I’ve become increasingly fond of or at least seriously curious about federalism. I’ve often been attracted to libertarianism, albeit more leftist versions, which relates to federalism and states rights (also, the paired concepts of republicanism and democracy). What got me thinking more about federalism over the years are my ongoing studies of regionalism from the colonial era to the present. The distinctly separate colonies set the stage for both regionalism and federalism.
One thing that increased my interest in federalism is its relationship to the Articles of Confederation. This past year I learned that the Articles of Confederation had largely been the creation of John Dickinson, a Quaker-raised colonist and reluctant revolutionary from the Middle Colonies. The Middle Colonies created the theoretical justification and the practical working model for uniting the colonies into a single “United States” (or actually isn’t that plural?). The reason for this is that only the Middle Colonies had a regional culture of multiculturalism which meant there was a ready made vision and operating political system of balancing unity and diversity (Diversity within unity? Or unity through diversity? Or Both?).
When the Articles of Confederation needed improvement, the founders set about creating a constitution. However, the original intent was to create a constitution that would improve on the Articles of Confederation, not replace it. The first mistake of American politics was the creation of a constitution that did replace it and, one could argue, that mistake has led to an endless cascade of problems ever since.
The federalist support of the American Constitution came to be seen as opposite to and opposing of the anti-federalist position, but some of the anti-federalists weren’t against a constitution in principle or even against federalism in principle. They were against a federalist constitution that went contrary to the vision that motivated and justified the revolution.
Federalism, unlike it’s often been portrayed, wasn’t inherently in contradiction to the Articles of Confederation. It supposedly wasn’t meant to create a new nation-state or empire in the style of European countries, but that is what it later came to mean or anyway those were the consequences, intended or unintended. Federalism versus Anti-Federalism was a question of the balance between localized and centralized governance, not a question of a federal government ultimately being able to trump state governments in all matters. The role of the federal government was to mediate and moderate between the state governments, not to act completely independent of state governments. We long ago lost that notion of balance and moderation.
The anti-federalists argued that they were the true federalists. “Another complaint of the Anti-Federalists,” as the Wikipedia article explains, “was that the Constitution provided for a centralized rather than Federal Government (and in the Federalist papers James Madison admits that the new Constitution has the characteristics of both a centralized and federal form of the government) and that a truly federal form of government was a leaguing of states as under the Articles of Confederation.” The anti-federalists have been proven correct in their fears and warnings.
John Dickinson,who some consider to be a moderate federalist despite his being the main author of the Articles of Confederation, described his ideal constitutional government in his Fabius Letters. He explained that, “a territory of such extent as that of United America, could not be safely and advantageously governed, but by a combination of republics, each retaining all the rights of supreme sovereignty, excepting such as ought to be contributed to the union; that for the securer preservation of these sovereignties, they ought to be represented in a body by themselves, and with equal suffrage.” Whatever the United States has become, it certainly couldn’t be described as a “combination of republics” or rather, one could say, a confederation of republics. We’ve strayed far from that vision.
This confederation-based federalism wasn’t immediately destroyed by the Constitution that empowered the slave aristocracy and the capitalist plutocracy, but the seed of its destruction was planted within it. Soon after the signing of the Constitution, factions were already forming to take control of the federal government. Various factors gave the Southern colonies great power that extended into the early federal era. This allowed the Southern states to initially take control of the federal government. This power led them to try to force their social order and their slave laws onto the rest of the country. This angered the residents of the non-slave states and the settlers in the territories who had little desire to become slave states. Thus federalism died at the hands of the slavocracy and plutocracy. Those who rule with concentrated power and wealth have a tendency to further concentrate power and wealthy… surprise, surprise.
The Northern alliance of states wrested control following the Civil War. Northerners then did the same thing to the South that Southerners, before the Civil War, had done to the North. Politics had fully become a game of power and factionalism. What came to rule was partisan politics, special interests, and big money lobbyists; thus, setting the stage for the following century. Still, this was just the inevitable results of the anti-confederation and anti-libertarian constitutional order itself that was built on oligarchy (i.e., slavery, political oppression, aristocracy, plutocracy, and class-based inequality). It took different forms as the country developed, but this basic social order remains to this day.
Most Americans don’t understand what was lost when federalism ended, especially when confederation-based ‘true’ federalism ended, and why the constitution was such a failure of political vision (or rather the success of the wrong political vision). Federalism was what made the American experiment so unique. Yet we’ve just become another vast empire.
In fact, we became a full-fledged empire the moment that Jefferson made the Louisiana Purchase, although the imperialist vision was present long before that (almost implicit in the early justifications of American independence as, in Paine’s words, “Small islands, not capable of protecting themselves, are the proper objects for kingdoms to take under their care; but there is something absurd, in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island.”). From that point on, America began its steady expansion across the North American continent and its steady expansion by way of attacking independent nations/peoples and claiming their territory when possible (the attacks on Canada and on Cuba being two of the failures of this imperialist project). This has led America, like the colonial empires before it, to now have in its possession vast territories not just on a single continent but also on various islands, from incorporated territories such as Hawaii to unincorporated territories such as Philippines, Puerto Rico and Guam (a total of 6 inhabited unincorporated territories, 7 uninhabited unincorporated territories, and 3-5 depending on how you count former territories).
This colonial imperialism also has led America to be such a diverse country. It is ironic that those who praise America’s greatness because of its power often criticize the diversity that was the inevitable result of this imperialist project. You can’t have one without the other, as has been demonstrated with every great empire that has ever existed from the ancient empires of Rome and Hellenistic Greece to the later colonial empires of Spain, France, Netherlands and Britain.
Federalism allowed for a different kind of unity within diversity. The Southern colonies and later states favored monoculture that was strictly forced by a hierarchical social order. Some of the Northern governments/elites, however, embraced, encouraged and/or tolerated multiculturalism. Early federalism allowed these regional governments to have a fair amount of local control over their respective immigration policies, along with local control of their own ports and borders. It was the failure of federalism that led to proposals of secession. It wasn’t just Southerners that sought secession but also Northerners as well.
Even as federalism failed, the conditions that made it possible continue to exist.
Now that we have an empire, we can’t easily reverse the path we’ve taken. We could give independence back to the Native Americans, the Southwestern Hispanics, and the various island peoples. We could do that, but at this point many of these individuals and communities feel as American as the rest of us and they likely don’t want to have their American citizenship taken away from them.
A better solution would be to re-create confederation-based federalism by returning some of the power to local governments, local communities, and local populations. If Southerners want to be xenophobic, then let them be as xenophobic as they want within their own state boundaries. But I don’t want Southerners forcing their xenophobia onto me nor forcing onto me their fundamentalism and elitist class-based social order. Also, I don’t want to force my Midwestern values onto anyone else. Just let us Midwesterners do our own thing. I say let every state and every region do what it wishes, within some basic limits along the lines of the model of the Articles of the Confederation. Some states would choose to have tightly controlled borders and some open borders, some more democratic governance and others less so, some more capitalist and others more socialist, some with tough-on-crime laws and others full of a bunch of pot-smoking hippies getting gay married, and all of that would be perfectly fine.
Since some people are so obsessed about original intent, let us do what was originally intended. Let us make a constitution that improves upon, rather than replaces, the Articles of Confederation.
One context for my thinking is, oddly, the movie Hunger Games: Catching Fire. I thought this movie would be a fun note on which to end.
In that fictional world, there is a central government that has come to gain control over all the people. The different regions, I’m not sure how large, are divided up into districts. It seems these districts are relatively isolated, either geographically or by carefully controlled borders.
It is standard divide-and-conquer strategy. One of the ways this division is maintained is by the Hunger Games. These annual contests served a similar diversionary purpose as American elections. Everyone obsesses over who is going to win, but no matter who wins nothing is essentially going to change for those in power remain in power (or rather those behind the power remain behind the power).
This division of districts reminds me of all kinds of divisions in America. It was the regional divisions that led to the local political factions to seek to take over the centralized ‘federal’ government and enforce their political will onto the entire country. I was the formation of political parties, of which Washington warned about, that led these regional factions to become so nationally powerful. It was the divisions of religion, race and ethnicity that served as constant distraction and animosity among the lower classes which were then manipulated and exacerbated by the upper classes in consolidating their own power.
A centralized government only ever serves the interests and agendas of those with centralized power and wealth. Also, it is the centralized government that allows the continued centralization of power and wealth. Generation after generation, this has led to an ever-growing Establishment of hereditary plutocracy and political family dynasties.
The states no longer act as independent or even semi-independent republics. They are no longer functioning ‘states’ for they have fully come under the control of the federal government. This isn’t just about states rights for that can simply mean power centralized in the state governments. Self-governance is also about individuals, all individuals (lower classes and minorities included). Self-governance is also about communities which means a society built on individuals, families, churches, neighborhoods, militias, grassroots organizing, and actually functioning democracy.
We Americans aren’t as far away from the Hunger Games as we might like to imagine ourselves to be. Certainly, the post-9/11 centralization of power has brought us closer to such an extreme dystopia or else some other variant (e.g., The Handmaid’s Tale). Worse still, so many Americans have bought into the propaganda that, if we just fight for our faction (our race, ethnicity, religion, or whatever), we will finally have the America we want and the America we like to project onto the past. As with the Hunger Games, it is a vision of the ultimate win-lose scenario where the only way our faction can win is for all other factions to lose. This isn’t a road to unity, whether with diversity or not. Instead, this is the road to oppression and a second revolution.