When John Adams was defending a tri-partite government, he did so by first surveying the political facts as given to him by history. It seems to LI that this is a good way to start talking about politics. We don’t have to invent ideals at the beginning and apply them, because we already have a history of applied ideals. What we do have to see is how the application of those ideals has worked. If we find a discrepancy between the animating principles of an ideal and its consequences, we should then ask whether either the animating principles are wrong, or whether they disguise some other, real principles, or whether the application is wrong.
The case for federalism rests, for some people, on the idea that the smaller the scale of government, the larger the voice of the people in directing it. In other words, there is a correlation between scale and democratic participation.
So much for theory. But when we survey the political facts on the ground in America, we find something startling. Given that one’s vote should count more on a small scale than on a large scale, we would expect the smallest elections to have the largest turnouts, and those elections dealing with more national officers to have the smallest turnouts. But it is precisely the opposite that happens.
In fact, local politics – of the city or the state – turns out to be the venue in which a determined minority has the most say, since it is also the politics that seems to evoke the most indifference among the governed.
Adams noticed this too, even if he didn’t put it in terms of indifference. He put it in terms of an owed deference. He has a long defense of inequality in which this regularly occurring phenomena is looked at, by him, as one of the ways politics can reflect the natural order:
Let us now return to M. Turgot's idea of a government consisting in a single assembly. He tells us our republics are "founded on the equality of all the citizens, and, therefore, 'orders' and 'equilibriums' are unnecessary, and occasion disputes." But what are we to understand here by equality? Are the citizens to be all of the same age, sex, size, strength, stature, activity, courage, hardiness, industry, patience, ingenuity, wealth, knowledge, fame, wit, temperance, constancy, and wisdom? Was there, or will there ever be, a nation, whose individuals were all equal, in natural and acquired qualities, in virtues, talents, and riches? The answer of all mankind must be in the negative. It must then be acknowledged, that in every state, in the Massachusetts, for example, there are inequalities which God and nature have planted there, and which no human legislator ever can eradicate. I should have chosen to have mentioned Virginia, as the most ancient state, or indeed any other in the union, rather than the one that gave me birth, if I were not afraid of putting suppositions which may give offence, a liberty which my neighbors will pardon. Yet I shall say nothing that is not applicable to all the other twelve.
In this society of Massachusettensians then, there is, it is true, a moral and political equality of rights and duties among all the individuals, and as yet no appearance of artificial inequalities of condition, such as hereditary dignities, titles, magistracies, or legal distinctions; and no established marks, as stars, garters, crosses, or ribbons; there are, nevertheless, inequalities of great moment in the consideration of a legislator, because they have a natural and inevitable influence in society. Let us enumerate some of them:--1. There is an inequality of wealth; some individuals, whether by descent from their ancestors, or from greater skill, industry, and success in business, have estates both in lands and goods of great value; others have no property at all; and of all the rest of society, much the greater number are possessed of wealth, in all the variety of degrees between these extremes; it will easily be conceived that all the rich men will have many of the poor, in the various trades, manufactures, and other occupations in life, dependent upon them for their daily bread; many of smaller fortunes will be in their debt, and in many ways under obligations to them; others, in better circumstances, neither dependent nor in debt, men of letters, men of the learned professions, and others, from acquaintance, conversation, and civilities, will be connected with them and attached to them. Nay, farther, it will not be denied, that among the wisest people that live, there is a degree of admiration, abstracted from all dependence, obligation, expectation, or even acquaintance, which accompanies splendid wealth, insures some respect, and bestows some influence. 2. Birth. Let no man be surprised that this species of inequality is introduced here. Let the page in history be quoted, where any nation, ancient or modern, civilized or savage, is mentioned, among whom no difference was made between the citizens, on account of their extraction. The truth is, that more influence is allowed to this advantage in free republics than in despotic governments, or than would be allowed to it in simple monarchies, if severe laws had not been made from age to age to secure it. The children of illustrious families have generally greater advantages of education, and earlier opportunities to be acquainted with public characters, and informed of public affairs, than those of meaner ones, or even than those in middle life; and what is more than all, an habitual national veneration for their names, and the characters of their ancestors described in history, or coming down by tradition, removes them farther from vulgar jealousy and popular envy, and secures them in some degree the favor, the affection, and respect of the public. Will any man pretend that the name of Andros, and that of Winthrop, are heard with the same sensations in any village of New England? Is not gratitude the sentiment that attends the latter, and disgust the feeling excited by the former? In the Massachusetts, then, there are persons descended from some of their ancient governors, counsellors, judges, whose fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers, are remembered with esteem by many living, and who are mentioned in history with applause, as benefactors to the country, while there are others who have no such advantage. May we go a step farther,--Know thyself, is as useful a precept to nations as to men. Go into every village in New England, and you will find that the office of justice of the peace, and even the place of representative, which has ever depended only on the freest election of the people, have generally descended from generation to generation, in three or four families at most. The present subject is one of those which all men respect, and all men deride. It may be said of this part of our nature, as Pope said of the whole:--
"Of human nature, wit her worst may write, We all revere it in our own despite."
Unlike Adams, we are not at all happy with the inequalities of wealth and birth. But like Adams, we do see that this is a subject that “all men respect.” This is the reason we have never been particularly moved by the argument for smaller scale government, since it seems to us that this move magnifies, rather than mitigates, oligarchical power.
Given that general case, progressives in the 20th century have mostly mounted their programs with reference to national entities – the federal government. On the national scale, a progressive organization can summon resources that are sometimes unavailable on the local scale – plus, of course, there is the little fact that the ‘respect’ Adams speaks of is reinforced by real fear – of job loss, of public shaming, of police power, etc., etc. This progressive strategy has, unfortunately, developed a sort of pro-government, meaning Federal government, instinct in progressives. It is the instinct of the homeowner for his home. Which is all well and good – but when the homeowner is kicked out of his home, continuing to act as the homeowner isn’t a forgiveable foible – it is pathology.
We think this is why progressives are so flummoxed by the Bush culture, and thrash about trying to ‘frame’ issues. Really, the issues are framed for you. And the issue that has been framed for the progressives, that stares your Democratic party consultant in the face, is that the government, at the moment, equals the Republican party. Which signals rhetorical opportunity. Since the Repubs have sowed anti-governmental propaganda ever since white Little Rock residents were forced to send their kids to school with blacks. And the Repubs have been the minority party since Roosevelt’s day. They are now the majority party. They are now the government. They are now enjoying the usufructs of being the government – spending money like drunken sailors, destroying rules they don’t like among various states, looking for ways of shunting FICA tax dollars into the pockets of their cronies, etc, etc.
So it is time for progressives to start using anti-government rhetoric, because the government is using anti-progressive power. Simple. This is the program. It isn’t the Republicans, or Bush, who want to steal your social security – it is the Government. It isn’t Tom Delay or the President (whose heart was rung by a white Floridian dying in his brother’s state in ways that the death of ten Democratic voting Indians would never match) who wants to stand between you and your loved ones’ desire not to be reduced, by massive surgery and interminable feeding tubes, to a mass of simple vital signs in Hospital hell for decades – it is the Government. It is the Government that is sending Americans off to die pointlessly in the Middle East, the Government that is siding with credit card companies in an attempt to reduce you to peonage, the Government that is encouraging the depredations of the corporations upon your well being, your environment, and your property.
That’s the deal. Switch strategies accordingly.