The Death of Constitutionalism

James has described in heartbreakingly precise terms why Ron Paul the constitutionalist could never satisfy the libertarians who jumped aboard the REVOLution:

…most people don’t really give a damn about adhering to the Constitution, the Constitution is an impediment to maximizing the odds of partisan victory, the Constitution is deemed morally quaint on both sides, and constitutionalism a brittle and impractical doctrine.

This brings to mind an article I posted back in the Lost Months of The American Scene (the archives for which I’ve still not imported), in which I lament the bipartisan abandonment of the Constitution and the federal model in general.

(Originally posted in June 2007)

Bill Kaufmann’s article on secessionists makes the obvious point that nobody ought to place any hope in federalism as a means of preserving the particular or the local:

Let Utah be Utah, and let San Francisco be San Francisco. The policy will drive busybodies mad with frustration, but for the rest of us, it just might be the beginning of tolerance.

There is no reason why this kind of hands-off mutuality requires secession—they didn’t used to call the U.S. system “federalism” for nothing—but the urge to intervene is so irresistible to Dobsonian conservatives and Clintonian liberals that states and cities and towns have been deprived of the right to make their own laws, shaped by local circumstances, on such matters as the legality of marijuana and abortion and the proper way (if any) to define marriage. Does anyone really think that the Christian Right or feminist left will ever agree to denationalize such issues and trust local people to make their own laws?

I disagree, however, with his depiction of busybody special interests (Dobsonians and Clintonians) as the villains. Sad as it seems, when Americans, generally speaking, discuss whether they want more government or less government, they are referring to Washington.

When President Bush says “government has to move” in response to people “hurting,” he’s not talking about state or local institutions. State-level politics has been left to the professional interest groups and lobbyists, presumably because the stakes are too low to provide the sentimental satisfaction that comes with seeing one’s own preferred notion of justice applied nationwide.

I built the following contingency table for a class assignment out of responses to the 2004 American National Election Study:

Federalism Contingency Table

It provides an overview of the respondents’ opinions on where the federal government should increase its spending. I named the eight programs “federal” or “local” according to my (apparently quaint) notions of what the Constitution says the federal government ought to do. The four “traditionally federal programs” include national defense, foreign aid, protection of borders, and highway construction and maintenance. The four “traditionally local programs” are child care, public schools, dealing with crime, and aid to the poor.

With results that cluster along the top left to bottom right diagonal, it’s evident that very few respondents favor federal spending on one set of priorities but not the other. Out of the 1212 respondents, 520 cited the same number of programs to increase (or not, in the case of the 34 who want to see no spending increases at all) from each of the two categories. In other words, almost half of the respondents make no distinction between state and federal mandates, and split their wishes for increased spending (or lack thereof) evenly between the two categories.

This cross-spectrum tendency to default to the federal government for solutions explains a lot about Bush Republicanism, and offers slim hope to anyone looking for decentralized governance. I look forward to Vermont’s turn on the Security Council.