Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Does Intellectual Discourse Influence the Health Care Debate?

In what is proving to be an interminable struggle to establish health care reform, one that seems to determined prove that all glass houses, slaughterhouses, and sausage-making factories have see-through walls, I thought it might be instructive to contemplate a related contentious issue this country has dealt with in a prior age. Specifically, I thought I might allude to the series of essays our Founding Fathers penned to skeptical citizens to justify and validate the establishment of a strong central government. While many reference The Federalist Papers, sadly, few read them much these days. This is unfortunate, because many of the same arguments made in 1787 are tremendously relevant to the current day. In another in a series of ironies, the same right-wing critics who cling to the Constitution now as a means of justifying their opposition to "government mandates" or "government-run" programs would probably have been the same ones in another age to actively oppose its ratification and enactment.

Alexander Hamilton, who now moonlights as the old dead white guy on the ten-dollar bill wrote an introduction to the essays which speaks to our current quandry.

After an unequivocal experience of the inefficacy of the subsisting federal government, you are called upon to deliberate on a new Constitution for the United States of America. The subject speaks its own importance; comprehending in its consequences nothing less than the existence of the union, the safety and welfare of the parts of which it is composed, the fate of an empire in many respects the most interesting in the world. It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force. (Italics mine) If there be any truth in the remark, the crisis at which we are arrived may with propriety be regarded as the era in which that decision is to be made; and a wrong election of the part we shall act may, in this view, deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind.

The importance of these essays, which of the Federal system still in force and are still cited by the judiciary to back up their own decisions, cannot be underestimated. Indeed, they were wildly popular with the public in their day and sold thousands of copies. Scholarship since then has romanticized their impact and scope, believing them to be the deciding factor in placating the concerns of reluctant states. What is often forgotten is that the Papers themselves were originally undertaken by Hamilton to combat misinformation about the Constitution and Anti-Federalist arguments that had shown up in newspapers.

The Federal Convention sent the proposed Constitution to the Confederation Congress, which at the end of September 1787 submitted it to the states for ratification. Immediately, the Constitution became the target of many articles and public letters written by opponents of the Constitution. For instance, the important Anti-Federalist authors "Cato" and "Brutus" debuted in New York papers on September 27 and October 18, 1787, respectively.[7] Hamilton decided to launch a measured and extensive defense and explanation of the proposed Constitution as a response to the opponents of ratification, addressing the people of the state of New York. He wrote in Federalist No. 1 that the series would "endeavor to give a satisfactory answer to all the objections which shall have made their appearance, that may seem to have any claim to your attention."[8]

Our current President has saturated the airwaves with his visage, addressed a Joint Session of Congress, pushed reform from any available surrogate, and still we are a House divided against itself. Yet, if past is prologue and this comparison is not entirely fatuous, do understand, as well, that it took over a year for each state to ratify our current Constitution; the debate quickly became heated, contentious, and stayed that way. Though news back and forth from the Capitol traveled much slower in those days, ratification was ultimately a state matter, not a Federal one. The decision was handed off to the states to decide amongst themselves, the matter to was to be debated among state leaders in state chambers on their own timetables. Then as now, the issue was resolved without reservation by some and with great reservation by others. Certain states ratified unanimously and others gave their cautious consent in very narrow decisions. By contrast, what some conservative voices have failed to recognize is that Health Care Reform is a decision in which states themselves have a limited voice beyond their Representatives or Senators. Whether or not this is "fair" is irrelevant. Those who cleave to the Constitution would be better off calling to change it instead of holding it fast to their breasts in some kind of mock-patriotic display.

The Federalist Papers (specifically Federalist No. 84) are notable for their opposition to what later became the United States Bill of Rights. The idea of adding a bill of rights to the constitution was originally controversial because the constitution, as written, did not specifically enumerate or protect the rights of the people, rather it listed the powers of the government and left all that remained to the states and the people. Alexander Hamilton, the author of Federalist No. 84, feared that such an enumeration, once written down explicitly, would later be interpreted as a list of the only rights that people had.

Hamilton's fears were, unfortunately, prescient. Within conservative arguments and discourse, from the mouths of politicians, pundits, and wingnuts today is a reliance upon the Bill of Rights as some last gasp defense against an overwhelming liberal infringement of personal freedom. To my eyes, this is a ridiculous contention, but one that state legislatures appear more than willing to use as justification for "protecting" themselves from supposed Washington, DC, interference in their own affairs. Personal rights go well beyond the Bill of Rights, but some are clearly unhappy unless these rights go hand in hand with their demands. At no point is government supposed to function according to the personal whims of those out of power and unwilling to deal with it in an adult fashion.

The Federalist was written to support the ratification of the Constitution, specifically in New York. Whether they succeeded in this mission is questionable. Separate ratification proceedings took place in each state, and the essays were not reliably reprinted outside of New York; furthermore, by the time the series was well underway, a number of important states had already ratified it, for instance Pennsylvania on December 12. New York held out until July 26; certainly The Federalist was more important there than anywhere else, but Furtwangler argues that it "could hardly rival other major forces in the ratification contests"--specifically, these forces included the personal influence of well-known Federalists, for instance Hamilton and Jay, and Anti-Federalists, including Governor George Clinton.[21]

Despite all of its noble sentiment and notable eloquence, doubt still exists as to whether The Federalist essays were responsible for turning the tides in favor of ratification. The Wikipedia source I cite above believes that the personalities of individual politicians seemed to do the most good in bringing the issue to a resolute and satisfying close. One wonders if in this day and age we have the Congressional leadership we need to force passage and put a decent bill on President Obama's desk. One would also hope that, unlike then, it doesn't take a full year of deliberation before enactment. We have lamented, quite rightly, a Democratic party which places factionalism ahead of unity and cannot speak as one voice. If Congress proves itself unable to push forward, then the only person with enough character and force of will would be our President. Though I myself would like to believe that ideas and civilized discourse might be the tipping point, then as now, it might not be enough.

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