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How a Federal Republic Becomes an Ideological Empire

George Carey a few years ago noted a some reasons why America’s government doesn’t work the way the Founders intended:

One of the virtues of our system, at least as it was originally “sold,” is that there are safeguards against precipitous, oppressive actions. If we are to take Madison at his word, the main safeguards are not institutional in nature. Rather, as we can see from Federalist essays nos. 10 and 51, the major barrier is the multiplicity and diversity of interests found in the extended republic. It was anticipated that the process of majority formation among these diverse and multiple interests would be difficult and time consuming, particularly with respect to progress toward convergence on any unjust or oppressive measure.

Unfortunately, writes Carey, “as Madison acknowledges in Federalist no. 63, if an unjust or ill-conceived measure does somehow make it through the hurdles of the extended republic, it will also take some time to correct the situation.” And while the scale of the republic may be an advantage up to a point, “the increasing incapacity of our national government to govern is probably due to the republic being far too extensive with too many divergent interests.” The people are divided, while the governing elite is united in its will to act—indeed, sometimes the will of one man, the president, is almost sufficient.

All of that is true, but what I suspect has been doubly fatal to the old-style federal republic is that it faces not only a popular will that is too divided to be effective but also, from the opposite direction, national-scale forces that are too few to supply the competitive checks on interests that Madison envisioned.

A sketch of what happened might go as follows. The Constitution and many statewide reforms brought about after the Revolution laid the foundation for a commercial republic, in place of colonies whose trade and potential for growth were circumscribed by the metropole. But even as the legal groundwork for extraordinary economic expansion was being set down, the political experience that informed the Framers was that of a land where local political forces were more powerful than national economic interests—the latter of which were hardly yet in existence.

During the 19th century, however, enterprises and fortunes whose scale exceeded the regulatory scope of the states arose. By the end of that century and the beginning of the 20th, various national-scale ideological movements, such as populism and later progressivism, had sprung up to demand national-scale regulatory powers to check such national-scale interests. Outright socialism was another such movement. The fortunes of these ideologies rose and fell, but they had an influence on the expansion of government, particularly (albeit in ad hoc fashion) in response to the Great Depression. To counterbalance both the left-wing ideological push for greater national-scale regulation and the fact of the New Deal itself, there emerged another national-scale ideology, which ultimately came to be called conservatism.

World War II and America’s leading place on the world stage immediately thereafter further called for more-than-federal ideas and ideologies. As Irving Kristol wrote in 2003:

 A smaller nation might appropriately feel that its national interest begins and ends at its borders, so that its foreign policy is almost always in a defensive mode. A larger nation has more extensive interests. And large nations, whose identity is ideological, like the Soviet Union of yesteryear and the United States of today, inevitably have ideological interests in addition to more material concerns.

None of these vast ideologies and interests that arose over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries could be compatible with the practices of late 18th-century self-government. Even to whatever extent these ideologies pleaded their concern for localism, federalism, or “states’ rights,” they ultimately had their eyes set on wider horizons. To be sure, there had been some sweeping ideological visions even before the late 19th century—Whiggism helped foster the national-scale interests against which populism and progressivism were responses, and even earlier there had been universalizing ideological tendencies within Jeffersonianism. But what accumulated between the Civil War and the Cold War were not just large-scale ideologies but large-scale institutional realities—vast economic interests and international military commitments—that encouraged the institutionalization of progressivism/liberalism and conservatism.

Madison, of course, did not imagine a world in which communications between distant states would be even as speedy as they were in 1913, let alone in 2013. Local interests, quirks, and values still exist, but their relative weight in our system—in our culture as well as politics—has diminished dramatically in contrast to large-scale interests and ideology. (Calling these large-scale phenomena “national” can be somewhat misleading: they’re national in aspiration but factional in reality; that is, not only are they subscribed to only by a fraction of the populace, but more importantly they have a narrow view of what constitutes the national interest, which they don’t much try to distinguish from their partisan interest.)

My suspicion is that attempts to rewind history and return to federalism as it was envisioned before late 19th century are worse than quixotic—they’re delusional to a degree that only exacerbates the worst tendencies in our large-scale ideologies. A more effective effort at reviving federalism will have to look at our national and international circumstances, as well as local ones, as they really are, and must provide substantive ideas at the largest level as well as the smallest, for a vacuum at the top will be filled by the existing, disastrously failed, ideologies. In short, localists need a philosophy of empire or nation, even as they strive for decentralism.

Getting this right depends on being self-aware and treating different levels as, well, different, in contrast to the tendency of movement conservatism and progressivism to treat local and national (and international) matters as all equally permeated by the same ideological imperatives. There’s no reason to think that the same formulas, or formulas sharing a single source, are best at all times and every scale. A prudent conservatism must respond to this variety—it must be supple.

about the author

Daniel McCarthy is editor at large of The American Conservative. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, USA Today, The Spectator, The National Interest, Reason, Modern Age, and many other publications. Outside of journalism he has worked as internet communications coordinator for the Ron Paul 2008 presidential campaign and as senior editor of ISI Books. He is a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, where he studied classics. Follow him on Twitter.

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