September 5, 2011
By Bruce Walker
If the body politic is sick, blame federal fever, a delusional ailment causing swelling of the federal element of the Republic. Most of the problems caused by politics and government in America today are caused by the federalization of government power and by the unnatural elevation of the judiciary over the elected branches of government. This surely does not mean that lousy folks and dirty crooks cannot win state and local elections and cannot create political machines. What it does mean, however, is that Americans and their businesses can pull up and move to states that are friendlier or more honest.
The vital importance of sovereign states is, perhaps, the salient feature of our Constitution. Each state has its own Bill of Rights, sometimes with more protection than in the federal Bill of Rights, but each state also retains the power to do things which would make modern Americans nervous. Homicide, for example, is defined by state law. Rape is too. Any state could pass a law which effectively decriminalized either crime, but although state criminal laws all vary in different ways, no state has ever come close to legalizing murder or rape.
By the same token, the issue of religion and government was left by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, completely up to state governments. The dismantling of state churches took place voluntarily in the decades following adoption of the Constitution and without any recourse to federal rights at all. This marketplace of states allows the people of each state to resolve thorny social issues. If in Vermont school prayer is viewed with horror while in Nebraska school prayer is considered critical to moral education, the values of both states' citizens, in a truly federal republic, get what they want. (That is also the quid pro quo of federalism: we accept the decisions of other states even when those seem wrong to us.)
State governments provide a marketplace for Americans. Although some parts of the nation have natural advantages, like San Francisco and Boston, these advantages tend to become less important over time or to be balanced by advantages in other regions. After air conditioning became standard, the oppressive heat of the Gulf region became less important than the very mild winters.
State governments are also much closer to the people. A state house member in North Dakota, for example, has fewer than 7,000 constituents which mean that there are about 2,000 homes in his district. In an election, a candidate can visit every single home in the district and voters can size him up personally. Shoe leather means as much as campaign money in this sort of race.
Perhaps just as important, local media can cover state issues and politicians. These local media are close, often very close, to the lives of ordinary people. Viewers and listeners have direct sources of information: gossip at work, talk at church, discussions at civic groups, and visiting with neighbors. Any local media that presented the news poorly, either by incompetence or ideology, finds its credibility eroding from the ground up.
The greatest problem our nation faces is the usurpation of state power by the federal government. Polls suggest that voters now get that truth. Pew Research has published in late August a poll which shows that 84% of Americans are either "frustrated" or "angry" with the federal government, which is the highest in the fifty-three years since Pew Research polled the issue, and only 11% of Americans are "content" with the federal government.
Gallup has an equally damning poll which shows that the federal government is dead last among twenty-five "institutions" with 64% of respondents having a "somewhat negative" or "very negative" view of the federal government, while only 17% of Americans have a "very positive" or "somewhat positive" view of the federal government. Gallup, which shows polling data over the last eight years, also reveals that this is a dramatic drop in support for the federal government.
Rasmussen asked a slightly different question. Which level of government respondents did a better job? Local government was the choice of 33% of respondents; state government was 23%; and the federal government was 15%, and 13% were not sure. When asked if the federal government had too much power over the states, 50% agreed, 11% thought the federal government needed more control; 26% thought the balance was about right; and 13% were not sure.
The Tenth Amendment is possibly poised for a revival in the Supreme Court jurisprudence. Liberal writer Jeffrey Toobin of the liberal New Yorker has written an important reconsideration of the work of Justice Clarence Thomas, making the case that he has been the intellectual mainspring for moving the Court in the direction of weighing the Tenth Amendment more heavily. Walter Russell Meade of the American Prospect lays out where this could take us
Washington and its denizens, those who profit off the hyper-concentration of power in this federal district far away from most Americans, are increasingly -- and quite correctly -- seen as the problem. Candidates who campaign on that theme will be in tune with the national mood and those who defend Washington and federal overlordship will find themselves alone except for the elites who love centralized power.
The real victory, though, will not be who wins the White House and who controls Congress, but who actually begins to reverse the steady, sickly accretion of federal power and to restore to sovereign states those rights which are crucial to a happy and healthy republic. "Washington Fever" has infected America, and unless we are cured, things will never get better.