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All Politics Isn’t Local

But more of it should be.

May 27, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 35 • By JAY COST
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The amoral misuse of the federal principle is an unfortunate theme of our nation’s history. If Madison was correct that the state governments had been too irresponsible to retain the power they once enjoyed, the skeptics of the Constitution made equally valid points about the danger of unchecked central authority. They worried that a national government would draw too heavily from elite quarters of society, leaving the majority of yeoman farmers an effective minority and degrading the republican character of the government. These worries are strikingly similar to the concerns people have nowadays. Indeed, reading the Anti-Federalists, one cannot help but wonder if they had a crystal ball that peered into the 21st century. At the least, their predictions of an ever-expanding federal state turned out to be more accurate than Madison’s assurances that the Constitution would provide a due check on Washington’s authority.

This is not to say that we should expect the states to be paragons of true republicanism; the 1780s demonstrate quite clearly that they are not inherently more virtuous than Washington. Nevertheless, their geographical, social, and economic proximity to the people at least holds the potential of a more responsive representative government. What’s more, the triumph of the civil rights movement over the last half-century has dramatically reduced the dangers of anti-republicanism at the state level. The Constitution as ratified offered the decidedly ambiguous instruction that the states had to have a “republican” form of government. The Supreme Court has since mandated that state governments have a legal obligation to provide for universal suffrage regardless of race, sex, or property and obey most of the Bill of Rights, which was originally written to constrain only the national government.

The state governments also hold the promise of moving beyond gridlock. The Constitution would allow faction to fight faction, as Madison argued in Federalist 10 and 51, with the structure of government such that it would either translate the vast array of parochial desires into the public good or do nothing at all. But that was in 1787, when the electorate was confined to the original 13 states, entirely white, entirely male, mostly Anglo-Saxon, mostly Protestant, mostly property owners, and mostly yeoman farmers. A diversity of interests back then meant something quite different than it does today. Wave after wave of immigration, combined with the civil rights movement, women’s suffrage, and geographical, religious, social, and economic diversification means that it is extremely difficult to identify what is well and truly in the “national interest.” Is it any wonder that the national government seems paralyzed? After all, it was designed that way: So long as there was no identifiable national interest that could unite a broad, deep, and durable coalition, the national government would produce gridlock so as to keep a minority from having its rights or interests undermined by a fractious majority.

A revival of the federal principle is a sensible response to this civic malaise. The states have a valuable role to play, not merely as satellites of Washington, D.C., but as semi-sovereign entities that can solve problems the feds cannot. Just as state governments are closer to the people, they often represent citizens with a greater commonality of interests, thus cutting down on the potential for crippling gridlock. It is one thing for the federal government in Washington to balance the interests of Kansas and California, quite another for Kansas and California to develop policy solutions that balance the interests within their own states. A 50-state panoply of varying solutions seems preferable to never-ending gridlock, so long as minority rights are protected (which, again, the Supreme Court now mandates).

None of this should imply an endorsement of the extreme Anti-Federalism of Patrick Henry or the pro-nullification position of Calhoun. The states are, and should remain, secondary to the federal government. The point is simply that there are obvious uses to be made of the state governments, uses that have been overlooked because of the bad—but now antiquated—reputation that federalism has of being a tool for elites to keep the masses in an artificially inferior position. The original advocates of federalism thought it to be exactly the opposite.

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