Two of COL Lang's most recent posts, on the Declaration of Independence and on Fareed Zakariya's understanding of the nature of the US, especially federalism, got me thinking a bit about American Political Development (of which I did not specialize in...) and how America has and has not changed over time.
In the first post COL Lang asks if the document could bear scrutiny today and if its author, and I take that to me its primary drafter Thomas Jefferson, could avoid police state surveillance? I think the answer is quite simply that Mr. Jefferson would have little to no place in modern American political society. And while this has been evidenced by the State of Texas writing him out of their history textbooks (apparently the religious conservatives who control the board do not like him because he penned the phrase "separation of Church and State"), I think it goes farther than just Mr. Jefferson's status. I have often wondered, and sometimes remarked, that I do not think any of our founding and framing fathers could be elected to office today or even approved by the Senate for appointment. And this is not because of the obvious concern that many were slave owners and therefore on the wrong side of what we would today call racial issues (it was the 18th Century after all). Rather it has to do with their political views, ranging from the radical to the reactionary, their beliefs about the world and nature and the Deity, their understanding of government, and finally their personal lives. While I could produce a long list of these men, their ideas, and their foibles, with appropriate links, suffice it to say that Jefferson's affair with his sister in law (Sally Hemmings was Mrs. Jefferson's sister),
Washington being a rum runner (smuggler), Hamilton's repeated affairs, Franklin's education and expertise (not to mention that he liked to pose, in prose, as a young housewife, making him a literary cross dresser), etc, etc, etc (and lets not forget they were almost all Freemasons, the horror...) would make it impossible for them to get elected today or confirmed if they were appointed. The genius of these men was not that they were all simon pure, but rather that they were as flawed and fallible** as the rest of us, yet able when the time came to rise above their limitations, to compromise (even if they were bad compromises in retrospect), and to do the work that needed to be done.
To be perfectly honest I am not sure that Ronald Reagan could be elected today, and certainly not as a Republican, given that he raised taxes seven out of the eight years he was in office, increased, or authorized by signing legislation that increased, spending, enlarged the deficit (tax and spender), and that he pulled US forces out of Lebanon after the Marines were attacked twice (cutting and running), negotiated under the table with Iran to try to secure the release of US hostages taken in Lebanon (negotiated with Islamic extremists), head of a union, and that is not counting me being polite and not mentioning the breakdown of his first marriage and other personal/familial issues that would not be off limits today. While many of my memories of President Reagan were formed in adolescence, it says something about where America is today that the great conservative icon, Ronald Reagan, could not make it through an Iowa caucus. At this hyperlink you can find the Austrian Economics (this is the philosophical/normative type of economics subscribe to by Congressman Paul, Senator Paul, Congresswoman Bachman, Congressman Ryan, and many others) folks going after him. I am not trying to run down President Reagan, rather this list of actions that he and his administration undertook (whether I agree with all, some, any, or none of them) are intended to demonstrate that the flexibility to make policy adjustments regardless of ideological posturing are something that is no longer valued in American political life any more by a great portion of the electorate. Given that conservatism's greatest American icon, President Reagan, would fail almost every litmus test that has been created by his own party, its supporters, backers, and those who claim to be part of the same overall movement, should clearly demonstrate that real radicals like President Jefferson, a man who wanted the Constitution scrapped and rewritten every generation or so as he perceived it as the ultimate social contract, would certainly be out of the question.
What appear to be the historical tone deafness of Mr. Zakariya's remarks about the nature of the US are related to whether the Declaration would be acceptable today or if the founders and framers would really be held in such high esteem if they should suddenly reanimate and run for office. COL Lang is 100% correct that the original and initial conceptualization of the US was of a united States, where each of the (then thirteen) states was sovereign and independent and would work together on issues of defense and economic matters. This was modified at the second founding when the Articles of Confederation were abandoned and replaced with the Constitution; thirteen sovereign states were replaced by one sovereign state made up of thirteen semi or limited sovereign components governed by the concept of federalism. And it is this concept of federalism more than anything else that has evolved, been adapted, been adjusted, and changed over time. In many ways what Mr. Zakariya and Mr. Toobin were agreeing about is accurate: each of the fifty states that make up the US is no longer sovereign. Or rather they are no longer fully sovereign. They are not allowed to conduct their own foreign policy, they can not strike their own currency, they are, after several decades of bitterly fought legal battles, fought out in the Supreme Court during the early to middle 20th Century on everything from religion (Abington v. Schemp for example), privacy (Griswold v. Connecticut), and a host of other Bill of Rights' issues, as well as the Civil Rights legislation and subsequent enforcement, fully subject to the guarantees granted to each individual US citizen under the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. If each state was fully sovereign then the rights one has as an American would not necessarily travel with one as an American as you moved across the country (and that was, once upon a time, the case). Where Mr. Zakariya and Mr. Toobin got it wrong was in failing to understand that federalism means shared sovereignty - the Federal government does somethings and the state governments do others.
Our real problem today, though, is that our ability to govern ourselves is breaking down. Rather than recognizing that government can, and when necessary should, do certain beneficial things for everyone - what we call delivering public goods, we have degenerated into a citizenry that is poorly informed, often poorly educated on the most important issues, contemptuous of expertise and the education that goes with it, and convinced that government is the problem. And a good chunk of our elected officials seem determined to prove that government is good for nothing and should therefore be down sized if not gotten rid of (all while enjoying government pay checks, health care, and retirement - kind of makes one wonder). There was a time where American government was part of the solution. America's infrastructure was the marvel of the developed world - our interstate highway system, our bridges and tunnels, the rail roads, our airports and sea ports, and our power grids and sewer systems. These were not built with private dollars, they were built as public investments, as public goods, so that private investments could flourish. Today many have been sold off, and often not to the highest bidder, and they are crumbling, and they are no longer a shining example to the rest of the world, but rather something between a sad joke and the example of what happens when a society decides to consume itself. So government is not the problem, just as it is not always the solution, but our real problem is bad government, bad governance, and bad elected and appointed officials, as well as an uninformed and not particularly inquisitive citizenry, and a news media designed to make money, not to help overcome the problems of low and bad information. Our social contract is frayed and the wisdom of those who wrote it fails us even as it and they are venerated to new heights.
*Adam L. Silverman is the Culture and Foreign Language Advisor at the US Army War College. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the US Army War College or the US Army.
** Just look up and read the differing accounts of how Washington came to be the commander of the Continental Army by the men who were in that hot, humid, little room in Philadelphia. Compare his letter home to his wife with that of several of the other founders' letters about how he was selected.