This essay is part of a series connecting the principles of the Federalist Papers to contemporary politics. For more, visit The Federalist Today website or Facebook page or follow the project on Twitter.
After watching Wednesday’s Obamacare debate, we aren’t surprised to learn that 60 percent of Americans, according to the latest Gallup survey, believe the federal government is too powerful. In fact, it has now been more than eight years since fewer than half of Americans wanted to reduce the power of government.
President Obama addresses Congress during his State of the Union address. Photo Credit: J. Scott Applewhite/AP
And yet, since 2005, federal spending has grown 58 percent, the federal bureaucracy has added more than 100,000 to its ranks, and the cost of complying with its regulations has increased 59 percent - and all this before the full implementation of Obamacare.
That means in a period when more than half of Americans thought the government was too powerful, it has grown much more powerful still.
How does this happen in a republic? A momentary poll result can perhaps be safely ignored, but a sentiment sustained over eight years, through four congressional elections and two presidential contests? Plainly, something is wrong when the direction of the government and the sentiments of the people diverge to such an extreme degree.
In fact, several things are wrong. As we argued in an earlier essay in this series, the American governing class has become a “super-faction,” pursuing its good at the expense of the American people, as Congress’s special Obamacare deal illustrates. At the head of that group is President Obama, implementing a Progressive program that is purposefully and inherently divisive, the work of a faction-builder-in-chief.
But there is a less comfortable reality we can’t afford to ignore: the role that we, the people, have played in normalizing the politics of faction.
The authors of the The Federalist Papers hoped and believed that a republican people would welcome an honest assessment of its vices insofar as the exercise produced a healthy re-examination of its political choices and, ultimately, promised greater security for its rights and liberties. Since, in James Madison’s words, faction is “sown in the nature of man,” we cannot wisely consider ourselves free from its temptations.
Near the end of Democracy in America , Alexis de Tocqueville argued that “a democratic government . . . increases its prerogatives by the sole fact that it endures.” Time brings about increased centralization of power - even in a society where most people want a small and limited government.
Again: how could this be? With his usual keen insight into democratic peoples, de Tocqueville identifies the problem [emphasis from the author]:
“Democratic centuries are times of attempts, innovations, and adventures. There is always a multitude of men engaged in a difficult or new undertaking that they pursue separately, without bothering themselves about those like them. They do indeed accept for a general principle that the public power ought not to intervene in private affairs, but each of them desires that it aid him as an exception in the special affair that preoccupies him, and he seeks to attract the action of the government to his side, all the while wanting to shrink it for everyone else.”
What de Tocqueville suggests is that there is something missing from the Gallup poll’s results. Most people think that government is too powerful - but not in the areas where they benefit from special programs, favorable regulations, or tax law carve-outs. Most people want a smaller government - except where a little more power might shift resources in their direction.
Meanwhile, the government always wants more power. So it gladly obliges as many individuals and groups as it can - and is always ready to oblige more when resources allow. Over time, therefore, the government always wins - and we pay a big price for our small hypocrisy.
The American people might be forgiven for some of this failure. For too long, the establishment leaders of both major parties have ignored, excused, and sometimes encouraged factious behavior for their short-term political benefit. Instead of making an appeal to the American people as a whole, they carve us up into various groups (economic, ethnic, religious, etc.), peddling focus-group-tested proposals and slogans that scratch where each group itches. When the smooth operators behind the candidates calculate that the next president will be determined by three counties in Ohio, there is no end to the particular appeals calculated to please the winners of this political lottery.
Once upon a time in America, our political leaders took a different approach. Their campaigns were still rough, their differences still sharp, but in the spirit of Federalist 10 they sought, at least on their best days, to “refine and enlarge the public view” by pointing the American people to a common good above all particular interests.
Consider that after co-authoring the Federalist, a work that condemns factious behavior, Alexander Hamilton and Madison founded the Federalist and Democratic-Republican parties, respectively. These parties were at odds with one another.
Had they forgotten their earlier admonitions against faction?
No. Both Hamilton and Madison pursued policies (tending to the young nation’s fiscal health and political stability on the one hand, and working to preserve the republican character of its politics on the other hand) that they thought would best secure the American people’s God-given liberty. And neither man swerved from his belief that this required an “impartial and exact execution of the laws.”
In other words, Hamilton and Madison were partisan in the best sense of the word: advancing a particular program aiming - not in pretense, but in fact - to achieve the good of all.
American politicians in our day pursue policies with a very different aim. Too often we are tempted by the prospect of personal gain to go along with it. We may go along with today’s pseudo-Hamiltonian state builders because we think the government’s strength is our security. We may go along with today’s pseudo-Jeffersonian equalizers because we think that others’ good luck or hidden corruption too often limit our success.
But instead of the best of these two American traditions, we get the worst: the unholy marriage of Hamiltonian means with Jeffersonian ends called for by Progressive giant Herbert Croly, an “alliance between two principles” that Croly rightly understood and hoped would “not leave either of them intact.”
Through a coordinated effort by elites from both political parties, the media and the academy, the Progressives succeeded in their effort to reinterpret, and thereby remake, the first principles of American politics. But there have been exceptions to their rule that give us hope.
Calvin Coolidge, at the height of the Progressive ascendancy, reminded Americans that self-evident truths don’t expire. He led a dramatic reduction in government spending from its Woodrow Wilson-era high. He called upon the American people to work and save - and they responded, producing an extended period of growth and prosperity. A powerful people, rather than a powerful government.
Coolidge’s example reminds us that a trans-factious politics is possible to the degree both sets of political actors - statesmen and citizens - are willing to consider every policy, law, regulation, or governmental activity on the basis of whether it furthers the common good or benefits individuals seeking their own advantage.
We will not thrive as a healthy and prosperous political community unless modern-day Coolidges take on the entrenched interests of Washington culture and the enormous state that feeds them. But just as surely, these statesmen will not be successful in this effort unless they can draw upon the reserves of an American people no longer willing to buy in to a faction-driven politics that has left us divided and broke with a government more powerful than ever.
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