality and individual rights but that is not enough to form a coherent community. So we are left with an incoherent national community (did such a thing ever exist?) and the possibility of more or less coherent communities of a smaller scale and even these will be difficult to maintain, for we all drink deeply from the fount of a popular culture where the liberation of desire is the first fundamental of the faith.

– See more at: http://www.frontporchrepublic.com/?p=7063#sthash.43vdZNhK.dpuf

James Madison argued that the political system produced by the constitution of 1787 provided for certain institutional impediments to the demands of the majority but that ultimately the will of the people could not be stopped. As such, he argued that the virtue of the citizens was the primary bulwark against the usurpation of freedom. But a common consensus about virtue (and about freedom) implies a common underlying culture that consists of more than demands for individual rights. If the sole purpose of human existence is to liberate every desire, same-sex marriage is clearly a good thing so long as it is desired. If, on the other hand, there are ends and means proper to human persons and we are obligated to conform our actions to these norms, then same-sex marriage may not be within the realm of that which is morally good for human persons. It’s a question of culture that, as these questions do, goes to the heart of what it means to be a human. It is a question that cannot adequately be answered by recurring simply to competing rights claims.

Madison could imagine a national community united by a robust conception of virtue. As we have grown larger and more diverse in our thinking, that is no longer the case (if it ever was). We may generally agree on abstractions such as equality and individual rights but that is not enough to form a coherent community. So we are left with an incoherent national community (did such a thing ever exist?) and the possibility of more or less coherent communities of a smaller scale and even these will be difficult to maintain, for we all drink deeply from the fount of a popular culture where the liberation of desire is the first fundamental of the faith.

– See more at: http://www.frontporchrepublic.com/?p=7063#sthash.43vdZNhK.dpuf

James Madison argued that the political system produced by the constitution of 1787 provided for certain institutional impediments to the demands of the majority but that ultimately the will of the people could not be stopped. As such, he argued that the virtue of the citizens was the primary bulwark against the usurpation of freedom. But a common consensus about virtue (and about freedom) implies a common underlying culture that consists of more than demands for individual rights. If the sole purpose of human existence is to liberate every desire, same-sex marriage is clearly a good thing so long as it is desired. If, on the other hand, there are ends and means proper to human persons and we are obligated to conform our actions to these norms, then same-sex marriage may not be within the realm of that which is morally good for human persons. It’s a question of culture that, as these questions do, goes to the heart of what it means to be a human. It is a question that cannot adequately be answered by recurring simply to competing rights claims.

Madison could imagine a national community united by a robust conception of virtue. As we have grown larger and more diverse in our thinking, that is no longer the case (if it ever was). We may generally agree on abstractions such as equality and individual rights but that is not enough to form a coherent community. So we are left with an incoherent national community (did such a thing ever exist?) and the possibility of more or less coherent communities of a smaller scale and even these will be difficult to maintain, for we all drink deeply from the fount of a popular culture where the liberation of desire is the first fundamental of the faith.

– See more at: http://www.frontporchrepublic.com/?p=7063#sthash.43vdZNhK.dpuf

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2 Responses to “Remember federalism? If you said, no, or what’s federalism, you are in elite company”

  1. pba July 8, 2013 at 3:18 pm #

    Federalism, the last bastion of defenders of inequalities! Maybe most political scientists are on to something?

    I am confused why you wrote “Take same-sex marriage.  Everyone wants to know what the national opinion polls are on this issue.  What do most Americans think?  But why are we not ever told (or asked), contra our tradition and design of federalism, what most Americans within each state think?”

    I’m not sure what you are reading, but such studies are conducted and reported on all the time. E.g., most recently I’ve read:

    http://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/research/marriage-and-couples-rights/public-support-for-marriage-for-same-sex-couples-by-state/

    And the wikipedia page has a surprisingly extensive list of recent studies by state mostly reported on in popular news sources: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_opinion_of_same-sex_marriage_in_the_United_States#cite_note-149

    I mean, if wikipedia is up-to-date on something…

    Like

    • thereformedmind July 9, 2013 at 11:05 am #

      Thanks fore commenting pba. When I complain that we are never asked or told, I mean in the popular press or even in college classrooms (didn’t say you couldn’t find the answer if you looked or thought to). But unfortunately, the ordinary political conversation these days, on any issue (same-sex marriage was only an example) includes opinion polls only of the national mood. Federalism would have us consider what the majority of states think as equally important, especially if we are to adopt a one-size-fits-all national policy on an issue. As far as federalism being a bastion of inequalities, there is no reason to assume intrinsic virtue in politicians holding national office versus state office. While some states have done poorly in certain areas of social justice, many states have been way out in front of national policy and other states (e.g., women and 18yr old voting). The fact is states have historically varied tremendously in this regard, pioneering new areas of hope, justice, and innovation. Federalism encourages that. On the other hand, in a unitary system of government, if the national government becomes (as you say) a bastion of inducing inequalities in society, nothing can be done about it and there’s no where to go and no other state in which to hide. Injustice in federalism may be easier to escape than injustice in a unitary system of government.

      Like

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