Federalism should not be a partisan issue. This has been forgotten as the Federalist Society has turned federalism into a rhetorical sledgehammer to bludgeon liberal policies. But rightly understood, federalism is about freedom.
Federalism promotes freedom for at least two reasons. First, because citizens will only act and speak in public when they believe their actions will be seen and heard.
The smaller the stage, the more likely is action to be meaningful. If freedom and action are the same, as Arendt writes, then we should be wary of the erosion of federalism. Only when local political institutions have meaningful power will they attract citizens to become politically involved. The danger in the loss of federalism today is the increasing sense that individual citizens have little if any power, which leads to cynicism and apathy.
We can see this cynicism and apathy, surprisingly, in Occupy Wall Street. The fact that Occupy Wall Street became a protest movement, and not an alternative locus of power, is at least partly the result of the fact that local power structures have been rendered increasingly impotent by the vampire squid of national power. As people rightly feel ever-more alienated from political institutions that can make a difference, they retreat from politics. Why did Occupy eschew local politics? Why did it seek a megaphone on the national stage instead of working in the pits of village, town, and state politics? Because everyone knows that the power of local institutions has been decimated. The result is a feeling of powerlessness and hopelessness; the present response is to embrace an ethic of permanent protest as the only meaningful way to personal empowerment. But the elevation of protest to the apogee of political action in Occupy Wall Street is, unfortunately, just another example of the vanishing of politics in our time.
The second way federalism promotes freedom is through constitutional structure. The best way to prevent government from attaining totalitarian or tyrannical power is, as Arendt argues, to multiply the sources of political power. Arendt credits the United States Constitution because it created not only the division of powers on the federal level, but also the constitutional federalism of the early Republic. By empowering states, counties, towns, and villages, the United States Constitution ensured that nearly every citizen would have both opportunity and reason to act in public and to engage in politics.
Arendt’s thoughts on the freedom found in federalism come to mind as I’ve been reading—at the urging of my colleague David Kettler—the classic Small Town in Mass Society, by Arthur J. Vidich and Joseph Bensman. Originally published in 1958, Small Town in Mass Society is still an important and now sadly forgotten book. The argument, in short, is that local towns and villages are losing their distinctiveness. Studying class, religion, power, and politics in small town America, Vidich and Bensman argue that local governments are voluntarily abandoning the political powers they constitutionally possess and thus emptying their lives of meaningful political engagement.
What Vidich and Bensman find is a fundamental contradiction between the way that small town culture sees itself and the way it actually exists in mass society. In their self-image, the residents of “Springdale”—the name for the town they study— think of themselves as a community. They distinguish themselves from “urban dwellers” who are anonymous. They imagine that “Here no man counts more than any other.” “It is unthinkable for anyone to pass a person on the street without exchanging greetings;”
“Almost all of rural life receives its justification on the basis of the direct and personal and human feelings that guide people’s relations with each other.” And, above all, the Springdale residents of rural New York see themselves as independent from urban-mass society:
While he realizes that machinery and factory products are essential to his standard of life and that taxation and agricultural policy are important, he feels that he is independent of other features of industrial and urban life, or, better, that he can choose and select only the best parts. The simple physical separation from the city and the open rural atmosphere make it possible to avoid the problems inherent in city life.
Against this feeling of independence, Vidich and Bensman argue that small towns are actually part of and integrated into mass society to an extent that their self-image cannot and will not admit. Against the view that Springdalers can choose those parts of mass society they want and reject the rest, Vidich and Bensman argue that they are more influenced and subjected to mass society.
In almost all aspects of culture, even to speech forms, and including technology, literature, fashions and fads, as well as patterns of consumption, to mention a few, the small town tends to reflect the contemporary mass society. Basically, a historically indigenous local culture does not seem to exist.
For our purposes, one telling section of Small Town in Mass Society is called “The Political Surrender to Mass Society.” While Springdale has a local government and possesses the power of taxation and governance, the authors argue that the town seeks at nearly every turn to abdicate self-governance. Examples include:
•“Solutions to the problem of fire protection are found in agreements with regionally organized fire districts.”
•The town prefers to have its road signs provided in standard form by state agencies “without cost to the taxpayer[s]” in Springdale.
•Springdale accepts the state’s rules and regulations on roads built and maintained by the state. It works with the foreman of the state highway maintenance crew to have his teams clear village roads, thus saving the expense of organizing and paying for this as a town.
• State construction programs “present local political agencies with the alternative of either accepting or rejecting proposed road plans and programs formulated by the state highway department.”
•The town at every point adjusts its actions to the regulations and laws defined by state and federal agencies; or they accede to the rule of these outside agencies because the agencies have the power to withhold subsidies.
What Springdale actually does in its own politics is forego self-governance and submit itself to outside control. It repeatedly accepts grants of aid offered by the state and subsidies by the state, even when such aid comes with strings and demands for control. The result is that the “village board in Springdale accepts few of the powers given to it. Instead, it orients its action to the facilities and subsidies controlled and dispensed by other agencies and, by virtue of this, forfeits its own political power.” What is more, this economic and political dependence leads to a “habituation to outside control to the point where the town and village governments find it hard to act even where they have the power.”
For Vidich and Bensman, the loss of local power leads to a psychologically damaging sense of dependence on outside agencies, bureaucracies, and governments.
“State police, regionally organized fire districts, state welfare agencies, the state highway department, the state youth commission, the state conservation department—these agencies and others are central to the daily functioning of the village.” There is a “pattern of dependence,” according to which the “important decisions are made for Springdale by outside agencies.” On the one hand, Springdalers resent these services provided by outsiders because they negate the local villagers’ self image as independent. But the villagers accept these services “because they are free or because acceptance of them carries with it monetary grants-in-aid for the local community.”
The conclusion Vidich and Bensman reach is that the Springdale town government does increasingly little. It seeks whenever possible to avoid providing services itself—e.g. snow or garbage removal. Instead, it seeks to have these services provided by the state in order to avoid having to raise taxes. The ultimate result is the “avoidance of innovation and the minimization of decision.” The village “tends to limit its function to the conduct of routine “housekeeping” business.” “It is a common complaint among all groups in the community that the village board does nothing.”
This political irrelevance at the local level is radical change from the American tradition of citizen democracy. When Alexis de Tocqueville visited America in the 19th century, he was impressed by the active participation of citizens in local government. 100 years later, when Hannah Arendt arrived in the United States, she too was amazed by the sense of common citizens that their voice mattered in politics.
Shortly after Arendt’s arrival, she traveled to a provincial town in Massachusetts to live with a family as a way of learning everyday English and experiencing something of American mores. While she had little in common with this family whose puritanical ways clashed with her own, she was captivated by them and by what Antonia Grunenberg has called their republican self-consciousness.
Arendt described her host family to Karl Jaspers as "thoroughly average people—what would have been called 'petty bourgeoisie' in Germany." And yet, these average Americans embodied the American love of freedom that so impressed Arendt. As she wrote to Jaspers shortly after they resumed contact in 1946:
There is much I could say about America. There really is such a thing as freedom here and a strong feeling among many people that one cannot live without freedom. The republic is not a vapid illusion, and the fact that there is no national state and no truly national tradition creates an atmosphere of freedom or at least one not pervaded by fanaticism. (Because of the strong need the various immigrant groups feel to maintain their identity, the melting pot is in large part not even an ideal, much less a reality.) Then, too, people here feel themselves responsible for public life to an extent I have never seen in any European country. For example, when all Americans of Japanese descent were locked up willy-nilly in concentration camps at the beginning of the war, a genuine storm of protest that can still be felt today went through the country. I was visiting with an American family in New England at the time. They were thoroughly average people--what would have been called 'petty bourgeoisie' in Germany—and they had, I'm' sure, never laid eyes on a Japanese in their lives. As I later learned, they and many of their friends wrote immediately and spontaneously to their congressmen, insisted on the constitutional rights of all Americans regardless of national background, and declared that if something like that could happen, they no longer felt safe themselves (these people were of Anglo-Saxon background, and their families had been in this country for generations), etc.
The extraordinary embrace of political freedom in America had a flip side, namely social oppression: To allow people local rule and governance means that parochial and racist communities can oppress minorities and impose socially conservative mores. There is a fundamental tradeoff between political freedom and social oppression. But Arendt thought the choice was easy: social oppression is simply a cost of what she came to see as the miracle of America.
For Arendt, America embodied, in Leon Botstein’s words, "a federal system of government not based on race or designed to rectify social inequalities, but established to ensure political equality among all citizens, to maintain the freedom of the public realm, social differences notwithstanding."
America, in Arendt's writing and especially in her book On Revolution, is an enduring image of public freedom that so animates her life-long thinking.
Occupy Wall Street failed for many reasons. Above all, however, it failed because even at a time when our democratic and representative institutions are seen as corrupt and broken, OWS offered no meaningful alternative. It failed, therefore, in the basic requirement of any truly revolutionary political movement: to pick up power when it is lying the streets, as Arendt writes in On Violence. And one reason it did so is that we have all lost the basic experience of citizenship and freedom that Arendt so valued when she arrived in America. If we are to resurrect such a practice and habit of citizen-politics, we need to reinvigorate local politics. But we can only do that if we reclaim federalism as a matter of freedom outside of partisan debates.
One first step is to confront honestly and clearly the depth of the loss of political power in America. This has become difficult because federalism and local power have been politicized and polarized. We need to move beyond that. To do so, there are few better books that Small Town in Mass Society. It is your weekend read. And if you cannot get the book, take a look at their article The New Middle Classes: Their Cultures and Life Styles.
I received an email from an old friend this weekend. She has been deeply affected by the death of Ki Suck Han, the New York man who was pushed off a subway platform near Times Square—and abandoned by all his fellow passengers, before being run over by an oncoming train. She wrote:
The subway death was on my mind all day long yesterday, I was devastated about it. I once worked for the MTA Arts for Transit, maybe that's why. Nobody stepped forth (the platform wasn't empty before the guy fell on the tracks), at least moved forward, rather than back. In that photo the man is all alone facing that train, everyone has moved back and away to make space for the accident to unfold unhindered, out of the zone of implication. We're all so afraid of danger, and even afraid of the fear itself.
Forty Seven people were killed after being hit by trains in 2011—I know this from the helpful signs in the subways that remind us to be careful.
We all know about Ki Suck Han because in the 22 seconds between when he was pushed on the tracks and when a train pinned him against the platform, a New York Post photographer snapped dozens of pictures of him. One of those pictures was then published on the front page of the NYC tabloid.
There has been near universal condemnation of the Post, with a few exceptions. The photographer too has been harangued, accused of taking pictures rather than running to save the man. But the platform had not been empty and another waiting rider actually filmed the argument Ki Suck Han had been having with the man who later pushed him to the tracks. All these passengers fled the scene, moved to the other end of the platform. No one went to help Ki Suck Han. In 22 seconds, no one acted the hero.
“What,” my friend asked, “might Hannah Arendt say about the fact that no one helped a person in need?”
I hazard to say or think I know what Hannah Arendt would have thought or said. I respond to all such queries simply: Hannah Arendt was nothing if not surprising and provocative and more brilliant than I am. I have no special insight into what she would have thought.
What I can do is try to think about how her thinking, her provocative and insistent determination to think what we are doing, helps us today to make sense of ethical and political events like this tragic death. Along those lines, here are a few thoughts.
First, we should not draw too many conclusions from one event. While no heroes showed themselves in this circumstance, there are unsung heroes every year who risk their lives to save people around the world, and even in New York Subways. In fact, just last weekend Doreen Winkler saved two people from an oncoming train in New York City. You can read about Winkler’s heroic acts here and here. And if you want to be inspired by truly heroic acts of daring subway rescues, watch this video from Korea.
Second, the unwillingness to play the hero in this situation reminds me of what Arendt names the loss of our sense of a common world. It is the common world—a world that used to be imagined and held together by tradition and authority—that provides a public space in which actions are remembered. Pericles could say with confidence that the Athenian polis would remember the deeds of its heroes, just as the American revolutionaries could hope that their heroic deeds would live on in monuments, song, and poetry.
Monuments in Washington and around the nation testify to the common world that shares in the memory of great acts—acts that strike people as both surprising and worthy of glory and support. It is the power and promise of memory in the common world that both holds out examples of the glory of heroism and also promises to bring the hero immortality, something more lasting than life and security. There is little faith today that someone who is a hero will be remembered longer than someone who cuts people to bits or dances naked on TV. Heroism is one of many avenues to 15 minutes of fame. So there is no strong sense of acting courageously getting you anything.
Third, the loss of the common world is part and parcel of the retreat into loneliness. I was having dinner with another friend recently who told me of his new resolution, to listen to more music on his Iphone on the way to and from work. I recall once reading Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s letters and being in awe of his reports to friends of the books he was reading, his continuing education as he put it. My friend saw his headphone-wearing study of music in the same vein. And yet, there is a difference. Walking with headphones, even more than reading in the subway or playing books on tape in the car, is a way of tuning out of the world around you. People get lost in their own world, ignoring the sights, sounds, and faces that pass them by.
My conversation with my music-studying friend also called to mind a recent email sent by the Bard College Rabbi. Rabbi David Nelson worried that more and more our young people, in the spirit of urban dwellers, “walk around campus much of the time avoiding eye contact, which is another way of saying that they avoid looking one another directly in the face.” For the rabbi, the loss of eye contact and real face-time is dangerous and corrupting. He writes:
Those who have spent time living in densely populated urban areas are accustomed to the polite avoidance of eye contact, in crowded elevators, crowded rush-hour subway trains, and similar crowded venues. This is a way to maintain separateness and privacy in an environment where the density of the population threatens our ability ever to feel alone and unobserved. This is exactly the behavior that we see on campus. But we are not an anonymous, densely populated urban tangle. We are--or we ought to be--an intentional, involved, caring community. And our students' assiduous avoidance of one another's faces is at least a sign of, and perhaps a cause of, the widespread sense that this is a place where it's hard to really connect with others.
The proliferation of headphones began decades ago with the Sony Walkman craze and continues unabated with the Ipod and Iphone. People walk around listening to music or books or podcasts. And many are proud of this development, rationalizing their anti-social behavior by arguing to themselves that they are bettering themselves, learning, or expanding their minds. This may be true. But the retreat from personal contact and the eye contact with our fellow travelers must also weaken our connection to others. It is a cold and distant world, one in which we are less and less entangled with and personally related to those around us.
Our actions are ever more calculating and less instinctive. In such instances, calculation will stop you from acting. You need to feel it. It is no accident that nearly every subway hero who jumps on the tracts to rescue someone says that they didn’t think about it but simply acted.
Above all, the un-heroic action in the subway last week reminds us of the increasing rarity of action. Heroism is never normal. It is, by definition, extra-ordinary and surprising, which is why it is glorified and remembered. It thus thrives on a world that rewards and celebrates heroic acts. Hannah Arendt saw, however, that rare deeds would be ever rarer in the modern age. The primary reason for this is that in large societies, rare deeds lose their rarity and distinction. There are at least two reasons for this decline in great deeds.
First, the law of large numbers means that all action is predictable. We know that most people will not act spontaneously to save a passenger in need; but we also know that a certain percentage of people will. Actions of heroism are not mundane, but they are expected. That is why it was so shocking and surprising that no one acted. When someone does act heroically, like Doreen Winkler, few newspapers reported it. Heroism in the subway promises very little acclaim.
Second, heroism requires a common world in which one’s great deed will be remembered. Without the promise or the expectation that heroic acts will be immortalized, the risk of action is rarely balanced by the reward. In a calculating society, heroism rarely seems to justify the risk.
Thankfully, however, there are exceptions to these dispiriting trends. There are moments of unexpected heroism that do break through the standardization of our social expectations and become examples of heroic action. One recent example of this is Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s racing into a burning house to save his neighbor. At a time when we expect so little from our public figures who refuse to risk even bucking opinion polls, Booker’s public heroism was shocking. The power of his example, and of those who act as he does, keeps the ideal of heroism alive at a time when it is ever more rare and unexpected. Because action interrupts the everyday and the normal, it is, Arendt writes, the “one miracle-working faculty of man.” Action introduces greatness and glory into the world, makes us take notice, and calls us then to gather around the beauty of the glorious act; action, heroic action, is what constantly refreshes and re-orients us toward the common world that we share together.