“This life is slow suicide, unless you read.”Herman Wouk

Friday, October 27, 2006

The Crisis Of Federalism

"Control the coinage and the courts; let the rabble have the rest." -- Shaddam VI, Padishah Emperor (from Frank Herbert's Dune)

In his declining years, Thomas Jefferson brooded over the prospect of what was then called consolidation: the absorption of the prior powers and sovereignties of the states into an ever-expanding federal Leviathan. He foresaw the advancing usurpation of state and local prerogatives, prefigured by "the system of internal improvements:" the many public works programs of the early nineteenth century, for which no Constitutional authority existed. The contributions of Jefferson's own Administration to this process, masterminded in large measure by his Federalist Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams, only became clear to him after his time in office. It was a major spur to his participation in the formation of the Democratic Party, which founders Martin Van Buren and Thomas Hart Benton hoped would restore the original Constitutional design.

What Jefferson foresaw is today's reality, though not by the route he feared would bring it upon us. Rather, the nationalization of political discourse has caused the great majority of Americans to eschew participation in their local and state political processes. The "big issues" -- i.e., the ones treated seriously by the Old Media -- are utterly divorced from local politics, as one would expect of matter of war, fiscalism, national tax rates, border control, and so forth. Thus, the Old Media have led the citizen away from the level of political involvement in which his participation is most likely to have an impact, and toward the level at which his votes and his efforts are so diluted as to be all but meaningless.

There's a "connectedness problem" here. The federal government and its policies really do have a greater impact on the typical citizen's life and well-being than state and local governments do. Nor is it merely a matter of income tax rates. For example, local property tax rates in my locale, which are about two-thirds for support of the government-run schools, have quadrupled in the past twenty-five years. Yet this hasn't produced a tax revolt -- because the federal tax code allows homeowners to deduct their state and local tax payments from their federally taxable income, and because the past quarter-century has seen a dramatic decline in the cost of mortgage money, thanks to the manipulations of the Federal Reserve Board.

All that to the side, it remains the case that citizen-participants, themselves uninterested in attaining office, can have the greatest impact at the county, municipal, and state levels, but today are almost completely disengaged from developments at those levels. Even I, as politically conscious as anyone I know, cannot name the candidates for the Town Council, the local State Assembly district, or any of the candidates for state or county judgeships.

In consequence, we have this:

...it is a settled conclusion among seasoned observers that, Congress apart as a separate case, the lower legislatures -- state, county, and municipal -- are Augean stables of misfeasance, malfeasance, and nonfeasance from year to year and decade to decade, and that they are preponderantly staffed by riffraff or what the police would define as "undesirables," people who if they were not in influential positions would be unceremoniously told to "keep moving." Exceptions among them are minor. Many of them, including congressmen, refuse to go before the television cameras because it is then so plainly obvious to everybody what they are. Their whole demeanor arouses instant distrust in the intelligent. They are, all too painfully, type-cast for the race track, the sideshow carnival, the back alley, the peep-show, the low tavern, the bordello, the dive. Evasiveness, dissimulation, insincerity shine through their false bonhomie like beacon lights....

...Senator Estes Kefauver found representatives of the vulpine Chicago Mafia ensconced in the Illinois legislature, which has been rocked by one scandal of the standard variety after another off and on for seventy-five years. What he didn't bring out was that the Mafians were clearly superior types to many non-Mafians.

Public attention, indeed, usually centers on only a few lower legislatures -- Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, California, and Illinois -- and the impression is thereby fostered in the unduly trusting that the ones they don't hear about are on the level. But such an impression is false. The ones just mentioned come into more frequent view because their jurisdictions are extremely competitive and the pickings are richer. Fierce fights over the spoils generate telltale commotion. Most of the states are quieter under one-party quasi-Soviet Establishment dominance, with local newspapers cut in on the gravy. Public criticism and information are held to a minimum, grousers are thrown a bone and not many in the low-level populace know or really care. Even so, scandalous goings-on explode into view from time to time in Florida, Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Missouri, and elsewhere -- no state excepted. Any enterprising newspaper at any time could send an aggressive reporter into any one of them and come up with enough ordure to make the Founding Fathers collectively vomit up their very souls in their graves. [Ferdinand Lundberg, The Rich And The Super-Rich, published in 1968]

If Lundberg is correct -- and I believe he is -- then government at the lower levels, however insignificant we might deem it due to the treatment it receives from our dominant media, has become indistinguishable from organized crime. Yet state and local power-brokers, as a group, determine who will ascend to the federal stage. Here in New York, they came close to sending both Nelson Rockefeller and Mario Cuomo to the White House.

Is it still the case that a career in politics at the federal level must gestate at the state or local level? If so, how can we stand still for this? If not, what prospect is there for returning to the Constitutional scheme of federalism, or for restoring any degree of effective citizen control over government at any level, given how dilute our influence has been made -- and kept -- by federal machinations?

1 comment:

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well observed, Fran. And I must add that Repubicans, either by ideology or disposition, are quite MIA in local politics.

Local governments seem dedicated to the purpose of the relief of man's estate, that is, providing public services, and GOPers don't find that very sexy.