Our range of political choice is withering, and we mostly don’t notice the cause. Federalism and civil society are dying in practice because they are dying in our social vision, unnoticed and unmourned. My long-simmering sense of this loss suddenly became clear as I recently did that most frightening of all human tasks: grading history exams.
I was teaching a class on the Gilded Age, a course that traces the decline of what the historian Robert Wiebe described as a nation of “island communities.” In the decades after the Civil War, Americans found themselves increasingly connected—by railroads, by the telegraph, by new national markets and an explosion of print culture—in a world that seemed to be moving faster every year. Fresh from a mostly agrarian society, Gilded Age Americans drilled oil, generated electricity, traveled easily across continents and oceans by steam power, and built machines that shoved aside an order driven by human labor and animal muscle.
They struggled to understand where they were going. Wiebe describes the chaos of the period as a “search for order,” one that emerged incrementally from many hands. Cities and rail lines kept their own time; rail stations kept different clocks for the day’s different trains. To synchronize schedules, railroad corporations created time zones and put them in place by the terms of their own, private agreements.
The process described by historian Alan Trachtenberg as “the incorporation of America” sought social stability and commercial standardization through a mix of private action, state regulation, and the efforts of an increasingly powerful federal government. Grading exams, I watched students translate that story in their heads. They turned it into the false dichotomy of our contemporary politics, a choice between brutal Hobbesian disorder and unlimited, benevolent federal power: things were very bad in the old days, so the federal government fixed them. Do you want a $4 trillion a year federal government, or do you want to live in Somalia?
Here’s an example. In Gilded Age Chicago, the flood of grain pouring into the city by rail was too much for the old-fashioned system of sale-by-sack. A world in which farmers traveled with their grain and bagged and labeled the wheat or oats from just their own fields as their particular product became a world in which grain was aggregated and poured into rail cars and silos in bulk.
Meeting the need for regulation to make sense of that new practice, a private organization of dues-paying members—the Chicago Board of Trade—created standard types and grades: White Winter Wheat #2, for example. Farmers got receipts not for their particular batch of grain but for the type, grade, and quantity. The physical thing, a bushel of wheat, was abstracted. People began to trade those pieces of paper—and then to trade promises of future delivery. The market in commodity futures was born. So were new forms of commercial fraud, as grain inspectors took kickbacks to downgrade product at the point of purchase and upgrade it at the point of sale. So the state stepped in with new regulation, through the Illinois Warehouse Act of 1871, licensing and regulating a system created by the actions of a private organization.
Here’s how that story shows up in a third of the exams I just graded: in the Gilded Age, a growing market in grain led to bulk storage in grain elevators, which caused an increase in fraud. So the federal government stepped in and started regulating grain markets. There was a problem, so Congress fixed it.
Pick a story, any story, and that’s how a growing number of students hear it, no matter what the professor at the front of the room says. New York’s Bakeshop Act of 1895—the state law limiting bakery work hours that was famously challenged in Lochner v. New York—becomes an act of Congress. Early college football was a bloodbath, with players dying on the field, so universities formed the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States—the roots of today’s NCAA—to make new rules and control the mayhem. But in our history exams, it was the federal government that implemented new football regulations.
States and private associations are vanishing from the story we tell ourselves about our country. The loss is most certainly not limited to the classroom. A politically active family member recently spent an evening reading position papers from Republican candidates for the California Assembly. He wrote to them to ask why, while running for state office, they were mostly discussing federal issues. Candidates for legislative positions, they simply don’t know the difference.
We are centralizing power in practice because we are erasing the alternatives from our minds. We have forgotten that the regulation of human societies can come from communities, from states, and from civil society—and so, increasingly, it can’t. The world of the Affordable Care Act begins in our own conceptions. The growing centralization of American political power is a product of our decision to forget. Can we sustain federalism and a robust civil society if no one notices they exist?
Chris Bray is a historian and former soldier.