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Sunday, March 06, 2005

Labels, Schmabels

Plus ca change. Two very interesting articles surfaced in the last couple of weeks. The first, by Franklin Foer, entitled "The Joy of Federalism", appeared in the New York Times Book Review. Foer argues that the Democrats have everything to gain by returning to their southern states-rights roots and to become the party of "federalism." He argues that Democrats have long been skeptical of distant bureaucracies and have celebrated local experimentation.

Historically, the nemesis of liberal federalism was Herbert Croly whose bete-noire was Thomas Jefferson, "a man of intellectual superficiality and insincerity." Croly became a staunch advocate of a strong central government and that centralization as opposed to Jefferson's bucolic inefficiency should be the mantra for the twentieth century. He argued against the nostalgia associated with old state governments. Foer argues that the progressive movement bypassed national consensus for which there was little on national capitalism at the turn of the twentieth century, just as there is little national consensus today on gay-marriage. They did this by going to the states which would serve as their laboratories to develop hard data., or "laboratories of democracy."

It is ironic, at least for me, that Foer cites many of the movements from the sixties as exemplifying an aversion to bigness and the "managerial liberalism" that had flourished under both Roosevelts. The Port Huron statement of S.D.S. celebrated the communitarian spirit which was in many ways confused with the old states-rights doctrines.

Steve Chapman, in several articles (link, link) takes the argument even further to note that the labels have become inverted: we now have a Republican party that has been trying to increase the power of the national government, an education program that removes local control of the schools and places it in Washington with No Child Left Behind, an attorney General's office that wants to insist that states apply the death penalty, and in general a national centralized, big government that runs things. Now the Democrats are looking to the states, something that we Civil Rights activists of the sixties found anathema because it supported segregation. It certainly would be ironic if Democrats adopted Barry Goldwater and Strom Thurmond as far-sighted icons of liberal federalism.

What it boils down to me is that the labels and philosophies have become irrelevant; that the party out of power will always was a smaller federal government while the party in power seeks to consolidate its base by controlling everything. The answer, as always, is going to have to be looking at issues on the merits and not to vote by party affiliation. Maybe Freeport (IL) has long had it right when, in the twenties , voters eliminated the national party labels in mayoral elections.
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