Sunday, February 12, 2012

Federalism and "Federalism"

Cadenette wig. From Probert Encyclopedia.

This is a Rectification issue that makes me really crazy; today's trigger is a perfectly goodhearted and well-written and useful Kos diary by DemFromCt on the Great Contraception Crisis story that happens to quote a Republicanish opinion piece by one Alan Weil in the New England Journal of Medicine to the effect that
Under the principles of federalism that have guided the development and implementation of policy in this country since it was founded, there are three potential benefits associated with permitting states to make these decisions with respect to the EHBs...
And then DemFromCt goes on to use "federalism" in this sense through the rest of the piece. Which is by no means an unusual occurrence.

But it isn't right. The word "federalism" as it was used by the Founding Fathers who [jump]
named the first American political party the "Federalists" and the word "federalism" as it is used by American conservatives today mean pretty nearly the exact opposite from each other. Namely:

The first American Federalists were the ones who determined to replace the weak national government under the Articles of Confederation with a strong new one, under a new constitution, by taking away the rights of states to levy tariffs and issue currency, and assuming all their Revolutionary War debts into one big National Debt—to be the big investment magnet that would fund a nationwide industrialization and development policy.

The Republican federalists of our time would be better called confederalists; they get their ideas not from Jay, Hamilton, and Madison but from Switzerland—the Confoederatio Helvetica of cantons that are largely crustily independent of one another, in language, religion, geography, and economy—and their big idea of devolving power from the capital to the states is a retroactionary fantasy of going back from federalism in the traditional American sense to those same Articles of Confederation, or to the Confederated States of America (which grew out of the same kind of fantasy, that they could prevent Washington from taking away their "states' rights" to traffic in human beings as long as the human beings were black).

When they use the word, they are arrogating to themselves the respect and reverence we give to Washington and Adams, Hamilton and Jay, Jefferson and Madison, implying that these guys were in some sense "conservative" when the American Revolution was in fact progressive in every sense, and it is simply false (you can say that Adams and Washington turned somewhat conservative at the end of the 1790s, with the Alien and Sedition Acts and the cultivation of a British alliance against the French, leading Jefferson and Madison to form a new party, but you'll note that they didn't call that party "anti-Federalist" but variously "Republican", stressing the unity of the nation over its parts, or "Democratic", celebrating its anti-oligarchic nature). You can say that Jefferson and Adams had important disagreements over what constituted progress, but you can't say they weren't revolutionaries—it wasn't the states they intended should rule but the People.

We really shouldn't let them get away with it, either—with their "Federalist" Society and all the rest. Can we just start putting it in scare quotes? Can't we start claiming the Revolutionary tradition for ourselves?

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