After several weeks of widespread worry over President Barack Obama’s expansive use of executive power, several apparent rebukes by the Supreme Court coupled with increasingly unflattering poll numbers (the worst president since World War II!) have created a new Dominant Narrative: “Is it all over” for the president?
Has the hegemonic presidency, then, died in the cradle? Will President Obama have to spend the next two years fighting to be “relevant,” as Democrats shift their principal allegiance to 2016 candidates and Republicans potentially exercise control of both the House and Senate?
The President, at least, seems eager to fight the dying of the light. The moment after the Supreme Court announced its Hobby Lobby decision, he promised to take unilateral action to “fix” the immigration system. The next day, he challenged Congress to stop him (“So sue me”) from acting where they hadn’t. And, in what has become an annual tradition, the Department of Health and Human Services chose late afternoon on July 3rd to release 1300 pages of new Obamacare regulations–to deal with just one small corner of the law (payment rates for doctors and hospitals).
While our consideration these past few weeks of Federalist 47-51 has coincided with a prominent public debate on the limits of executive power and the broader implications of the ruling class’s administration of national political affairs (in the Mississippi senate race and Eric Cantor’s defeat), we have seen that these developments are but the latest chapter in an almost two century-old running narrative.
The Progressive-led movement away from American federalism in the 19th and early 20th centuries brought about a power shift from the states to the national government, and, less obviously, within the national government, from the legislative to the judicial and, especially, executive branches. Though dressed in the robes of democratic populism, the Progressive movement actually brought about a power shift from those institutions most representative of the American people to those least representative, in fealty to its first commitment to expert, rather than popular, government.
Multiple wars and their moral equivalents have, in the years since, helped arm the Arsenal of Progressivism. The resulting creation of a military, social, and now corporate welfare state as an outgrowth of these wars has provided a steady supply of men and money to carry out the never-ending mission. An under-educated, monochromatic (and thus lazy and dependent) American press has become the star/host of its own low-budget reality show, giving and reporting on political black eyes (like endless, often self-generated “gaffes”) while turning a blind eye to inconvenient injustices (IRS abuses, Kermit Gosnell, Sgt. Tahmooressi, etc.). And an establishment-controlled two-party political system has transformed American electoral politics into an endless Harlem Globetrotters season, in which Republican Party operatives collect a steady paycheck for playing the part of the Washington Generals.
Thus, even if the American people have, in some decisive way, lost their confidence in the men and measures of the Obama Administration, it is clear that this is only a very small step, if any at all, toward the restoration of our constitutional system: the rejection of one Caesar need not mean the rejection of Caesarism. If the people do not awaken the still quiescent Congress from its long slumber and urge their elected representatives to play their constitutional part in resisting government by executive fiat, we will simply have a pause in executive ascendency while we await a more popular Caesar.
Suppose, in what seems like the fancifully optimistic scenario, that President Obama, abandoned by the public, takes no further steps toward enlarging executive power in the next two and a half years. Suppose that Speaker Boehner eventually wins some sort of judicial victory in his lawsuit against the president and that a few other Supreme Court cases rein in the Administration in this way or that. Absent any more assertive action on the part of the Congress, President Obama will, nevertheless, leave office having dramatically increased executive power and the imbalance between the presidency and the Congress–and, thereby, having done (more than) his share to advance the Progressive cause.
Politically-astute progressives have always taken the longer view of political change, content, if necessary, to bide their time through less politically auspicious periods. George Kennan’s description of Soviet communists aptly describes the perspective of all historicist movements that, like Progressivism, trace their roots to the early 19th century German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel: “The theory of the inevitability of the eventual fall of capitalism has the fortunate connotation that there is no hurry about it. The forces of progress can take their time in preparing the final coup de grace.”
With an incurable myopia that prevents it from seeing past the next election and no moral vision beyond maintaining (the ever-shifting) status quo, the conservatism that passes for mainstream Republican Party ideology is simply inadequate to this challenge.
The conservative republican vision of the Americans founders–best elaborated in The Federalist–offers, on the other hand, a robust alternative to Progressivism, ever available if we will study and apply it.
Federalist 51, for example, shows just how much has been lost in the progressive assault on federalism. In the first place, federalism provides an extra layer of security against overly ambitious national officeholders by giving state officeholders the independent power–and thereby the motive–necessary to oppose them. It also allows for the extension of the republican system over a vast geographic area, multiplying the factions that divide and threaten the American people, and, consequently, making the rights of all more secure.
This, of course, is a familiar claim from Federalist 10, but here Madison amplifies his earlier argument with a more fundamental reflection on the nature of politics:
Justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society. It ever has been and ever will be pursued until it be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit.
Federalism, like the separation of powers, the rule of law, and (republican) government itself, is a means to an end. That end, Madison argues, is justice: to each his due–not the advantage of the stronger. This moral claim is inseparable from the founders’ political project and deeply embedded in the public documents that define it, most especially the Declaration of Independence.
But Madison is also making a claim about human nature–that despite our universal inclination toward selfish behavior, we never really make our peace with it, at least when we see it in others. There is something both laudable and dangerous, however, in our quest for justice. The laudable is obvious; the dangerous comes into view when we ask what we might be willing to give up in the hope of attaining it.
What if popular government degenerates into an apparently permanent war of all against all, so that not even the strongest faction can be confident of its security? Then, Madison reasons, all people become Hobbesians, willing to establish a power independent of and unaccountable to the people on the hope that it will control their otherwise uncontrollable neighbors: a truly hegemonic executive. What follows? Not justice, except by “accident,” but rather the loss of the ability to pursue it with the loss of liberty itself.
Federalism, Madison hopes, will postpone such a tragic choice indefinitely by making possible a “republican solution” to the problem of faction. By discounting both the value of liberty and the danger of centralized authority, Progressivism, however, makes such a choice more likely or, one might say, produces something like the Hobbesian state even without such a choice: government by a leviathanic bureaucracy directed by a president too easily freed from the constitutional and political reins of republican government.
The conservatism of The Federalist sprung from an accurate assessment of what ails every popular regime (including the young American regime) that gave the founders a longer-term view of the rise and decline of political communities. Their understanding of the reality and unity of justice gave them a fixed standard and rallying point for political reformation, suggesting practical measures that might be taken day by day without allowing a focus on those measures to transcend or obscure their ultimate goal.
They were, therefore, the exact opposite of today’s establishment conservatives.
Theirs was a constitutional conservatism, to be sure, but perhaps more importantly a courageous conservatism. It inspired them to risk their “lives…fortunes and…sacred honor” to “secure the blessing of liberty” for them and for us. To combat the imposing Arsenal of Progressivism today, we will need the same courage in the service of the same goals.
David Corbin is a Professor of Politics and Matthew Parks an Assistant Professor of Politics at The King’s College, New York City. They are co-authors of “Keeping Our Republic: Principles for a Political Reformation” (2011). You can follow their work on Twitter or Facebook.