Why is there so much despair in our collective response to politics today?
On election night, as the results rolled in, a prominent media personality with furrowed brow exclaimed, “You’re awake by the way. You’re not having a terrible, terrible dream. Also you’re not dead and you haven’t gone to hell. This is your life now, this is our election now, this is us, this is our country — it’s real.” Since then, we have been bombarded by a drumbeat of hopelessness, with some Clinton-supporters even exhorting that they “just want to die.”
This is a bipartisan phenomenon, of course. The bitter frustration arising from many of the Obama administration’s policies such as the stimulus and Obamacare resulted in the formation of the Tea Party. And, two weeks ago, when it seemed certain that Donald Trump was headed for defeat, conservatives were particularly depressed by the prospect of a Clinton presidency because it would have cemented Obama’s expansion of executive power, his onerous regulations, his ruinous health-care law, and his activist judiciary.
This is the way American politics works in 2016. If your party controls the White House, you claim a mandate; if it doesn’t, you declare that dark days and the end of the republic are upon us.
How did it come to this?
Simply put, the American people increasingly recognize that they are losing their right of self-government to an “intellectual elite in a far-distant capital [that claims it] can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves,” as Ronald Reagan put it in 1964. The problem has only gotten worse since then. The federal bureaucracy and its laws, rules, regulations, and policies now touch nearly all aspects of business and life.
Some say we need more uniformity across the United States. But in fact, it is actually forced uniformity through federal action that is tearing us apart.
The Constitution specifically enshrined a federalist system that limited the power of the federal government and allowed the people to govern themselves through the various states. This federalist approach was the result of our founders’ reasoned and deliberative effort to reform the Articles of Confederation, under which power was insufficiently centralized to allow us to function effectively together as one nation. Now, we have the opposite problem: Power in America is centralized to the point where every national election seems life-or-death.
Wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t have to care quite so deeply about who controlled the White House? Wouldn’t it be better if we didn’t have to care who might be appointed to the Supreme Court beyond knowing he or she was qualified to wisely answer questions of law? Wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t have to care who the bureaucrats were because their duties weren’t so consequential?
To be clear, we certainly want to engage as citizens. But, it’s frankly un-American that we are so wrapped up in the cult of the presidency, the bureaucrats, and the courts. The Constitution was meant to protect our God-given rights as Americans to live — to direct the education of our children, choose our doctors, and focus on our local needs for water, police, roads and electricity — free from government intrusion.
This is the essence of federalism, that magical alignment of power in our founding that bound us together as one, but very purposefully limited the central government’s authority in an effort to protect the states and the people.
In 1821, five years before he died, Thomas Jefferson observed in his autobiography that we should want states even if we hadn’t inherited them. “[I]t is not by the consolidation, or concentration of powers, but by their distribution, that good government is effected,” he wrote. “Were not this great country already divided into states, that division must be made, that each might do for itself what concerns itself directly, and what it can so much better do than a distant authority.”
Left and Right, red state and blue, we should join together today as states in a shared commitment to making Washington, D.C. less important in our lives, and to working with the new administration to embrace the structural blessing of a federalist system in which we live free from a “distant authority.” Through federalism, we can and will find peace, strength, and unity as a nation.