[Paleopsych] NYTBR: Essay: The Joy of Federalism
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Essay: The Joy of Federalism
New York Times Book Review, 5.3.6
By FRANKLIN FOER
Nobody would ever confuse the Massachusetts liberal Barney Frank with
the South Carolina conservative Strom Thurmond. But when the
tart-tongued Frank appeared on Fox News Sunday last winter, it sounded
as if an aide had accidentally slipped him some of Thurmond's talking
points from the 1950's, when he was a states'-rights segregationist.
''Should the federal government say no state can make this decision
for itself?'' Frank asked. He had ventured onto Fox to assert each
state's right to marry gay couples.
Frank isn't the only supporter of gay marriage to sing the praises of
federalism. Last December, Andrew Sullivan argued in The New Republic,
''The whole point of federalism is that different states can have
different policies on matters of burning controversy -- and that this
is O.K.'' That same month, Paul Glastris, the editor of The Washington
Monthly, posed the question, ''Why shouldn't the Democrats become the
party of federalism?''
In some respects, they already have. Liberal energies once devoted to
expanding the national government are being redirected toward the
states. New York's attorney general Eliot Spitzer, declaring himself a
''fervent federalist,'' is using state regulations to prosecute
corporate abuses that George W. Bush's Department of Justice won't
touch. While the federal minimum wage hasn't budged since the middle
of the Clinton era, 13 (mostly blue) states and the District of
Columbia have hiked their local wage floors in the intervening years.
After Bush severely restricted federal stem cell research,
California's voters passed an initiative pouring $3 billion into
laboratories for that very purpose, and initiatives are under way in
at least a dozen other states.
These developments may look like a desperate reaction on the part of
some liberals to the conservatives' grip on Washington. But in fact
the well-known liberal liking for programs at the national level has
long coexisted alongside a quieter tradition of principled federalism
-- skeptical of distant bureaucracies and celebratory of local policy
To understand liberal federalism, however, it is first necessary to
understand its nemesis, Herbert Croly. A shy, obscure writer on
architecture, Croly rose to fame in 1909 with ''The Promise of
American Life,'' a long-winded manifesto calling for a strong national
government. The book fell into the hands of Theodore Roosevelt and,
with the Bull Moose as its promoter, it attracted a crowd of
high-powered admirers, including the benefactors who bankrolled
Croly's new magazine, The New Republic.
Croly had a tendency to swing wildly and hard. His big target was
Thomas Jefferson, a man of ''intellectual superficiality and
insincerity.'' The sage of Monticello, Croly argued, had created a
government suited for a bucolic era. But modernity, the birth of the
corporation, the closing of the frontier and technological advances
had reshaped America and rendered Jefferson's governing vision
obsolete. What America needed was centralization and efficiency, not
antiquated state governments. The inefficiency of state governments,
he said, was ''one of the most fundamental of American political
Croly generally gets lumped together with the early-20th-century
progressives, but his book often savaged these supposed comrades as
outdated and stupidly old-fashioned. Croly accepted concentrations of
power -- corporations, as well as a strong central government -- as
immutable facts of modern life. Many of his fellow reformers, he
charged, were clinging to an outmoded Jeffersonian affection for
competition and equality. They wanted to dismantle the trusts and
return to a marketplace dominated by small business. What's more,
Croly claimed, these reformers continued to harbor an irrational
attachment to state governments; instead of building a modern
centralized nation, they focused on renovating the old state
machinery. Progressives in the West, for instance, created the
referendum, allowing citizens to vote specific laws up or down. Croly,
an unabashed elitist, preferred handing power to experts.
In his polemical mode, Croly unfairly skewered the reformers' motives.
The turn-of-the-century debates over the future of corporate
capitalism resembled the current conflagration over gay marriage.
There was no national consensus on the regulation of business then,
just as there's no national consensus on same-sex unions now. Rather
than wasting breath trying to persuade obstreperous Southern
congressmen to back federal labor laws, the progressives plunged
forward and passed reforms in the Northern and Midwestern state
legislatures. Beginning with Robert La Follette's 1900 gubernatorial
victory, Wisconsin raced farthest ahead in the nation, slashing
railroad rates and passing laws on corruption and conservation.
Devout believers in the new social sciences, the progressives invested
near mystical power in empirical data, and this faith guided their
federalism. As Louis Brandeis wrote in a famous 1932 Supreme Court
dissent, states could serve as ''laboratories of democracy,'' control
groups to test the value of particular policies. Progressives believed
that once the nation saw how successful these state-level reforms
were, it would eagerly mimic them. Indeed, La Follete's administration
became a trendy model. ''Outside the state, the 'Wisconsin idea' was
rapidly becoming a program and inspiration,'' Eric Goldman wrote in
his 1952 history of American reform movements, ''Rendezvous With
Destiny.'' The Badger State had become a national guinea pig.
It's not surprising that Brandeis coined liberal federalism's
signature slogan. A Kentucky-born corporate lawyer, whose wealth freed
him to pursue progressive causes, Brandeis was the doctrine's
sincerest believer -- and, for a time, Croly's intellectual adversary.
And just as Croly had said, Brandeis continued to harbor a
Jeffersonian aversion to agglomerations of power, or the ''curse of
bigness'' as he called it, in both business and government. ''If the
Lord had intended things to be big, he would have made man bigger --
in brains and character,'' Brandeis quipped in Congressional testimony
in 1911. This abhorrence of bigness led him strenuously to oppose
Croly's program, which proposed nationalizing inefficient trusts and
tolerating efficient ones.
The Croly-Brandeis debate became the central theme of the 1912
election. While Croly was helping to conceive Theodore Roosevelt's New
Nationalism program, Brandeis met with Woodrow Wilson at a low point
in his campaign. As the late James Chace described the encounter in
his narrative of the election, ''1912,'' Brandeis instantly supplied
much-needed ideological direction to the faltering Democratic
candidate. ''After his first meeting with Brandeis, Wilson spoke with
For conservatives, ''states' rights'' often seems just another way of
asserting their libertarianism, their dislike of government in any
form. Liberal federalism, on the other hand, doesn't view the state
and federal governments as opposing forces. Brandeis may have
celebrated the states but he also stressed the importance of federal
antitrust policy, and he became the New Deal's most reliable advocate
on the Supreme Court, even meeting privately with Franklin Roosevelt.
New Dealers affectionately referred to Brandeis as ''Isaiah.''
That's not to say Brandeis meshed perfectly with the Roosevelt
administration. He couldn't abide the president's seemingly boundless
ambition to expand executive power. He joined a majority on the court
in striking down a handful of New Deal programs, including the
National Industrial Recovery Act. He even sent a stern note to
Roosevelt's consigliere, Thomas G. Corcoran: ''I want you to go back
and tell the president that we're not going to let this government
centralize everything. It's come to an end. As for your young men,''
by which Brandeis meant the core of intellectuals assembled around the
New Deal, ''you call them together and tell them to get out of
Washington -- tell them to go home, back to the states. That is where
they must do their work.''
Despite Brandeis's reprimand and the Supreme Court's decisions,
Roosevelt's ''young men'' didn't soon leave Washington. World War II
-- and then the cold war -- created new engines of government for them
to operate. Emerging from the war convinced that America had just
fought on behalf of equality and other liberal values, they wanted to
transfer that crusading spirit to domestic causes. Eminences like
Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and John Kenneth Galbraith celebrated the
''American creed'' and ''national greatness,'' phrases that echoed
Croly's call for a ''new nationalism.'' And even if the war hadn't
propelled liberals in this nationalistic direction, the segregationist
invocations of states' rights would have. ''The time has arrived,''
Hubert Humphrey declared at his party's 1948 convention, ''for the
Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states' rights and walk
forthrightly into the bright sunshine of civil rights.'' Humphrey's
party adopted a civil rights platform plank, and in response, Strom
Thurmond led a white flight to a newfangled States' Rights Party.
Nationalistic postwar liberalism flourished, but a left-wing critique
of it arose in the early 1960's. New Left student rebels shared
Brandeis's aversion to bigness, though they arrived at their aversion
through a very different intellectual tradition. Tom Hayden and other
stalwarts of Students for a Democratic Society (S.D.S.), the defining
organization of 60's radicalism, had absorbed the lessons of books
like C. Wright Mills's ''White Collar'' and ''Power Elite,'' and Paul
Goodman's ''Growing Up Absurd.'' (Hayden even wrote his master's
dissertation on Mills.) This literature railed against bureaucracy,
centralization and technocrats as agents of mass alienation and
conformism. ''Overcentralization is an international disease of modern
times,'' Goodman wrote in ''People or Personnel.'' Precisely the same
language can be found in S.D.S.'s 1962 manifesto, the Port Huron
statement, where the group waxed utopian about ''participatory
democracy,'' a governing philosophy it described as the antithesis of
Over the next two decades, the raw ideas of Port Huron were tamed and
refined by communitarian scholars like the Harvard professors Michael
Sandel and Robert Putnam. These communitarians didn't particularly
like the 60's counterculture ethos, but they assimilated many of the
New Left's ideas about community, applauding civic organizations like
churches and private charities as essential pillars of democracy. And
they bemoaned changes in the political landscape that had blinded
mainstream liberalism to the virtues of these institutions. The
Washington Post's communitarian-minded columnist E. J. Dionne lamented
that liberals ''came to believe that almost all doctrines emphasizing
the value of local community were indistinguishable from the phony
'states' rights' arguments used by segregationists.'' A strong trace
of Catholic social teachings could be discerned in these views,
especially Pope Pius XI's 1931 encyclical on ''subsidiarity'' -- the
idea that social ills are best solved by the organizations and people
closest to them. Although the communitarians didn't spend much time
integrating state governments into their vision, they spoke of them
with great respect. Sandel concluded his book ''Democracy's
Discontent'' with a call for progressives to discover the ''unrealized
possibilities implicit in American federalism.''
By the 1970's, liberal federalist ideas suddenly had an opportunity to
break into widespread circulation and shake off the segregationist
stigma. Vietnam had stolen the swagger from nationalistic liberalism,
a change that could be witnessed most poignantly in the writings of
Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. After spending decades advocating a strong
central government, he wrote ''The Imperial Presidency'' in 1973,
warning that the executive branch now possessed dangerous
concentrations of power. But liberal federalism didn't fully get a
hearing until the emergence of a new champion, Bill Clinton.
Prodded by a Republican Congress and a conservative Supreme Court,
Clinton actually presided over the revitalized federalism that Sandel
imagined, and even spent time in the White House huddling with Sandel
and Putnam. Federalism suited his declared ambition to move beyond the
era of ''big government.'' In 1995, he signed a law prohibiting the
national government from imposing new burdens on the states without
first providing funds to cover any costs. The welfare reform package
he ushered into law a year later gave states enormous latitude in
remaking social policy.
George W. Bush didn't give Clinton much credit for these achievements.
Like many of his predecessors, he entered office promising to rescue
the states from federal pummeling. Yet his administration has greatly
expanded federal power, and some conservatives have been complaining.
Writing in National Review two years ago, Romesh Ponnuru observed that
''more people are working for the federal government than at any point
since the end of the cold war.'' State governments have their own
version of this complaint. They say the Bush administration has
imposed new demands -- federal education standards, homeland security
tasks -- without also providing sufficient cash to get these jobs
done. The Republican senator Lamar Alexander recently told The Times,
''The principle of federalism has gotten lost in the weeds by a
Republican Congress that was elected to uphold it in 1994.''
This is hardly the first time that self-described federalists have
abandoned the cause. Strom Thurmond ran on the States' Rights Party
ticket in 1948, but throughout his long career as a senator, he never
had qualms about heaving bushels of federal money into his state. In
1982, Ronald Reagan announced his own ill-fated new federalism
proposal. But instead of dismantling Washington, his administration
imposed a raft of new health and safety regulations on the states.
Perhaps federalists have failed to reshape American government because
federalism isn't really a governing philosophy. Its proponents
describe a world that doesn't exist. In actuality, the states and
federal government aren't cut-throat competitors but codependents,
with state governments living off federal money and implementing
federal programs. Rather, ''states' rights'' can be seen as a subgenre
of political rhetoric, part of what the historian Michael Kazin calls
the ''populist persuasion.'' And like so much of the language of
populism, it proves hollow once its adherents obtain power.
One suspects that many if not most of today's liberal federalists
haven't converted out of true belief, either. Some have adopted the
rhetoric of states' rights because it provides psychic relief from the
alienation they feel now that a majority of the nation's voters has
returned George W. Bush to office. In its most frustrated form, this
alienation has manifested itself in the ubiquitous joking about
emigrating to Canada. Liberal federalism provides a more rational
outlet. Instead of retreating to Vancouver, liberal federalists would
retreat from national politics and focus on effecting change in their
own blue states -- passing health care reforms, expanding gay rights.
At the height of the liberals' postelection angst, The Stranger, a
Seattle alternative weekly, declared: ''We can secede emotionally,
however, by turning our backs on the heartland. We can focus on our
issues, our urban issues, and promote our shared urban values.'' It's
like the path evangelicals beat after the Scopes trial, when the
religious right took a 50-year break from mainstream political
activity and quietly tended their own institutions.
Some Democratic political strategists are also guiding liberals in
this direction. In election postmortems, they have urged the party to
follow in the Truman-Reagan-Gingrich tradition and rail against the
corrupt interests ruling Washington -- ''an aggressively reform,
anti-Washington, anti-business-as-usual party,'' as James Carville
described it at a Democratic hand-wringing session last November.
Proponents of this strategy now reside in nearly every corner of the
party -- from Howard Dean, the new chairman of the Democratic National
Committee, to the Democratic Leadership Council. Positioning the
Democratic Party as the great modern-day defender of states' rights
against imperial Washington jibes neatly with this strategy.
Progressives once championed states as laboratories of democracy. Now
many of them are hoping these laboratories will produce the Democratic
Franklin Foer, a senior editor at The New Republic and a contributing
editor for New York magazine, is the author of ''How Soccer Explains
the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization.''
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