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All Mod Cons

Don't fortify the nation-state at the expense of its towns and cities and neighborhoods.

Sen. Mark Hatfield at Gateway ceremony on opening day of MAX light rail system, 1986. Photo by Steve Morgan via Wikimedia Commons.

As Republican opportunists don ridiculous masks to pass muster in a Trumpified party—neocons applying nationalist maquillage, warhawk Senator Marco Rubio mouthing Catholic social thoughts—may I suggest that those Republicans genuinely interested in ideas for a rejuvenated GOP con over the lost tribe of the 1960s and ’70s: moderate Republicans?

I see your eyes roll and your tongues loll. I don’t mean by that excitement-draining locution Democrats with an “(R)” appended to their names, like Senators Clifford Case of New Jersey or Jacob Javits of New York. And I surely am not referring to today’s Never Trump paladins of Wall Street and the military-industrial complex, whose avatar is Mitt Romney. 

Nah, I’m thinking of Mark Hatfield, the late senator from Oregon, though my mind began wandering this well-scrubbed backlot as I edited The Congressional Journal of Barber B. Conable, Jr., 1968–1984. The book, published this summer, contains the frank and literate diaries of probably the most respected member of the House of his era. 

Barber Conable, my congressman and my friend, was a “moderate Republican” in the sense that he was neither a profligate Rockefellerian nor a New Right Reaganite. Rather, he insisted that the GOP must be “a middle class and not a business party.” His decentralist convictions—he was the father of revenue sharing, which returned federal tax dollars to states and communities—followed.

Read the book if you’d like to know more. But I write here about Senator Hatfield, the mild-mannered one-time professor of political science at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, whose early career revealed the radical possibilities hidden within moderate Republicanism.

Hatfield is best remembered today as the closest thing to a pacifist in the Senate of his era. He cosponsored the McGovern-Hatfield Amendment to End the War, which called for the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Vietnam. Striking at the root, he also regularly sponsored legislation to create a “Peace Tax Fund” to which antiwar taxpayers could direct their mandatory tithes to Uncle Sam. (Yes, tax dollars are fungible, so it was purely symbolic.)

More radically, Hatfield proposed in successive Senate sessions his “Neighborhood Government Act,” which encouraged the development of neighborhood-based corporations that would reclaim responsibilities that had been arrogated by the federal and state governments: health, education, welfare, law enforcement, and others. These would be funded by dollar-for-dollar federal income tax credits.

The bill grew from his belief, said Hatfield, in “the central importance of liberating the individual, the imperative to decentralize power, the instinctual human need for community and family as central to the health of any greater unit of social organization, and the requirement of government to be rooted close to the people if it is to be democratic.”

This echoed the cooperativist philosophy of Herbert Hoover. Hatfield, almost alone among post–World War II politicians, claimed the oft-lamented 31st president as his inspiration. (I love the anti-imperialist historian William Appleman Williams’s remark: “Hoover, in the depths of the hell of 1931, said that ‘what this country needs is a great poem. Something to lift people out of fear and selfishness.’ If you kill a Quaker engineer who came to understand that—and to believe in and to commit himself to that—then you have murdered yourself.”)

The libertarian tinge to Hatfield’s thought was prominent enough to win the senator the imprimatur of that most dedicated enemy of the state, the economist Murray Rothbard. The admiration was mutual: Hatfield praised Rothbard’s Power and Market, which was, as Reason’s Jesse Walker notes, “probably the only time a sitting senator has endorsed an anarcho-capitalist treatise.” 

Hatfield’s proposal was paralleled by a plan hatched by Senator Charles Mathias (R-MD), who in 1973 revived Thomas Jefferson’s post-presidential scheme for “ward republics.” Senator Mathias, employing the New Left phrase participatory democracy, called for the devolution of many governmental functions to local jurisdictions whose constituencies would number 10,000 or less.

Well, we never got our ward republics or neighborhood government, and as the Jeffersonian policy maven John McClaughry observes, maybe a federal initiative to achieve these things was self-negating anyway. But these moderate Republicans were offering creative ideas to shrink Leviathan and break up the Empire that was suffocating the republic underneath. 

Senator Hatfield, by all accounts a sweet and scholarly man, went off the rails in retirement, even supporting George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. Moderate Republicans of his bent are as rare in 2021 as country & western Democrats. Whatever decentralist energy exists in today’s GOP is concentrated in its small peace-and-freedom wing, represented by the Kentucky duo of Rep. Thomas Massie and Sen. Rand Paul. 

A radical dispersal of power may lack the bellicose appeal of strident nationalism, but those who support fortifying the nation-state at the expense of its towns and cities and neighborhoods should remember that he who picks up the sword hands it to his enemies.

Bill Kauffman is the author of 11 books, among them Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette and Ain’t My America.

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