[The fourth in a series on some of the broader American Studies issues and stakes in the 2012 presidential election. As always, and doubly so with controversial topics like these, your takes are very welcome!]
On the stakes of 2012 for perhaps the most longstanding and significant, yet also one of the most often misrepresented, American political debate.
The Federalist and Anti-Federalist debates over the Constitution, which lasted for over two years and featured most of the prominent Revolutionary era leaders, were big, complicated, and shouldn’t be boiled down into a paragraph of a blog post; I can’t recommend strongly enough that every American Studier read both The Federalist Papers and the collected Anti-Federalist papers to get a much fuller sense of those debates than I can provide here. Yet it’s also true that the two sides’ names were purposefully and rightly chosen, since the core of the debate can be boiled down to two relatively clear and certainly contrasting positions: a support for a present, well-defined, and at least somewhat strong federal government on the one side; and an opposition to virtually any such government on the other. So it seems to me that there are few, if any, American political subjects older or more vital than this one: what the federal government’s presence and roles should be.
On the other hand, one of the most disingenuous positions in American political history—and it too has a long history—is the one which uses the phrase “states’ rights” or its ilk to advocate not for a less strong federal government, but instead for a federal government that uses its strength in service of what particular states, and more exactly particular communities within those states, desire. For example, as James Loewen has argued very effectively, and as anyone who has read the Confederate Articles of Secession knows well, the Confederate states actually objected strongly to other, Northern states exercising their “states’ rights” and opposing the Fugitive Slave Act—what these Confederate states wanted was a federal government like the one that had existed under President Buchanan, one which would protect the institution of slavery (and even aid in its expansion) on the national level. In a different vein, Ronald Reagan famously argued in his 1981 inaugural address that “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” yet during his two terms oversaw one of the largest expansions of federal government spending in recent history, making clear that he and his supporters were referring to certain aspects of the federal government and not at all to others.
Which brings me once again to the 2012 election. It’s possible that this election will genuinely represent another debate between those who believe that federal spending and influence have a significant role to play in all aspects of American society (as Obama and the Democratic Party certainly do believe, and as I do as well) and those who believe that the federal government should be as limited and powerless as possible (as is the expressed belief of conservative forces as diverse as Grover Norquist and the Tea Party). Yet it’s also possible that the differences are more about what roles an expansive federal government would have under each potential administration—which is to say, that Mitt Romney, like Ronald Reagan (and George W. Bush) before him, might continue and even expand federal spending on defense, on support for business and corporations, and so on. Both of these are, again, longstanding American debates—over the size and power of the federal government on the one hand; over its proper focus and role on the other—but they are also quite distinct, and it would serve us well, at the very least, to push both candidates, and especially Romney, to articulate in which debate they are actually participating.
Final election and American issue tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?
6/21 Memory Day nominee: Reinhold Niebuhr, the son of German immigrants who became one of 20th century America’s greatest theological, philosophical, and cultural thinkers and commentators, and whose voice and ideas continue to influence our national converations.