Monday, November 8, 2010

Gerstle on "Federalism in America: Beyond the Tea Partiers"

Based on the number of recent Tea Party-related articles, blog posts, and books, it seems fair to conclude that academics -- historians, in particular -- find the Tea Party fascinating and confounding. Alan Brinkley, in a recent review essay on the anatomy of the Tea Party, wrote that "[t]rying to describe the ideas of the Tea Party movement" was "a bit like a blind man trying to describe the elephant." Others have devoted long hours to refuting Tea Party interpretations of cherished American concepts, documents, and historical figures. Still others have tried to explain why "Tea Partiers" find those interpretations so compelling.

Now comes Gary Gerstle (Vanderbilt University): in the Fall 2010 issue of Dissent, he takes a concept that is foundational to American governance -- federalism -- and attempts to move it "beyond the Tea Partiers."

Here's the first paragraph of the essay, in which Gerstle offers his understanding of the trajectory of American federalism (by which, I think, he means both the idea and the political practice):
We hear a lot today about federalism, the doctrine that emphasizes the rights and powers of the states versus those of the federal government. The political Right expresses alarm at the dramatic expansion in central government power that began under George W. Bush during the 2008 financial crisis and that continued during Barack Obama’s first eighteen months in office, first through the government’s bailouts of financial institutions and the auto industry and then through the passage of the landmark national health care bill. Liberal groups, on the other hand, have turned to federalism in response to the perceived failure of the federal government during the Bush years to address major economic, social, and ecological challenges. Progressive Californians, for example, have been pushing ecologically friendly bills in their state, given the obstructions such legislation has faced in Congress. Massachusetts enacted its own government health care bill in response to a long period of federal inaction on the issue. Many gay marriage and marijuana legalization advocates now believe that they can accomplish more in state rather than national arenas. These advocates want to “free” their states from the grasp of federal authority on the issues that matter most to them. In this essay I explore the historical background to the current interest in federalism and argue that the powers possessed by state governments throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were more capacious, influential, and resilient than we customarily recognize them to have been. The durability of the states as a force in economic, social, and cultural affairs can only be understood by reference to an expansive and constitutionally sanctioned doctrine of police power. Police power endowed state governments (but not the federal government) with broad authority over civil society for at least the first 150 years of the nation’s existence. The Civil War posed a sharp challenge to this doctrine, and, for a time, it seemed as though Reconstruction would inter it. But in the late nineteenth century, state legislatures, backed by the federal courts, rehabilitated this doctrine to attack and, in many cases, to reverse the centralization of power in the federal government that the Civil War seemed to have done so much to advance. Federalism finally did weaken in the 1930s and 1940s, but not until the 1960s and 1970s can we say that the central government had superseded the states as the premier center of political authority in America. Federalism’s demise, then, is still a relatively recent phenomenon, a fact that fuels the hopes of those who want to see it revived.
To give a sense where Gerstle takes the essay, here's an excerpt from the end, in which he talks about what "progressive" forms of federalism might look like:
These federalisms would stress the capacious power of government that resides in the states, would call on states to act in the public interest, and would seek to turn state governments into what the liberal jurist Louis Brandeis once celebrated as “laboratories of democracy.” These “government labs” would, in the best-case scenario, develop creative, local, and diverse solutions to economic and social problems that America confronts, with the most successful ones being adopted by the federal state and adapted to problems that are national in scope. Such a process, too, might even resuscitate a popular belief in the capacity of active governments at all levels to expand opportunity and promote equality.
You can read the full essay here. It is adapted from “The Resilient Power of the States Across the Long Nineteenth Century: An Inquiry into a Pattern of American Governance,” in Lawrence Jacobs and Desmond King, eds., The Unsustainable American State (Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 61–87.