Why do presidential elections feel so excruciatingly pivotal?
It seems as if we Americans sit on the edges of our seats, waiting to find out whom the new ‘king’ will be – the chosen one – the powerful leader whose biased judicial appointments will right all wrongs with one-size-fits-all rulings. As much as we may have grown accustomed to it, this is not the existence for which our forebears laboriously debated and deliberated, much less the dream they fought, bled, and died for. So why does so much seem to hinge on who’s sitting at the Resolute desk or on the SCOTUS bench?
The Genius of Decentralization
Many ambitious individuals and organizations today think that the best way to achieve their own particular goals is to wield the big stick of federal government coercion. Such activists try to get legislation passed at a national level so that their wishes are forced on the entire country. If that route isn’t successful, they file lawsuits in a bid to override state laws. These broad-stroke methods, however, go against the federal design of American government, and run roughshod over our birthright of self-rule. Presidents, judges, and congressmen have all played their parts in running our constitutional republic far off the tracks of original design – so much so that many Americans don’t even know what is wrong. Instead of a presumption that most issues would be resolved with knee-jerk federal legislation or Supreme Court rulings, the founders’ original expectation was that the bulk of civil laws would be implemented at the state level, if not at county and town levels.
In an 1816 letter to Joseph C. Cabell, Thomas Jefferson insisted on a proper distribution of functions among the federal, state, and local levels. Take special notice of his allocation of the responsibility of civil rights and laws at the state level (emphasis added):
“No, my friend, the way to have good and safe government, is not to trust it all to one, but to divide it among the many, distributing to every one exactly the functions he is competent to. Let the national government be entrusted with the defence of the nation, and its foreign and federal relations; the State governments with the civil rights, laws, police, and administration of what concerns the State generally; the counties with the local concerns of the counties, and each ward direct the interests within itself.”
He continued to affirm the idea that those best equipped to govern a body are those having the most local and vested interests in that body; and that a concentration of power is a sure path to the destruction of rights:
“It is by dividing and subdividing these republics from the great national one down through all its subordinations, until it ends in the administration of every man’s farm by himself; by placing under every one what his own eye may superintend, that all will be done for the best. What has destroyed liberty and the rights of man in every government which has ever existed under the sun? The generalizing and concentrating all cares and power into one body…”
Jefferson ended his letter with a hopeful vision for American government – one that would realize a sane distribution of government powers rather than concentrations of the same (emphasis added):
“God bless you, and all our rulers, and give them the wisdom, as I am sure they have the will, to fortify us against the degeneracy of our government, and the concentration of all its powers in the hands of the one, the few, the well-born or the many.”
Congress is often chided on being ineffective because of gridlock. A popular expectation seems to be that Congress should agree on divisive issues. In 2014, President Obama exemplified this frustration with congressional deadlock in one of his weekly addresses:
“The problem is, Republicans in Congress keep blocking or voting down almost every serious idea to strengthen the middle class. This year alone, they’ve said no to raising the minimum wage, no to fair pay, no to student loan reform, no to extending unemployment insurance […] And as long as they insist on doing it, I’ll keep taking actions on my own…”
Congressional gridlock, though, is actually a designed blessing – it prevents controversial, unnecessary, and just plain bad laws from being passed. Obama’s rant about his agendas being blocked underscores the importance of reining in just such agendas – since every single item he listed is unconstitutional! In Federalist 51, James Madison observed that Congress was designed to be the most powerful of the three branches of government, and expressed the idea that divisions within Congress can put a check on its legislative powers:
“In republican government, the legislative authority necessarily predominates. The remedy for this inconveniency is to divide the legislature into different branches; and to render them, by different modes of election and different principles of action, as little connected with each other as the nature of their common functions and their common dependence on the society will admit.”
Even Alexander Hamilton – not an outstanding champion of limited central government – agreed that discord in Congress can serve to prevent hastily-passed, questionable legislation. His wise words are found in Federalist 71 (emphasis added):
“In the legislature, promptitude of decision is oftener an evil than a benefit. The differences of opinion, and the jarrings of parties in that department of the government, though they may sometimes obstruct salutary plans, yet often promote deliberation and circumspection, and serve to check excesses in the majority.“
Self Determination and Freedom of Association
Could it be that some division is natural; perhaps even good for us? America’s heritage is rich with examples of like-minded people groups banding together to create harmonious communities – from early colonial settlements to Mormon and Amish societies to a modern-day Libertarian migration (the Free State Project). The people of communities like these have much in common, and abide by social ideals they can agree on.
What if our natural human bent is toward self-determination, local self-government, and freedom of association – fundamental dispositions that have been suppressed time and time again by a powerful federal government? Under the heavy hand of Big Government, we’ve been increasingly relegated to more and more of a vanilla, homogeneous existence, rather than the decentralized, independent, and diverse local self-governing that our forefathers so thoughtfully promoted. Instead of having the freedom to organically develop particular customs and laws that best suit a local community, we’re gradually pushed into a sort of forced association. We’re expected to accommodate everyone’s customs, rules, and hangups – quite the impossibility, actually.
The rights to self-determination is implicit by way of America’s very existence as a sovereign (we seceded from Britain), and it’s also embedded in the Constitution. The Tenth Amendment protects (from federal abuse) the innumerable (so many they can’t be numbered) rights of the people of the states – aside from those few which have been explicitly relinquished to the federal government:
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.
The collection of ‘powers not delegated’ include the right to largely determine one’s destiny and lifestyle – and local self-government was the tried and true vehicle with which the Founders expected Americans to continue exercising this right, as had been for more than one hundred sixty years prior.
The reason that choosing our presidents and judges seems so crucial is because too much power has accumulated at the central government. A shift away from decentralized government and toward centralized power has taken place over the years – we’ve drifted very far from our original roots of localized self-government.
When the federal government has grown so powerfully top-heavy that a new president or SCOTUS justice can induce drastic changes to American life, then it’s high time to align ourselves once again with our written Constitution, bringing about a return to our founding principles of decentralized self-government.