You are currently browsing the daily archive for March 5, 2018.

I’ve been mentally collecting common political misconceptions, some of which I’ve held myself. Some have been debunked repeatedly, such as the myth that Al Gore claimed credit for inventing the internet (he clearly didn’t), though even as one crumbles, another takes shape before our eyes, such as the claim that Sarah Palin said “I can see Russia from my house!” (It was Tina Fey, playing Palin on Saturday Night Live. Millions of us heard her say it on live television, and her tone was clearly satirical, not one of literally quoting her target, and yet people still say Palin said it.) But other, more substantive misconceptions keep cropping up, so herewith a few posts taking a close look at them.

Up today: the idea that federalism, and the Federalist Party of the early United States, advocate a loose confederation of states with a weak federal government. Federalism’s modern version, in this thinking, is “states’ rights.” In fact, the opposite is true: federalism argues for a strong central government and, while not discarding states’ jurisdiction over many functions of government, tilts towards empowering the federal government to supersede the states’.

I thought federalism equalled states’ rights for years, for the simple reason that the Federalist Society, the conservative legal organization, strongly advocates states’ rights and weak federal powers. And if one looks to the authors of the Federalist Papers, there are mixed messages; one was James Madison, a founding member of the Democratic-Republican (also known as the Republican) Party, which decisively took leave of the Federalist Party. However, during the writing of the Federalist Papers, Madison was a Federalist, or perhaps federalist is a better way to put it: he thought the Articles of Confederation were too weak (the Federalist Papers were written with the express object of getting the Constitution ratified to replace the Articles of Confederation) and that a stronger central government was needed to bind the states together.

The Federalist Society, according to Wikipedia, is primarily concerned with the concept of judicial restraint, which is outlined in Federalist Paper No. 78. That was indeed written by someone who remained a Federalist all his life, Alexander Hamilton. But in many (most?) of its stances, the Federalist Society sides not with Hamilton but with the later Madison, who parted from the principle of a strong central government, and in doing so, shed the name Federalist and began a new party–the first political party and the beginning of party factionalism in the United States.

I’m sure my understanding of these parties’ positions is far from complete, and probably anachronistic; who knows where Hamilton, Madison, and other early Federalists and Anti-Federalists would stand on the issues of 2018? But it’s undoubtedly true that the term “federalism” is repeatedly used to mean its opposite.

The Federalist website, for example, though not connected to The Federalist Society, shares its general worldview, and like it, is an inheritor not of the Federalists’ political philosophy, but their opponents’.

And just last week, the Washington Post used the term “federalism” to describe pushback by the nations’ governors against Trump’s teacher-arming plan (“Trump gets a seminar on federalism as governors push back on arming teachers,” February 27). “The session quickly became a seminar on federalism — and a reminder that states really remain the laboratories of democracy,” the author, James Hohman wrote, but that is far more a Democratic-Republican article of faith than a Federalist one.

Political philosophers, government majors, members of the Federalist Society, Ron Chernow, David McCullough (biographers of Federalists Hamilton and Adams, respectively): if you have light to shed on this issue, please do.

Next post: 3/5.


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