Saturday, November 5, 2011

Taking Back The Articles of Confederation - Concluding Reflections

Introduction    Part 1    Part 2    Part 3    Part 4    Part 5

   The victory of the Founding Fathers in 1787 put the Articles of Confederation into the dustbin of American history.  But the debate between anti-federalists and federalists never entirely disappeared.  A fundamental difference in political vision has continued to run through the American political tradition like twin rivers.  The source of one river is the impulse, typical of Americans, to rise above local and individual differences to grasp the elements of a national, even global, commonality.  A rich and powerful mass democracy with universalistic pretensions has been built along this river.

   The source of the other river is the impulse, equally typical, to do it ourselves, to keep it small.  Upon this river have floated the various proposals and efforts over the years to reduce or limit the size and powers of the federal government.  Politics in America has often been the attempt to sail upon both rivers at once.  Those on opposing sides have had various labels:  Federalists and Anti-Federalists, unionists and states-righters, liberals and conservatives and now Occupy and Tea Party.

    Since the Articles were cast aside, the federalists have generally been ascendant. Those who have sought to advocate states rights or who have fought to preserve state powers against encroachment by the federal government have been handicapped.   The Articles were judged by its opponents to have failed.  Memory of the 13 years of confederal government faded.  This is not to say that the idea of state sovereignty has not returned at times to haunt American politics.  The southern Confederate States of America, in its mixture of states rights and an unholy effort to maintain slavery, was the final nail in the coffin not only of state nullification but of an historical consciousness of what was lost with the victory of the Federalists.

    What has been lost can be seen most closely in the failure of government in the current United States to serve the majority, the 99%.  One could say that this failure was inevitable in the age of nation-states, superpowers and globalization.  Governing a large modern nation in a world of fierce ideological, political and economic competition must entail enormous bureaucracies and incomprehensibly large budgets.  In our case, the attempt to guarantee the “pursuit of happiness” of all citizens - as much a necessary requirement of centralized, representative government as the gladiatorial games were for Imperial Rome - requires great effort and considerable resources and organization.  It gives great scope to the power of money.  

   Yet the voices raised against “big government” and "big business" express true insights.  The role of the average citizen in government has dwindled to the vanishing point while that of big money has come to predominate.  In the 19th and 20th centuries, Americans experienced the full range of challenges -- collective and personal -- associated with the growth of modern industrial society.  These difficulties included wars and cyclical economic downturns.  The growth of the central government in response to these challenges – especially during the Civil War and the Great Depression -- was dictated, at least in part, by practical necessity.  But the Constitution gave the government a mandate to provide for the “general welfare” and “common defense.”  It armed Congress with all “necessary and proper” power for doing so and vested in the president whatever "executive power” might be necessary.  With each major crisis, the focus shifted to what “government” could do to resolve the situation and, thus, from local efforts to the central government.  Along with the “welfare state,” the seeming imperatives of economic development made the government in Washington the ultimate provider  The Cold War, as well as the “hot” ones, levered the presidency into what can fairly be described as an imperial throne.  Meanwhile, as government receded from the people, it fell more and more into the hands of those with the cash to fund the politicians and manipulate the bureaucracy to their own ends. 

    In 1787, America reached a fork in the road.  It could have chosen to stay on the course it was marking out for the first time - confederal democracy - or it could return to the well-trodden path of centralized government.  Perhaps being “too young to know what we are fit for”, we chose the old road, and that has made all the difference.

    There are, however, two features of confederal democracy that might lead one to see in it a workable model for self-government.  First, by leaving decision making in the hands of those most directly affected, confederal democracy provides the citizens of the relevant community a public space in which to confront each other and work out jointly what is to be done.  They enjoy what Arendt called the pleasures and benefits of public life.  Tempered by the experience of mutual recognition and cooperation between citizens in the process of self-government, local government can become, as it was for the Greeks, an arena for collectively seeking the good life.  Politics in confederal democracy therefore would be vigorous and complex and would mirror the full range of interests, values and tastes in the community.

   Second, by leaving primary responsibility for living the good life where it most belongs, with those most immediately affected by the results of collective decisions, confederal democracy leaves less space for others to operate in the shadows.  Power flows not from beyond but from below.  Problems are solved at the level of government at which all affected can participate - town, county, state, regional, national - but no higher.  Citizens face each other directly in full transparency to solve their common problems and to resolve their differences.  A confederal polity requires citizen initiative.  Confederal democracy - built on active citizen participation in their polis - is the unrealized potential of the American tradition of local self-government.

    Certainly, the need to guarantee social justice and political equality amidst the strains of modern society assures that even a confederal central government would be an important political actor.  But perhaps the load might be more evenly placed, resting more directly where in a democracy it should, on the people.  However, the road chosen in 1787 followed the premise of maintaining government as far from the people as the new notions of popular sovereignty allowed.  Under the shocks of industrialization and war, Washington came to monopolize political space and government became someone else’s concern: citizens became subjects.

   The result is ironic.  The fate of over 300 million Americans - and essentially the entire globe that we have come to dominate - rests with a mere handful of people often far removed from the results of their decisions.  The Constitution that took the place of the Articles of Confederation set up a powerful central government and left we the people with no place else to turn.  But the call to resurrect the vision of that other, more democratic America still echoes.  Those who hear this call should ensure that they go back to the source to be sure they understand what they are hearing. 

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