Federalism? Or Centralism?

Photo by OptimumPx

The American system of governance is commonly described as “federal.” And we can be certain that federalism was the intent of the framers. But a lot has changed within the country’s political structure since the days of George Washington. Does this description still apply?

Federalism implies a sharing of political power between some agreed-upon authority and a set of separate regional components. Under the 1787 constitution, the United States therefore consisted of a relatively weak “federal government” in New York, and thirteen semi-autonomous “states” along the eastern seaboard.

In recent years, however, it has become common to hear someone complain about “the federal government”, or about “federal overreach.” But the entity they describe is of a very different nature than the one observed in the earlier version of America.

So, a few questions must be asked ……

…… Has the meaning of the term federal been stretched toward a usage that was never intended?

…… Does it no longer describe the central component of our system?

…… Can it still be applied to the system itself?

…… Should it be retired, and replaced with something more accurate?

To answer these questions, one must observe how much America’s governance has changed over the course of the nation’s history. In George Washington’s day, “federal government” was a tiny enterprise, with few resources. You could count the number of cabinet members on one hand …… with fingers left over. Today, that entity consists of hundreds of bureaucracies with overlapping responsibilities whose tentacles reach into each citizen’s daily life. Over the course of more than two centuries, the District of Columbia has inexorably accrued unprecedented levels of control, most of it exercised through top-down institutions. That trend continues today.

The “federal system” was originally envisioned as a somewhat equal distribution of power between the several states and their shared, common government. But that vision of balance was congenitally tenuous. It was unstable from the outset. Therefore, over time, the system has morphed into a more hierarchical system. Power has become centralized in one massive, sprawling entity.

Today, fifty states interact submissively with the muscular power of Washington DC. Almost every important political decision in our society is made in the nation’s capital. All eyes, including the reporting of all major media, are focused there. The state capitals often function like vassals. Few of us can even recite more than a handful of their names.

Thus, a more accurate description for the leviathan anchored along the Potomac is “the central government.” The term “federal government” no longer fits it.

When this distinction about one of the system’s major components is finally acknowledged, our discussions about the system itself can then become more productive. For example, we can ask a question that gets to the heart of today’s problems: “How much hierarchy between the center and the edges is allowed before the republic no longer fits the definition of a federal system?”

Questions like this must be asked if we are to resolve the dysfunction currently roiling our society.

Democracy? Or Republic?

Part Four in a series on America’s conception of democracy.

The movement to abolish the electoral college is accelerating, as labels like “anti-democratic” gain traction with America’s incurious credentialed class. This effort can only be understood by addressing the underlying debate: Should America aspire to direct democracy? Or should it seek to remain a representative republic?

The republic-versus-democracy conflict rests on even deeper footings, however: scale and spectrum. To understand their role, some background is necessary ……

Point One: Democracy is a process. It frames conflict. It brings structure to the discourse surrounding that conflict. And, when functioning reasonably well, the process leads to decisions that resolve the conflict.

Point Two: The process of democracy can be structured in a variety of ways. No society has finalized “The Correct Form of Democracy.” Every attempt relies on a different set of processes.

These various forms distribute along a spectrum. At one pole of that spectrum sits representative democracy, where citizens only engage in the process at specified times. At the other end is direct democracy, where participation is hands-on and frequent.

Each approach has advantages and drawbacks. For example, direct democracy can be quite effective, but it functions well only at small scales. In contrast, representative democracy addresses the limitations of direct democracy, but it can gravitate toward centralized and opaque decision-making over time.

Scale ranges from the individual to the global, with interim sizes (like local and regional) lying between. Scale impacts both ends of the spectrum. For direct democracy, it manifests as a question: “At what size does the group become too large for direct democracy to function adequately?” For representative democracy, the question is broader: “At which scale(s) is a person most effectively represented?”

Here’s the key point: In a representative democracy, one person can be “represented” at a variety of scales. In other words, each of us can participate in several different democracies simultaneously.

Such concurrence is difficult in direct democracy.

Thus, at the heart of the “abolish the electoral college” movement is the assertion that only one scale matters in the practice of democracy: the national stage. Those who clamor for direct election are hostages to this assumption. To them, the truly important decisions are made at the top, in Washington DC, New York, and Silicon Valley. Every other scale of government exists only to execute those decisions.

The constitution’s framers prioritized the full spectrum of scales and intended to preserve them. For example, they understood that New England town meetings could forge effective local decisions. Similarly, they favored the concept of states rights as an intermediate scale of representation. Ben Franklin’s description of the constitution’s framework as “a republic” implied two elements: (1) a representative democracy, and (2) empowering a wide variety of scales.

America’s growing conflict over the electoral college requires a parsing of questions much deeper than those currently being discussed. Do we want a direct democracy in which all decisions are made at the national scale? Or will we return to the framers’ vision of a representative democracy, practiced simultaneously at a number of scales?

The Deification of Democracy

PART THREE IN A SERIES ON AMERICA’S CONCEPT OF DEMOCRACY

Democracy’s role as a core American belief began inauspiciously. The founders considered it to be a volatile and unstable form of government, only marginally better than the monarchy it supplanted. Fast forward to 2021, however, and democracy is often placed at the forefront of the founding ideals; it’s ensconced as the alpha belief.

For example, while Ben Franklin and his peers valued liberty over democracy, many of today’s citizens value democracy over liberty. Both sides of the left-right divide have experienced rights reductions due to this shift, because simple majority votes in congress can curtail a swath of dissenting citizens’ liberties.

Unfortunately, despite rising to first rank among the founding ideals, the concept of democracy is rarely defined with any specificity. Instead, it’s uncritically held aloft as a spotless virtue. This myopia must change if Americans want to address the country’s accelerating dysfunction. In truth, various divergent processes can be called “democracy” and each of those processes contains particular strengths …… and congenital weaknesses.

The form of democracy currently favored by many Americans is straight majority rule. In this manifestation, a single vote, at one point in time, can determine the future fate of a society. As a derivative of direct democracy, it exhibits significant advantages, and can be a potent process for forging decisions.

But direct democracy has only been effective when practiced at very small scales …… as is seen in villages and tribes across the world. Americans unquestioningly assume that it functions at larger scales as well. But this unexamined premise has created long-term difficulties.

A crucial development has been ignored: initiatives that were promoted as shifts toward a purer democracy have gradually led to dangerous concentrations of power within national institutions.

The seventeenth amendment was Patient Zero for this trend. It stripped power from the state legislatures that had been constitutionally directed to appoint U.S. Senators. This transition to statewide popular elections was heralded as a move toward a more democratic system.

But an unseen consequence of direct election was the shift of political decision-making away from fifty state capitols …… toward one national capital. Political control became concentrated, where it had previously been distributed across competing regional interests.

The assertion that state legislatures suffered from corruption, opacity, and the improper influence of big money in their senate selections is beyond dispute. But few have acknowledged the seventeenth amendment’s contribution to the unprecedented scale of those same maladies within today’s Washington.

Thus, the movement toward direct democracy has become a Trojan horse that entrenched centralized political power within national institutions. The trend continues today, unnoticed and unmitigated.

New questions require responses: …… Would power concentrate further if the electoral college were abolished? …… How should we define the concept of populism within this paradigm? …… Will the other founding ideals be further weakened if the trend toward direct democracy continues?

The relationship between pure democracy and the centralization of power within a national left-right oligarchy will be explored further as this series continues.

Democracy and Hierarchy

PART TWO IN A SERIES ON AMERICA’S CONCEPT OF DEMOCRACY

In an often-ignored quote, Benjamin Franklin characterized democracy as “two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for dinner.” John Adams agreed: “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself.”

The common wisdom of today’s America disagrees with Franklin. Democracy is held aloft like a conquering hero. It’s considered the raison d’etre for our country’s existence. Democracy is king of the conceptual hill.

How did we move from a society whose framers distrusted this concept to a society in which its purer manifestation is regarded as the next required step in a vision of progress?

Franklin’s quote had a punchline: “Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote.” Adams again concurred: “A constitution of government, once changed from freedom, can never be restored. Liberty, once lost, is lost forever.”

These enlightenment figures weighed democracy’s value against another value: liberty. But they didn’t settle for a simplistic dichotomy. The concepts of liberty and democracy joined a larger pantheon of “founding ideals”. A core group of beliefs was considered, including ideas like justice, freedom, rights, and equality …… among others.

While those early Americans valued a range of ideals, their sophistication didn’t stop there. Thinkers as diverse as Hamilton and Jefferson understood that those concepts featured inherent contradictions.

The founding ideals function like the members of a family. At times, they get along just fine with one another. Synergies develop. But they can also find themselves in long-running, unresolved conflict. Therefore, the founders discussed democracy with a depth and complexity that’s missing from today’s angry diatribes about Senate filibusters and electoral colleges. They accepted the complexity of human society, with its nuances and trade-offs.

For this reason, the future governing structure of the country was carefully debated. Compromises between a wide-ranging group of ideals were considered. An attempt was made to preserve the best qualities of each while limiting the dangers that can develop when any one of them is taken too far. Including democracy.

Today’s simplistic approach to public discourse has discarded such care. Instant solutions are asserted. Ideas that can be expressed in one sentence are held up as standards that everyone should conform to. Those who question these slogans are dismissed with a pejorative label.

This lack of cognitive care has impacted our collective assessment of the founding beliefs. Rather than consider the trade-offs required within a network of ideas, a simple hierarchy has been embraced. That hierarchy is dominated by the concept of democracy. “If we can just move the system closer to a pure democracy, justice, equality and [….. insert your favorite ideal here] will naturally follow.”

At the founding convention, Ben Franklin supported a political framework that enshrined certain democratic principles into law. But he declined to call that system a democracy, referring to it instead as “a republic.” Today’s Americans will need to reconsider the difficult trade-offs required to maintain Franklin’s republic. No single ideal stands apart. None can be crowned king.

Defining Democracy

I began to write about politics because our society’s political language has devolved into a dangerous state. For example, Americans will often use a specific term without considering its meaning: the concept is asserted using glib, unexamined assumptions, rather than relying on a thoughtful investigation into its definition.

The word democracy falls into this trap.

Our use of the term democracy follows a pattern that’s similar to the unthinking use of terms I’ve addressed in previous posts, and will revisit below. But it also differs from those cases in ways that must be discussed over a series of inquiries.

In addition, many folks attempt to frame democracy as the cornerstone of our culture. This makes its misuse far more dangerous than the misuse of other terms …… and therefore requires more clarification.

Before, diving into democracy’s definition, a summary of some previously debunked terms might be helpful. For example, the word centrist is typically a self-labeling attempt by someone who holds great power, but would like for others to regard the exercise of that power as benign. Another term – non-partisan – is sometimes used with similar intent. But it can also be a product of naivete: many of those who self-label as “non-partisan” simply don’t know what else to call themselves.

The misuse of democracy differs from the misuse of these terms, as it does from most other political terminology.

For example, the confusion surrounding many words can be traced back to the one-dimensional left-right spatial model …… a construct that can be proven false through a series of simple exercises. The term centrist held a distinct position on that model, and was therefore demonstrably false. Non-partisan fails to be a productive political concept for similar reasons.

Those two examples have a direct relationship with the spatial model because they represent specific locations. In contrast, democracy’s relationship to the spatial construct is indirect. Democracy isn’t a position; it’s a process that links the various positions of our political spectrum. This distinction – process versus position – makes the analysis of democracy more subtle than the analysis of most other political terms.

The political process follows three stages. It begins with conflict. Conflict can then only be addressed productively in one way: with dialogue. When a commitment to dialogue has been made, sound decisions can be forged. Democracy attempts to address the three stages of this process. It grapples with conflict, dialogue, and decisions.

A pragmatic structure for addressing these three stages can be constructed in any number of ways. Therefore, a democracy can be constructed with many frameworks.

I’ve presented a basic level of abstraction here. But the typical reference to “democracy” rarely rises to this remedial level. Instead, we rely on simplistic assumptions and cheer-leading mantras.

The next series of posts will examine these misapprehensions and other dangerous confusions. But an understanding of democracy will always return to the processes that occur between positions on the political circle.

…… How does democracy address conflict?

…… How does democracy facilitate dialogue?

…… How can democracy forge sound decisions?

Diversity and Inclusion

The phrase “diversity and inclusion” was almost unknown at the beginning of our century. Now, the woke movement seeks to make it a mandatory, society-wide liturgy. What was behind this concept’s rise? Why has it become so prominent? And what does the phrase really mean?

The eight syllables of this mantra are repeated so often that its two primary ideas often come across as one idea. But they are still linked by an “and.” And they exhibit contrasting characteristics. To understand the motives of those who leverage it, the phrase must be deconstructed on a geometric form.

For example, the term inclusion is easy to analyze. It resides at a location on the political circle that’s difficult to dispute. Since inclusion is aligned with liberal characteristics like “community,” “the commons,” and “cooperation,” it sits near the left pole ……

Due to this left-leaning orientation, it’s easy to see why inclusion’s banner has been flown by universities and the Democratic Party: they’re bastions of liberalism. The term’s connotations of nurturing and acceptance align with their maternal values.

But the other half of the phrase – diversity – isn’t so simple ……

I addressed the concept of diversity in a recent post about a related concept: uniformity (see here). Diversity and uniformity are linked. They reside at competing ends of the power axis ……

The woke movement might brandish the term diversity in its mantra, but that turf has already been claimed by another group. The free speech/free thought advocates at the bottom of the circle embraced the concept of diversity long before the Bill of Rights was passed. And they’re the group most often at odds with the “diversity and inclusion” agenda.

This conflict requires a deeper explanation ……

Diversity and inclusion has been pushed by hierarchical, top-down institutions whose partisanship resides in the upper left quadrant of the political circle. It could be asserted that the movement sits high in that quadrant …… an allegation supported by a number of recent authoritarian actions. But many wokesters reside close to the left pole …… consistent with their conscience-based attachment to the concept of inclusion. This variation in beliefs creates a range of potential locations for proponents of the woke movement ……

We can locate a theoretical midpoint of this range and reference it as the movement’s center of gravity. This location can then be understood in relation to its distance from the locations of diversity and uniformity.

The exercise exposes an alignment of the woke movement against true diversity. It actually attempts to affix a uniform set values on the society …… a uniformity that’s enforced from above.

For wokesters residing near the top of the circle (like Twitter’s Jack Dorsey) this dissonance should probably be attributed to hypocrisy. For those near the left pole, however, (like many peaceful marchers during the George Floyd protests) the misunderstanding is more likely a naive outgrowth of intense idealism.

Either way, the phrase “diversity and inclusion” should be parsed much more deeply before Americans choose to accept or reject it as a cornerstone belief.

Of Starbucks and Standards

How many times have we chosen to wait in line for some familiar product while on a road trip …… whether it’s at a Starbucks, a chain restaurant, or a national retail store?

There’s nothing wrong with this choice, of course. It’s human nature to seek out the familiar, even when our trip’s purpose might be to explore the exotic. But questions should be asked ……

What is it we’re looking for when we gravitate to the name brand? What attracts us to a national chain when we can get a cup of coffee anywhere?

A decision made decades ago by John D. Rockefeller Sr. helps to provide an answer. He could have named his fledgling oil company anything. Rockefeller chose “Standard Oil” because customers needed to know that the company’s products would provide a predictable experience. Buyers needed assurance that every batch produced for their kerosene lamps would burn uniformly.

When we stand in line for a cafe latte, a hamburger, or a sit-down meal, we’re seeking the same thing: uniformity. We want the standard experience we got with the last Big Mac.

Rockefeller’s company brought this approach to its sales, accounting and exploration; to every new market and process. But the petroleum producers aren’t alone: every corporation builds uniformity into its policies. And the agencies of government apply standardization to an even greater extent. Corporate and state bureaucracies are top-down entities. Uniformity is one of their characteristics.

The growth of uniformity requires Americans’ attention because it has stealthily and steadily become a central component of our society’s political structure. Yet we fail to see it as the partisan orientation that it actually represents.

Uniformity exhibits particular qualities that are poorly understood and often ignored. For example, it’s always a characteristic of hierarchical organizations. Whether those organizations lean left or lean right, their centralized power structures rely on uniformity to enforce common standards on all players. This sits in contrast to the opposite – diversity – exhibited by horizontal, decentralized, and citizen-empowered organizations.

As the influence of bureaucratic corporations and government agencies rose throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, their efforts were usually bent toward practical pursuits. But a sharp shift occurred in the late 1900’s. Since then, top-down forces increasingly attempt to tell citizens what values they should live by. This effort started on the right, with initiatives to enforce prayer in schools or to teach specific curricula. More recently, however, the left has asserted hierarchical, uniform standards of conduct in service of its woke agenda. That agenda purposely conflates uniformity with diversity as it attempts to construct a powerful political coalition.

So, each American now faces a decision. Should we allow certain players to control the society’s power and values structures from above? Or will individual choices and approaches be allowed to remain?

The country seems unaware that such questions need to be addressed. But the growing emphasis on uniformity in our lives, and our laws, must be considered. Americans will need to decide: How much standardization is too much standardization?

I’d like to buy a consonant, please.

Linguistic gymnastics run rampant among the elites. The statements coming from Washington are increasingly nebulous. Are beltway players trying to clarify their positions …… or to obfuscate them?

The latest example comes in the form of a headline: “Dozens of Former Anti-Trump GOP Officials Discussing Formation of “Center-Right Breakaway Party'” Let’s dig into the Sajak-esque constructions of language contained in statements like this one ……

The story states that about 120 anti-Trump government officials – all Republicans – have participated in a zoom call to discuss forming a new faction of the GOP (or perhaps a new party altogether) to run on a platform of “principled conservatism.”

The leaks and tweets from the call contain a wide selection of linguistic gummy bears ……

…… this is a “new, independent” faction of the GOP.

…… they’re standing up to parts of their party “threatening American democracy.”

…… committed to “truth, reason, and the founding ideals.”

…… committed to “our values.”

…… “adheres to the constitution.”

Such vague statements can be momentarily assuaging, but they contain few conceptual nutrients. They’re harmful when they form too large a part of our daily diet. These benign-sounding concepts seem like ideals we should believe in, but clear definitions are rarely produced.

For example …… which parts of the constitution are they talking about? Do they support constructs like corporate personhood, which was never addressed in the founding document? Were their conservative “values” ever noted in it? What are their views on today’s bloated interpretations of the Commerce Clause?

And what about concepts like “truth” and “reason”? Are they asserting that their “nativist” co-Republicans lack the capacity for those qualities? Have they defined what makes a nativist morally or intellectually unpalatable?

These ideas are rarely clarified by the purveyors of political speech.

More information can often be derived from looking at an initiative’s point person than can be gleaned from its well-rehearsed script. That figure usually leads with their credentials, which can be sold more effectively than the vague message. Typically, a ringleaders’ curriculum vitae is a crucial first argument for a cause’s legitimacy.

In this case, the lead salesperson is “former CIA officer Evan McMullin”. His papers are presented in three words: Central. Intelligence. Agency. He’s joined by others with similar resumes, including several “former high-ranking members of the Homeland Security Department”.

Despite describing their platform in ambiguous language, this group’s credentials define them precisely. They’re not centrists. They seek control of centralized power.

Centrist versus Central. Distinguishing an -ist from an -al can be enlightening ……

Is anything inherently wrong with a centralist position that leans conservative …… as opposed to today’s Washington, where mainstream centralism now leans liberal? No. The problem lies not with a position itself, but with any lack of balance between opposed regions of the circle. Too much decentralization and too much centralization are equivalent threats.

To sort through such issues – and to re-build balance in our society – the American people must understand the true positions of those who seek to lead. Unfortunately, Mr. McMullen and friends have failed to describe theirs with clarity.

The Loch “Non” Monster

(c) Neydtstock

Several seemingly innocuous words in our society’s political language are actually doing great harm. And sometime soon, we’ll all need to decide whether to continue using them.

I discussed the most damaging of these fallacies – the word centrist – in a previous post. But not far behind is the term non-partisan: it also wreaks large levels of havoc within our collective discourse.

Those who self-label as non-partisan typically sort into two broad categories: the insincere and the sincere. One influences the political narrative intentionally …… and with selfish motives. The other influences it unintentionally.

The sincere folks use this term because they’ve fallen into a trap. In their defense, though, they can hardly be blamed for the predicament because almost everyone suffers from a similar limitation: partisanship has been defined as a one-dimensional concept.

These sincere non-partisans look at the liberals on the left and think, “I’m not one of them.” They also look to the other end of today’s spectrum and have the same reaction. Then, when their attention turns to the so-called center, they decide to avoid the folks who reside there as well. This leaves them no political faction to identify with. They say, “I’m not a part of that paradigm.” ……. “I’m non-partisan“.

At its core, the problem is spatial. We rely on a false concept: the horizontal line segment. This linear model – despite its current dominance over political thought – is so limited that it grants the sincere non-partisans no real estate on which to locate their political position ……

In contrast, the insincere non-partisans function more like a Trojan horse. They pretend to have no political leanings, but in reality they’re pushing either a left-centralizing viewpoint or a right-centralizing viewpoint …… with its language cleverly disguised.

Regardless of the intent behind its usage, a logical fallacy is at work beneath this term. We believe that partisanship can only function in one direction, when, in fact, there are two dimensions to partisanship. The first orients toward left and right. The second orients up and down …… along the Power Axis.

So, a distinction can be drawn the next time you hear this term being used: the sincere non-partisan will typically favor citizen-based power, while the less sincere is often seeking greater control over centralized power structures. This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule: occasionally someone who resides near the circle’s top will use the term with good intentions. But the diagram below can still serve as a general guide for understanding the motives of the non-partisan self-labelers ……

Whether sincere or insincere, the term nonpartisan has created a monster. It is a fictional concept that foists a false impression upon the listener. It relies on the deeply flawed assumption that partisanship can only be defined as left versus right. Meanwhile, few thinkers address the crucial Power Question head-on …… while its misuse increases.

As one of the trickster terms of our political vocabulary, non-partisan must be recognized for its true nature. The stakes are too high for concepts like this to be ignored.

Image: copyright Neydtstock

The Five Types of Political Words

If you don’t trust a particular political player – but can’t put your finger on why – these distinctions can help you test the language they use to distort a listener’s worldview ……

CATEGORY ONE: TRICKSTER WORDS

The two prime examples in this group are the terms centrist and non-partisan. We discuss them as if they really exist, but they’re provably false when submitted to a thorough analysis.

These labels are often featured in the language of the political con artist, who hides within them like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. A few self-described “non-partisans” do use the description sincerely, however …… if only because the left-right model provided no other option.

CATEGORY TWO: THE BARNACLE-CLAD

This group includes words like libertarian and progressive. They aren’t falsehoods but neither are they adequate. The confusion lies in the layers of conflicting connotations that have gradually encrusted the terms. This makes them difficult vessels for maneuvering the choppy waters of complex political conversations.

CATEGORY THREE: THE ULTRA-SOPHISTICATES

This category includes words like communitarianism and theoconservatism. They can sometimes be useful when applied to a discussion of great depth, but are too complex and obscure to make sense in a pragmatic conversation.

Ultra-sophisticate terms can be recognized by their long syllable strings and by the personalities who use them: political science professors, media pundits, etc.

CATEGORY FOUR: INDISPENSABLE TERMS

Four words reside in this category: liberal and conservative …… and their synonyms, left and right. Our society can’t be discussed without them.

Try the following experiment some time: ignore the point being made by the participants in a political conversation and instead count the number of times one of these words is used. It can be surprising how often they come up …… and how frequently conflicting meanings are applied to the same term.

Unfortunately, the indispensables are incomplete until combined with other important terms that are rarely used: the “power words” like centralizing and citizen-empowering.

CATEGORY FIVE: THE CONFLATORS

This category subdivides into greater and lesser conflators, though the “lesser” group has still done “great” harm.

LESSER CONFLATORS: The terms Democrat and Republican are used by many as synonyms for left and right …… or liberal and conservative. Their basic nature is quite different, however. The political parties are coalition builders whose main goal is to get one more vote than the competitor: an outcome they hope will lead to greater political power. Liberal and conservative are merely marketed as the party’s “brand.”

GREATER CONFLATORS: The term fascist is a poster child for this category. The left accuses the right of being fascist, while the right makes the same accusation in reverse. Meanwhile, neither side separates the power component of the term from its values component. When the political circle’s two axes are insufficiently distinguished, some person (or group) will be posited as a villain without sufficient evidence.

A FINAL NOTE

There might be additional categories of political words. If you think of one that doesn’t fit within these five, suggest it in the comments section below.