The Revolutionary Conservatism of Jefferson's Small Republics
Arthur J. Versluis
BY THE EARLY TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY, Americans had become accustomed to, even took for granted, virtually everything against which George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had warned: gigantic public and private debt, a massive national government, entangling foreign alliances, a standing army, undeclared war in the form of military interventionism, the destruction of American agrarianism, and the list goes on. What some called a "New World Order," others an "Imperial America," had become very nearly the equivalent of the former Soviet Union: a huge, unwieldy, unsustainable, bureaucratic, increasingly totalized state.
Given the gigantism of the American state by the beginning of the twenty-first century, one finds it hard to recall that this was not always the case, that indeed, even fifty years before, let alone a hundred and fifty, the American polis was weighted much more toward the local and regional than to the national government. In the course of its history, the very notion of an American confederation had been lost. In what follows, we will explore and seek to recover the revolutionary conservative principle of Jeffersonian American autonomy.[/b]
I have elsewhere pointed out that by the early twenty-first century United States, the terms "Left" and "Right," though used often enough polemically, no longer could be clearly differentiated as regards centralization of state power. Up to the mid-twentieth century, the Old Right conservatives stood in the Jeffersonian tradition that encouraged confederation and local or regional rather than national authority, and opposed, for instance, the New Deal. But already in January of 1952, the outlines of a "New Right" began to appear, when William F. Buckley wrote in Commonweal that "we have to accept Big Government for the duration--for neither an offensive nor defensive war can be waged given our present government skills, except through the instrument of a totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores.... And if they deem Soviet power [or terrorism, or whatever, one might add] a menace to our freedom ... they will have to support large armies and air forces, atomic energy, central intelligence, war production boards, and the attendant centralization of power in Washington." By the early twenty-first century, such a perspective had manifested itself clearly in the second Bush administration, which oversaw a "centralization of power in Washington" like none before.
In the meantime, what became known as the New Left, from the 1960s onward, became identified at least to a significant extent with opposition to what President Eisenhower had warned against, the military-industrial complex. Up to this period, such opposition belonged primarily to the Old Right--but by the end of the twentieth century, opposition to the merged power of corporations and of the American military was to be found almost entirely on the Left. A figure like Noam Chomsky, for example, oftentimes seemed to stand nearly alone as a critic of the centralized American military-industrial state--and what is more, by the early twenty-first century, was being bitterly attacked from the "Right," by someone like David Horowitz, who thirty years before had identified himself as on the "Left." Such a situation is, in terms of basic principles, approaching a Babel of confusion. It would seem that the Left had become identified with the critique of centralized power, and the Right had become its defender, precisely the reverse of what had been the case earlier in the twentieth century.
One might suggest, cynically but with considerable accuracy, that whatever side is in power is in favor of centralizing power for themselves. Thus, during the Roosevelt era, the critics of centralized power were on the Right--yet when the pendulum of power swung to the other side at the end of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, then it was the Left who largely stood against centralized military-industrial power. Who could doubt, really, that if the Left had been given the reins of power in the United States during this period too, its representatives would seek to enforce its own dictates and undoubtedly would not have an agenda of dismantling the very state and all its perquisites that they had so recently won? On the question of centralizing state bureaucratic power, "Left" and "Right" are in fact fundamentally similar: the opposition only comes from those who are not in power.
From this perspective, the tendency of national government to accrue ever more power cannot be arrested, let alone reversed.
What we do see, in other words, is the seemingly unstoppable growth of what Paul Gottfried and others have termed the "managerial state." Having generated a gigantic national bureaucracy of education, or of entitlement programs, or of the military-industrial-security apparatus, that apparatus continues regardless of who is in putative power.
Indeed, when the "Right" is in charge, the power of the national government to mandate programs and requirements to the states--and the transfer of a whole range of powers from state to federal courts--actually increases, as is evident in the 1980s and again in the early twenty-first century. What endures and grows is the centralized managerial state, which corresponds to and indeed dovetails with the managerial, centralized structure of huge, multinational corporations.
And, of course, there is the related problem--diagnosed with considerable accuracy by Carl Schmitt during the Weimar Republic of the 1920s--that we may term the paralytic nature of parliamentary liberalism. During the Weimar Republic, legislators spent a great deal of time in discussion and posturing, but were unable to address the fundamental problems of the period. Close study of the fin de siecle United States Congress and the executive branch reveals a similar if more exaggerated dynamic: much posturing and mugging for cameras on the part of legislators or presidents, but when it comes to all the fundamental issues of the day, one sees only a continuation of the status quo. A skyrocketing national debt, massive individual and corporate indebtedness on a scale never seen before in history, a deteriorating natural world, and a seemingly total inability to encourage conservation of energy: here are the fundamental problems of the day, yet both the national legislature and the executive branch were incapable of addressing them because, in large part, their policies were to a significant degree responsible for those very problems.
Given the brief history to which we have alluded here, it is self-evident that while political power is cyclical--Democratic partisan power wanes, and Republican power waxes, or the reverse--one can see a larger pattern in which the national government gathers more and more power to itself. In times of economic distress, like the economic depression of the 1930s, that power accrues to those who propose that the national government can protect citizens economically; and in times of security threats, as in the 2000s, that power accrues to those who propose, once again, that the national government can protect citizens if only more power is given to it. But it is only natural that if power is accrued in one place, it is drawn from another. This is the real and much longer-term cycle of power. Ascension to national legislative, executive, and judicial hegemony of Democrats or Republicans is, from this longer perspective, only ancillary to the larger question of whether power is flowing inexorably toward the national government, or away from it. The course of the twentieth and early twenty-first century shows only the former course of centralization of power.
That authority is drawn from somewhere. From where, you ask? The answer, of course, is from states, regions, localities, families, and individuals. The more that the national government claims authority to issue all manner of ever-expanding legislative and executive or judicial edicts, the less authority is vested in what Jefferson called the "little republics" upon which the American republic as a whole depends. Thus, when power rests with the local community or the state, so too there rests responsibility and accountability. But the more that the national government issues edicts--always in the name of some greater good and draped with moralizing, often hypocritical rhetoric--the less authority rests with states, communities, and individuals. Eventually, the national government issues edicts concerning whether one can live or die, whether one ought to wear a restraining belt in a vehicle, whether a state court can rule on what is in its obvious jurisdiction--the list multiplies with extraordinary rapidity.