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Oregon State Capitol in Olympia

Way back in the mid-1970’s, I and my fellow classmates at Russellville Junior High School were blessed with an unusually gifted and dedicated 8th grade history teacher named Mary Alexander.

Mrs. Alexander, now long deceased, loved pointing out the irony of history, particularly in terms of how facets of it – whether these happened to be political or cultural  ideals or ways of doing things – often re-expressed themselves at times when we least expected them, even when we thought that they had become discredited or simply had played out.

I never forgot her lesson. Indeed as an avid reader of history I am reminded of this on a frequent basis. Just when we think that some ideas have been discredited or forgotten and, consequently, consigned to history’s ashbin, they return with a vengeance, even with the sense of vibrancy and relevance that had distinguished them in previous decades or even centuries. 

The rekindling of American federalism and even, perish thought, states rights, serves as an unusually timely example. I grew up at a time when federalism expressed as states sovereignty seemed throughly discredited.  What seemed to have been an inexorable march toward human progress, LBJ’s Great Society programs, locked arm and arm with the civil rights struggle and the federal courts’ efforts to expunge the stigma of racial discrimination, seemed to have dealt, if not a fatal blow to states rights, at least a searing defeat that would leave this constitutional doctrine in what amounted to a semi-comatose state.

We were assured by teachers at every level of public education that states rights was a relic of the past – not just a quaint but even a disquieting one. I recall several political science courses in which the professor, a Great Society liberal, likened federalism to a marbled cake.  The federal government was the cake, though states provided measure of enhancement, sort of like chocolate marbling.

Yet, history seems to be repeating itself with a vengeance. In the face of American federal impasse and national division, states, large and small alike, are reasserting the themselves. As I have pointed out on numerous occasions on this forum, it started more than a decade ago when then-California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger began characterizing his state as something resembling a nation within a nation. He successor, Jerry Brown, even began conducting a kind of incipient foreign policy related to climate change.

Recently, a prominent GOP leader, Allen West, has lobbied for a secession vote in the Texas State Assembly, a move that at least one GOP leader in another Western state characterizes not only as a positive move but also one that bears close watching.

More recently in Oregon, state Sen. Jeff Golden (D-Ashland) has proposed legislation that would reintroduce a state bank concept for Oregon, primarily with the aim of serving as a backstop for community banks and credit unions.

Golden holds up the Bank of North Dakota as the model for his efforts, stressing the role that this bank played in minimizing foreclosures during the Great Recession.

The Washington Post reports that small businesses in North Dakota, compared with their counterparts in other states, were ably served by this model. In fact, they secured more Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans relative to the state’s workforce than other states, with more than $5,000 per private-sector worker as of May 8, 2020.

Yet, why is all of this surprising? States, by their very nature, possess the accoutrements of nationhood. And this is as much a matter of practicality as a historical fact.

As a student of constitutional history, I not only find this fascinating but also instructional in terms of how it underscores the increasing inefficiency of centralized federalism. If developments  such as these demonstrate one thing, it’s that no central government, certainly one so big, bloated and overextended  as the imperial behemoth in Washington, possesses the omnicompetence to manage a polity of the scale of the United States.

The late Mrs. Alexander was spot on: History does repeat itself.