We have reached a critical moment. Whoever wins this struggle, pitting centralized authority against the private American citizen, will dominate American politics and culture for a generation. This conflict over the role of government is as old as our republic and as new as Obamacare. This time, however, the stakes are far higher, as the road intended for the citizenry by the ruling classes undoubtedly will lead - many Americans believe - to serfdom and a lifetime of groveling in fear before the governing elites and their enablers in the academy, Big Media, Big Labor and Big Business.
American citizens, disgusted and contemptuous of the ruling classes, know the rules they and their parents lived by no longer apply to their betters. We’reinundated daily with lurid stories of how the privileged few, such as Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner, skate on paying their taxes and yet suffer no consequences. Last week, we learned that White House and congressional employees are behind on their taxes by millions of dollars. Power, money, access and celebrity have become concentrated at the top, funded by the rest of America.
At other turning points in American history, the nation was faced with a choice, and these also almost always involved the decision over how much or how little government Americans wanted, needed or would tolerate.
After several years of the Articles of Confederation, it became clear to some - but not all - that in the wake of the defeat of the British Empire, a more empowered central government was needed.
Commerce was awkward between the various states. But as much as anything, the looming threat of European powers and their designs on the New World impelled the Founders to meet once again in Philadelphia, this time to create the Constitution, mostly a document of negative governance, but also one that granted war-making abilities to a central government, including the ability to raise a standing army and a ready navy.
Most times, the American people wanted less centralized government, as they demonstrated with the elections of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. Even the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 was no mandate to raise a huge army. (He only received 42 percent of the popular vote.) Polling was not conducted at the time, but most historians think the American people had little taste for war, even if states in the South seceded.
The rise of progressivism in the late 1880s began to address inequities in American culture and government. Implementing progressivism, though, was uneven, to say the least. While Republican senators fought for universal suffrage, just a few years earlier, Woodrow Wilson was signing an executive order prohibiting blacks from using the same government facilities as whites.
Still, progressivism - whether in a noble guise of creating a more just society, or simply as a faddish nostrum among the elites, or, at its worst, misapplied as a means of reordering society - dominated much of the national debate even before the onslaught of the Great Depression and the understandable rise of the New Deal.
Beginning in the 1960s, however, national government worked less and less well. It could not save the Kennedys or Martin Luther King Jr.; it could not win a war in Vietnam, stop runaway inflation or end gas lines. Government’s only success, it seemed (besides landing a man on the moon) was in bringing down a president, although few at the time felt proud about how well their Constitution had worked in that regard.
Indictments large and small were lodged against Washington, and the election of reformer Jimmy Carter and pro-individualist Ronald Reagan reflected Americans’ anxiety about centralized authority.
Since that time, Americans have developed a healthy and growing skepticism of Washington, leading an American president to declare in 1995, “The era of big government is over.”
What once was cynicism among the citizenry has evolved into a healthy respect for self-determination and for taking matters into their own hands, as in the case of the decision by Arizona to police it own borders.
Practically speaking, Washington has become dysfunctional, destructive to the American dream, sullied by so many competing interests and hidden agendas and so much incompetence; it is incapable of accomplishing much that is positive. Indeed, Washington reminds one of the borderline-mirthful “invisible foot” theories of Milton Friedman. Using Adam Smith’s “invisible hand of the marketplace” as his inspiration, Friedman stipulated that whatever government sent out to accomplish, the exact opposite happened. Government set out to win a war over poverty, but the underdog poverty won in a rout, crushing government, putting it on the disabled list. Government set out to improve education in America. Everyone knows the score of that game.
Historically, the Democratic Party has been the party of big government, compassion its weapon, as it has usurped more and more power that once was the domain of the private citizen, the local governments, families and communities. Washington Democrats claim to have the answer to all the ills that plague our society - including those only imagined - but nonetheless require massive funding.
Then there are the Republicans. Ahem. They are suffering from multiple personality disorder along with a mild case of self-loathing. Is their party a Reaganesque party of the individual, or is it the party of the more recent past - the contradictory philosophy of “big-government conservatism,” which embraced the Medicare prescription drug bill and the TARP bailout of Wall Street? Or it is the party of those who awkwardly float between Reagan one day and George W. Bush the next, trying desperately to reconcile the irreconcilable? Or is it driven by the new Thomas Paines of conservatism, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Mark Levin and others who push them to the right, hoping they’ll return to their Reagan roots?
Suffice it to say, the Republicans know they should not just be against Obamaism; they should be for freedom but are afraid to articulate why because, frankly, they, too, want to be re-elected, and doing so would require articulating the conservative philosophy they may not understand.
Let’s face it - conservatism is confusing to some Republicans: “Wait, we’re conservatives, but we are for the liberalism of the Enlightenment?” And there has always been that mystery over the difference between federalism and being a federalist: “Hold on, a federalist is for centralized power, but federalism is against centralized power? Huh?” Or, “How can a conservative also be a revolutionary?”
What conservatism-populism-libertarianism - which some used to call Reaganism - needs is an updated nom de plume, a new “handle.” Something easily understood: localism.
It is nice and friendly sounding, easily and immediately understood. Who is opposed to local control? Localism. Think local market, local school and local hardware store. All these things work marvelously well at the local level, so why can’t government also work at the local level?
Forget ideology for a second. This country is the third most populous nation on Earth, with more than 300 million residents. It is vast, diverse, and it has become apparent to all that it is simply impractical to govern this country from one corrupt city-state along the Potomac.
Localism is intellectual common sense. Liberalism - the seizing of power and wielding of it from afar - is anti-intellectualism.
The response of the Arizona Legislature is a natural outgrowth of the failure of Washington, and it should be applauded by all who applaud local control. Undeniably, across the country, 50 sovereign states are reasserting themselves in dramatic and creative fashion, from suing Washington over the insulting threats to the 10th Amendment to challenging Washington’s authority over public education.
President Obama has unleashed a great new national debate in America, one not seen since the days of Reagan. Mr. Obama, like Alexander Hamilton, Woodrow Wilson and Lyndon B. Johnson, believes in controlling and ultimately subjugating the behavior of the citizenry in the name of “helping them.” Mr. Obama though, in attacking the state of Arizona, is fostering localism, not forestalling it. Creative revolt is spreading, and with the rise of the Tea Party movement, we are witnessing new history being made. The rise of this movement is as important a political development as the rise of the Reagan Democrats in 1980.
The American citizenry is engaging in the full flower of a New Enlightenment, believing that the natural state of people is freedom through secularism or through faith and that natural law dictates that people should be free of the state.
Americans want more than just to own a loaf of bread. They want to own their own lives again. They want local control.
On his deathbed, the old abolitionist and Republican Frederick Douglass was asked by a young man his career advice. Douglass replied, “Agitate son. Agitate, agitate, agitate.”
The battle has been joined.
Craig Shirley is president of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs and has written two books on Ronald Reagan, including his newest, “Rendezvous With Destiny” (Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2009). He is now working on a political biography of Newt Gingrich.