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.