[Paleopsych] NYTBR: Essay: The Joy of Federalism

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Essay: The Joy of Federalism
New York Times Book Review, 5.3.6


    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
    new fervor.''

    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
    managerial liberalism.

    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
    electoral cure.

    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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