Much like the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Tiananmen Square protests, the result of the 2016 European Union Referendum — Brexit, as it’s commonly called — will be one of those memories that stay with me the rest of my life.
Late in the night as the Leave vote amassed an insurmountable lead, I reflected on how Brexit likely would constitute a wakeup call not only for the European Union but possibly for the American Union too.
I was motivated as much as I was inspired by the results. The next morning, I got busy setting up a devolutionary weblog as a forum for discussing how the Brexit outcome likely would affect federalism in the United States.
Reflecting weeks later on how the results of the referendum had galvanized Scottish nationalist sentiment, I also began to wonder if Britons would take up a serious discussion of drafting a constitution for a new federal British union encompassing England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. And this led me to speculate about whether such a union of sovereign states ultimately would inspire one or more American states to demand a return to the principles of state sovereignty enshrined in the Constitution, particularly in the Tenth Amendment.
Sclerotic, Dysfunctional American Federalism
Brexit should have been regarded as a wake-up call for all Americans. Indeed, American federalism is arguably just as sclerotic and unresponsive to present-day needs as its European Union counterpart and perhaps equally as imperiled.
Challenges to American Federalism
Some of the maladies associated with American federalism date back as far as colonial times, while others have emerged considerably more recently. The deep cultural chasms stemming from the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam Conflict some 50 years ago certainly have contributed. But so have more recent technological advances, namely, the demassification of media that followed the expansion of cable television within the last 50 years and, more recently and significantly, digitization, particularly social media.
These new media, despite all the good that they have produced, have added an extra layer of complexity to our cultural and political discourse. For better or worse, they have enabled growing numbers of Americans to self-organize into a myriad of subcultures.
Demassification has also compounded the challenges of our current federal model. In the face of this demassification, our highly centralized and sclerotic federal system has only grown more unresponsive, unworkable and even toxic, contributing to the deep regional and cultural divisions, particularly as they are expressed at the national level.
Some readers may regard such disparaging talk about our federal system as shocking. After all, many Americans tend to regard our Constitution and the institutions and mechanisms that developed out of it as truly singular, if not beyond reproach. To characterize these vital components of our constitutional system not only as unresponsive but even unworkable comes off sounding, well, downright un-American, if not treasonous, to many.
Deep Cultural Cleavages
Yet, the time for a frank dialogue about the inadequacies of our federal system is long overdue. American federalism, despite its many notable successes over the last almost quarter of a millennium, has never managed to compensate fully for the deep cultural cleavages that have challenged this country from the very beginning.
Author and columnist Michael Malice was right and, I would contend, rather courageous, to argue that one part of the country, which could be broadly described as the cultural and political heirs of Puritan New England, have spent almost a quarter of a millennium trying to impose their vision of the American Experiment on the part of the country that traces its cultural and political legacy to Jefferson and that could be broadly characterized as the South.
He even argues that America was never that united a nation in the first place. Even in those rare times when we have enjoyed a measure of ideological unity, we have seldom marched in cultural lockstep.
And why should that come as a surprise?
The Failures of Centralized Federalism
Ponder this fact for a moment: The United States now possesses a population of 300-plus million people spanning a continent-sized country, the fourth largest in the world. Yet, we are governed on the basis of a badly antiquated federal model conceived a century ago by a progressive-minded political scientist named Woodrow Wilson, our 28th president. He and other academics concluded that the country would be better off divesting states and localities of many of their traditional responsibilities, entrusting these instead to a central government manned by technocrats steeped in the emerging insights of social science.
Even today a few proponents of this centralized model would steadfastly contend that the wisdom of these reforms were affirmed by the degree to which they guided us through two world wars, the Cold War, and the Civil Rights Movement. In the interest of time and space, I’ll defer that topic for a later date. Suffice it to say that this model is showing its age in the highly diffused and decentralized economic, political and cultural environment of the 21st century.
America’s Oldest Cultural Impasse
Yet, as Malice stressed in his column, the deepest and most intractable problems associated with American federalism stem from the longstanding regional rivalry and animosity between the political and cultural heirs of New England and the South, two regions with competing visions of the American Experiment.
The fact that New England emerged as the nation’s most culturally preeminent region after the Civil War should surprise no one. Historical research has revealed that New England was the most literate region on the planet following American independence. Its emphasis on mass education, particularly higher education, afforded the region immense intellectual and, ultimately, material advantages over the agrarian, slave-holding South and parts of the emerging American Back Country. And even today, this region and other sections of the country directly shaped by its cultural and political vision continue to project their aspirations onto the rest of the country, particularly the South.
To be sure, the South, despite its statesmen supplying the theoretical foundations for many of the founding principles of this country, not to mention, the fact that seven of the first ten U.S. president were Southern, was encumbered by an slave-holding economic system that impeded economic diversification and, as a result of which, provided Southern political elites with less incentive to educate the region’s farming and laboring classes.
The South’s economic disadvantages proved disastrous over the long run. Following the South’s defeat and economic dispossession after the Civil War, New England and its regional offshoots emerged as the nation’s unrivaled cultural and political hegemons.
If one good thing besides the end of slavery followed this disastrous outcome, it was how defeat provided an impetus for the defeated and economically prostrate South to reinvent itself. One even could argue that the South owed its New England counterparts a debt in terms of its being forced to abandon an economic system that had sapped its intellectual and economic potential for some two centuries.
Lessons from Ireland and India
Yet the story is a bit more complicated. The case can be made — and has time and again throughout U.S. history by Southern political leaders, academics, and writers — that certain traits bound up with the New England cultural legacy have also worked to exacerbate American unity as much as they have mitigated them. Virtually from the founding of this country, the cultural heirs of England, many of whom comprise the core of this nation’s current ruling class, have tended to regard the South as the nation’s problem region, fit, in a manner of speaking, only to don the dunce’s cap and to sit on a stool of everlasting repentance.
As they see it, the South comprises the central, defining core of the worst aspects of the American cultural legacy, reflected in gun ownership, religious dogmatism and reactionary conservatism. And, predictably, this animus has sparked a reciprocal reaction not only in the South but in other so-called red-states, many of which not only share significant cultural affinities with the South but also lay equally strong claims to the Jeffersonian legacy of strictly limited government.
Speaking as an amateur student of history and particularly of 20th century nationalist movements, I’ve always found it remarkable that this cultural animus never sparked enduring nationalist sentiment in the defeated, post-war South comparable to what emerged in Ireland beginning in the late 18th century — or, for that matter, India, in the 19th century.
Whatever the case, I think it behooves Southerners and, for that matter, inhabitants of other red states that share strong ties to the Jeffersonian political tradition to reflect on all of this constructively.
History has demonstrated time and again that conquest and economic dispossession are not one-way streets. Even the inhabitants of conquered lands sometime derive immense cultural, material and even political benefits over the course of time.
Many a contemporary Irish or Indian citizen would concede a considerable debt to the British colonial legacy. Deep historical scars remain, yes, but despite all of this, they credit their former British hegemons with a few things of estimable value: a national communications and transportation infrastructure as well as a legal and parliamentary tradition, which provided both aspiring nations with critical facets of nation-building. These factors contributed immeasurably not only to a united Ireland and India but to their becoming singularly successful parliamentary democracies.
Southerners likewise owe their New England cousins a measure of debt. New England’s intellectual and material advantages not only proved instrumental in defeating the South but also were major factors that forced the region over the course of time to undergo much needed economic diversification. But even before the war, New England’s rich religious legacy also left an indelible mark on the South and much of the Back Country. Indeed, much of the impetus behind the evangelical religious revivalism in the South and the rest of the American frontier were incubated in New England.
Well-Articulate, Vibrant Regional Identities
No doubt about it: Every region of the country, even the relatively disadvantaged ones, have benefited from American federalism.
Yet, this doesn’t obviate the fact that we now regard ourselves as a deeply sundered and increasingly embittered nation, increasingly divided by religion, culture and politics. Indeed, we have arguably grown even further apart within the last couple of years following Donald Trump’s electoral upset. And this division is exacerbated by the very nature of Wilsonian model of centralized federalism. Each side of the great political divide in American, blue and red America, still harbors hopes that they ultimately can harness this centralized federal model to impose their will on the other.
As Malice stresses, this has prompted growing numbers of us to ponder the unthinkable: the merits of breaking up this big, increasingly unwieldy federation into smaller, more manageable, and arguably more humane political entities.
Indeed, if an increasingly restive, assertive California has demonstrated one thing , it is that the South’s preeminent Founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, were right all along. Even at a time when America was overwhelmingly Protestant and culturally British and thoroughly wedded to a single language, these two men categorically rejected centralized federalism on the basis that a country as large and diverse as the United States simply could not be managed centrally. For his part, Jefferson even occasionally wondered out loud whether liberty ultimately would be best secured across this vast continent through an aggregation of smaller republics, all sharing common cultural and political affinities, all pledged to securing the blessings of prosperity and liberty for their citizens.
In the midst of all these wrenching, seemingly intractable divisions, we are being challenged to return to questions that once preoccupied our Founding Fathers.
We are being called upon to search for ways to detoxify and humanize our federal system. But how? How do we best govern ourselves in an age of sweeping media demassification? What political relations are best suited to securing liberty and fraternity among Americans of diverse backgrounds stretched across a vast distance? Are these relations best secured by some version of Madisonian federalism — a large republic encompassing smaller republics — or are the times calling for a more radicalized, Jeffersonian view? Has our current political union grown so large, so diverse and so ungovernable that we would be better off living in smaller federations, each of which arguably would be better designed and equipped to serve human needs?
Some readers may regard this last question as needlessly cynical and unpatriotic, if not downright treasonous. But I would argue that engaging in a frank discussion now about the future of our political association may better ensure that we avoid a disastrous impasse, if not a breakup, further down the road.
Yes, I believe that the cultural and political divisions in this country really are that deep and wrenching.
We must find a way not only to detoxify American federalism but also to humanize it.