I have a slightly audacious proposal to lay before you. In it, I contend that the very same factions that nearly rent this country asunder before it even had the chance to get going--they are alive and well today. At the beginning of our Republic, our country was deeply divided between those who favored a strong centralized government or those who preferred that most enumerated powers ought to rest with the states. The former were called Federalists, the latter were called Republicans. The terms are not important, but their political attitudes are very much so.
Today, the continuing discussion over Obamacare is the latest permutation of this volcano. It may not have yet erupted in spectacular fashion, but neither has it lay dormant, either. Many of the arguments being thrown around in recent days and weeks have their nexus only a few years after the American Revolution. The Article of Confederation, our country’s first constitution, was deliberately weak and toothless. Most sovereignty lay in the hands of individual state governments. Ensuring that taxes were paid and armies raised to put down rebellions was next to impossible. This is why something else had to be devised.
The Tea Party would have us return to those days, before we had enough good sense to know that our current system was entirely untenable. Fortunately for the rest of us, a Federalist system was put into place that sought to establish one of the most tenuous of all political compromises. A centralized government located in Washington, DC, would be granted significant powers. Granting a concession to those who opposed the Constitution and lobbied against its ratification, the Bill of Rights that followed was careful to seek to extend a seat at the table to everyone. States’ rights were protected in the form of the Tenth Amendment.
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.
This amendment sounds even-handed enough, but because it clocks in at in less than thirty words, an immense amount of grey area remains. Since then, as is the case with evolving precedent, we’ve been defining and redefining what that balance ought to be and what the amendment really says. The Tenth Amendment is frequently given primacy by modern-day conservatives. Liberals acknowledge that states do have particular rights granted to them. Indeed, they ought to be entitled to a degree of self-determination. However, they view, with great suspicion, efforts by some to use the Bill of Rights to further their own extreme causes and justify their strident words, and for good reason.
I recall Bob Dole, an establishment Republican if ever there was one, reverently noting how close the Tenth Amendment was to his heart. This was in 1996, during a Presidential debate with Bill Clinton. Trying to ascertain sincerity in a politician is probably not worth the effort, but lip service aside, Dole nevertheless came across as a believer in a purist view of governing and government that has likely never been adopted. By this comparison I mean to say that the Tea Party isn’t a new creation, but it has taken traditional Republican thinking, party line, and tropes well-beyond what many conservatives ever dreamed.
As a country, we cannot exist forever with a chasm this great separating us. Or, as Lincoln put it, on the eve of the Civil War, “I do not expect the Union to be dissolved -- I do not expect the house to fall -- but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.” We must decide the best course of action for this increasingly gridlocked nation. Should we hand more authority to Washington, or place our trust in state legislators and governors?
In my own life, I have become extremely skeptical of decentralized power. To me, it always manages to come across as disorganized and inefficient. Living for years in a solidly red state, I watched bumbling idiots make state policy and then somehow try to enforce it. Even with its flaws, Uncle Sam was far more effective and well-regarded. On one hand, Washington politicians are treated like vermin, but on the other hand, they do usually get the job done in the end.
Here’s an example. My tax refund from the Federal Government arrived within a month of filing, and often within weeks. My state return from Alabama arrived...eventually. Medicare, a Federal Government creation, is almost always taken by medical practitioners in my home state. Medicaid, however, is always underfunded and infrequently taken as anything more than secondary coverage.
Contrary to what some Republican politicians believe, I was never eligible for Medicaid. This was because of very restrictive state eligibility laws that only extended health insurance to children under the age of 17, or to married/partnered couples with at least one child. That was not me.
States don’t want to accept their fault and culpability. They’d have to concede that they were mistaken and that they are supporting positions that are immoral and unethical. It’s a question of severely misplaced priorities. The highest paid state employee is a football coach, albeit an extremely successful one. Though the football program does bring in millions of dollars a year in revenue for the University (and likely the state as well), it would seem to be more important to preserve the health of poor Alabamians rather than maintain the dominance of the sports program.
I’m not picking on the Deep South. Few state legislators and governors inspire my devotion or respect, regardless of their physical location. Everyone wants to have it their way. The Confederacy that some of the Tea Partiers appear to lionize was constantly hamstrung because state governors ignored or challenged the requests of the national capital in Richmond. The state of Georgia, for example, refused to surrender its troops and munitions for anyone, even though soldiers and war materials were always in short supply. Georgia wanted to keep its troops within its own borders, to fend off the threat of invasion from Union armies. And it certainly wasn’t going to share its wealth with the rest of the Confederate States.
What we have here is a childish, sandbox, temper tantrum mentality. I want what I want, even if it comes at your expense. You can’t make me. I don’t want to be responsible or fair. It’s up to all Americans to determine where we go from here. When government is always one step away from being shuttered or we are dangerously close to our national debt going into default, one side has to be right. Both of us cannot be right. We can continue to give states the ability of greater self-governance, or we can cast our lot with Washington. I think you know where I stand on that issue.