A century ago, progressives were challenged to achieve "Jeffersonian ends by Hamiltonian means." Beginning with Herbert Croly's The Promise of American Life, and continuing through the New Deal, Democrats increasingly eschewed state-based populist Jeffersonian democracy and replaced it with FDR's brand of nationalist democracy. Long wary of Alexander Hamilton's elitist, nationalist themes, progressives learned (in Croly's words) to transform "Hamiltonianism into a thoroughly democratic political principle." They did so out of necessity, for it was the only way that they could successfully achieve the "vigorous and conscious assertion of the public as opposed to private and special interests."
Today, Tea Party populism reverses the question: can conservatives achieve "Hamiltonian ends by Jeffersonian means?" That is, must Hamilton's goals of fiscal stability and economic growth be achieved—not through elitist political institutions, but instead through Jeffersonian populism?
That is the question raised recently by Stanford's Michael McConnell, a former federal judge and one of the nation's foremost constitutional scholars. In a speech last year at Harvard, followed by a short essay and longer law review article, McConnell pressed the question, "what would Alexander Hamilton do?" When the very sorts of regulatory bodies that Hamilton favored—the Treasury Department, the Federal Reserve, and so on—seem not just incapable of responsibly managing the nation's finances, but also persistent in undermining economic growth through excessive regulation and inflationary monetary policy, can the nation restore Hamilton's policy vision through populist Jeffersonian politics?
More recently, McConnell addressed the Federalist Society's national student symposium on "the pathologies of the modern regulatory state." Invoking James Madison, McConnell considered the manner in which Congress and the federal agencies combine to undermine republican self-government, erode the rule of law, and prevent responsible government policy.
With any luck, Judge McConnell will return to those themes, and further expand upon them, at AEI tonight. In a lecture titled "Spending, Spending, Public Debt, and Constitutional Design," McConnell will inaugurate AEI's new Walter Berns lecture series. The series, organized by AEI's Program on American Citizenship, is well named, in honor of a scholar whose study of republican virtue and constitutional democracy rivals even McConnell's.
Adam J. White is a lawyer in Washington, D.C.