It was not very long ago that most scholars and political observers assumed federalism to be an utterly dead issue—an intellectual relic every bit as antique as the divine right of kings. Obviously, the political tides of the day have shifted dramatically—though it still remains to be seen how permanently—and have swept federalism back into the forefront of public discussion. Indeed, renewed interest in federalism may well be leading to the most serious reconsideration of the federal idea in our century. And the increasingly thoughtful and impressive performance of so many of the nation’s governors, both individually and in the context of organizations like the National Governors’ Association, suggests that they (rather than national politicians) have become the class act of American politics.
None of which, however, ensures that the federal idea will fare better this time around. There remains the perennial argument that a full-fledged federal system is simply no longer practical for an economically, politically, and socially consolidated nation whose inhabitants change their place of residence every five years, a nation that finds itself competing in a global economy of unprecedented scope and complexity. In these days it is hard enough to defend the viability of the nation-state itself against its many detractors, left and right, who cheerfully proclaim its obsolescence. To defend federalism seems even more of a stretch.
Americans’ collective sense of federalism, moreover, seems to have atrophied seriously. Tocqueville marveled that even the humblest of the Americans he met in the 1830s were, so to speak, instinctive federalists, readily able to distinguish among the respective obligations of the national, state, and local governments. It is hard to imagine that even fairly well-educated Americans of today would be similarly confident in their knowledge of which courts have jurisdiction over a particular legal issue, or which level or agency of government should provide them with the services they desire. In many Americans’ minds federalism seems an abstract concern, at best: Who cares, they are likely to ask, what agency or level of government outlaws (for example) the possession of firearms in schools, so long as the right thing is done? And, at worst, the championing of federalism is associated with memories of the South’s invocation of state sovereignty to defend slavery and racial segregation—a heavy burden to bear.
A genuine revival of federalism thus has its work cut out for it. To be sure, it will not have to start from scratch, because the necessary institutions are still, by and large, in place—a piece of good fortune that the emerging democracies of Eastern Europe can only envy. But at the same time, such a revival may not be able to presume an American citizenry with the same dispositions of intellect and character that prevailed 170 years ago. Like any other system of government, a genuine and sustainable federal system must be able to draw on, and in turn reproduce, a certain social character in its citizens. It is an open question whether the American system at present can make either claim.
Hence the focus expressed in my title, which takes off from the title of a little book by Oscar Wilde, published in 1891, called The Soul of Man Under Socialism. The structure of his title might seem to suggest that the flower-toting Wilde grasped the close connection between the character of a political regime and the character of those it governs. But Wilde esteemed socialism simply because he believed it would free all individuals from the tiresome prospect of having to think about all material and social things—indeed, about anyone or anything but themselves. Under conditions of private property, he argued, there had been only a handful of true individuals, men able to realize their personality more or less completely—and these were artists, figures like Shelley, Byron, Browning, Hugo, and Baudelaire. All others were constrained by the necessities of getting and spending, and by “the sordid necessity of living for others.” But socialism would change all that, freeing men and women from the labor that saps and misdirects their strength, and enabling their “true personality” to develop without hindrance, growing “naturally and simply, flower-like, or as a tree grows.”
Nowhere does Wilde suggest that the social order, or the institutions of government, or any other potentially constraining or cohesive forces might be needed to play a role in the proper formation of this precious, flower-like self. Not for him was James Madison’s famous dictum that government is “the greatest of all reflections on human nature.” Instead, the political regime would seem to have nothing to do with the process of self-realization—except in so far as it may interfere with it. Government has but one prosaic job: it is to be the central organizer of labor, and of the manufacture and distribution of goods. But once that dreary, and largely self-evident, task is taken care of, government should get out of the way of blossoming personalities. “The form of government that is most suitable to . . . artists,” declared Wilde, “is no government at all.” And indeed, in Wilde’s melding of socialism with high aestheticism and romanticism, art is “the most intense mode of Individualism that the world has known.” Even the supreme exemplar, Jesus Christ, was a kind of wandering cafe artist, a free-spirited sage of nonconformity who encouraged his followers to “be themselves,” and pay no heed to how the world regards them. In Wilde’s revisionist eyes, Christ was the ultimate individualist, whose ultimate message was: “You have a wonderful personality. Develop it.”
It would, I suppose, be quarrelsome to ask Wilde how he reconciled all this individual liberty with his turning over of the whole economy to the state. An artist can’t be bothered with trivia. It is more to our present purpose, anyway, to make a different point: Wilde’s understanding of individualism made no concession to the idea that human beings are formed in association and interaction with one another—in families, communities, and nations—and that even artists like Oscar Wilde are constrained to work within the quintessentially social instrument of language and write for audiences made up of other people. He placed his faith in a religion of art; and a religion of art is, at bottom, a religion of the self, a religion whose values are self-created and self-validated. In that sense, as the late Christopher Lasch observed, Wilde’s vision actually has proved far more enduring than the more formidable “isms” that bestrode the nineteenth century. His world eerily resembles certain aspects of our world today, with its worship of the autonomous artist-self who transvalues values, scorns convention, constructs his own identity, and bowls alone, if ever.
Despite his book’s promising title, Wilde spelled out no direct relationship between the character of the polity and the kind of souls it produced, except insofar as the former stays out of the way of the latter. In his view, good government is like good indoor plumbing: it keeps life’s uglier things out of our line of vision. But what escaped Wilde’s attention was explored in an explicit way by Tocqueville, who predicted several years before Wilde was born that there would be a close correlation between the rise of centralization and of atomistic individualism in modern democracies. Precisely because Tocqueville did not take individual autonomy to be a “natural” or normative standard, he was able to see that Wilde’s goal of expressive individualism rests upon a peculiar set of social and institutional arrangements, in which the individual gains consumer sovereignty and expressive liberty at the cost of his citizenship and his stake in the common pursuit of the common good.
The putative antagonism between expressive individualism and centralized bureaucracy—or as I have expressed it, between “The Hipster and the Organization Man” (First Things, May 1994)—turns out to be not an opposition but a mutually sustaining partnership. It is precisely in a world governed by large, impersonal, centralized bureaucracies that an “emotivist” self (which reduces all moral reasoning to questions of personal preference) is most likely to arise—precisely because such a self is cut off from the kind of responsible contacts and deliberative institutions that make up the school of public life. In short, Wilde was more right than he knew in positing that a certain kind of centralized regime produced a certain kind of unhousebroken individual.
But the naturalness or desirability of unhousebroken souls, and of the big centralizing government that begets them, has now become a more questionable proposition—and this is where the current interest in a revived federalism enters the picture. A growing disenchantment with the pathologies of the unencumbered self has been one of the chief forces fueling the revival of interest in the concept of citizenship. But hortatory talk of reviving citizenship is only a beginning. The current mood of reform needs an institutional component if it is to enjoy any success. It will not be enough to emphasize the need for “civic virtue,” that is, for a restoration of the beliefs, habits, and behaviors that make citizenship and ordered liberty possible. It will also be necessary to give serious attention to what is being called “devolution,” to the extent that devolution is dedicated to the re-creation or preservation of the kind of proximate contexts within which the public virtues of citizens can be formed and liberty can be ordered. Given this imperative, we need to pose the question, What sorts of people are required, and fostered, by federalism? What sorts of dispositions and aspirations does a federal system encourage or discourage? What qualities of character does it esteem or disesteem? What, in short, might the soul of man under federalism look like?
At its heart, federalism is an attempt to reconcile opposites, to find a balance between the considerable advantages of national combination and the equally considerable virtues of autonomy and small-scale organization, without having to choose finally between one and the other. But the specific terms in which that balance can be struck have varied widely, for “federalism” has not always meant what Americans take it to mean today. I am not using federalism here in its strict sense, as designating a confederation of sovereign constituent states. Instead, I use it in its modern and American sense, designating a government that James Madison accurately presented in Federalist 39 as a “composition” of federal and national elements. Such an arrangement differs dramatically from the minimalist federalism of the premodern world, in which the federal entity was not regarded as a true unit of government since it did not deal directly with the internal character of the polity, or the governing of its citizenry. It may be more accurate to call the American system a form of “decentralist-federalism” (as Martin Diamond suggested) to indicate the independent dignity and ultimate primacy of the national union.
Nevertheless, the ambiguities and historical resonances that complicate the word “federalism” have their uses. They preserve the awareness that this new American federal union did not entirely reject an older conviction—associated with Montesquieu, but also rooted deeply in classical antiquity—that the small, autonomous community is the proper seedbed of republican virtue. The U.S. Constitution was born in fundamental political debate, and its final form shows the impress of the contending factions it was designed to reconcile. Indeed, as Herbert Storing rightly emphasized, the views of the Constitution’s opponents faithfully trail the Constitution’s path like the tail of a comet. The opposition was worried about the Constitution’s inattention to the question of the sources of republican virtue, fearing that moral declension would befall any community that based itself solely upon the pursuit of self-interest, however cleverly channeled and controlled. They believed, as Storing put it, that “the American polity had to be a moral community if it was to be anything” and they feared that the Constitution took for granted the perpetuation of a virtuous citizenry actively involved in civic life.
This exalted conception of citizenship is central to the classical understanding of republicanism, and entails a view of human nature completely at odds with Wilde’s premises of modern life. It presumes that human life has a proper end, and that for an individual to realize his human nature in all its fullness, he must involve himself intensively in the affairs of civic life. Indeed, it seems anachronistic to speak of the “individual” or the “self” in this context, since the deepest sources of one’s identity were social. The republican ideal was, as J. G. A. Pocock succinctly explains it, “a civic and patriot ideal in which the personality was founded in property, perfected in citizenship, but perpetually threatened by corruption.” In this vision, civic life is not only the soul’s true end, but an arena in which it is instructed in its higher nature.
It is well to remember, however, some less pleasant things about classical republicanism. Pocock himself observes that “the ideal of virtue is highly compulsive,” for it “demands of the individual, under threat to his moral being, that he participate in the res publica.” The soul of man under classical republicanism forswears Wildean vices, but forswears a great deal of liberty besides. The pleasures and satisfactions of commerce, of the arts and sciences, of luxury, of entrepreneurship, of religious devotion, of private life, of cultivating one’s own garden—all these must give way to a vision that, taken to its extreme, makes virtuous political activity the alpha and omega of existence. Denying us sanctuary for reflection and space for enterprise, such a regime seems to condemn us to a hellish round of school-board meetings and Kiwanis breakfasts, sewers and landfills—to constant attention to the indoor plumbing. If it is a grave error to assume that human beings are by nature pure and unencumbered individuals, it is equally an error to assert that their life in the polity exhausts who and what they are.
The proper federal settlement, then, needs to find a way to give scope to individual ambition, to economic energy and dynamism, to the “bourgeois” virtues of a liberal democracy, while respecting and upholding the role that acts of citizenship, and public life in general, play in the deepening and elevation of the soul. This was one of the chief preoccupations of Tocqueville, who explored whether self-interest, rightly understood, could be made to take the place of virtue. He was confident it could; at any rate, he thought we had no choice but to try to make it work. But he also never ceased worrying about what might happen if it didn’t. It is sometimes not sufficiently appreciated that Tocqueville’s famous critique of American individualism refers not to individualism as we today might understand the term, but to privatism, to the wholesale withdrawal of the individual from public life—the strong tendency in democratic societies for “each member of the community to sever himself from the mass of his fellows and to draw apart with his family and his friends.” Such individualism was in Tocqueville’s view an even more ominous threat to a civilized and self-governing polity than was the tyranny of the majority.
Tocqueville too, then, greatly exalted the title of “citizen,” and saw political life as an indispensable school of the soul, where individuals are gradually drawn out of themselves through immersion in public life and grow into more enriching and elevating connection with their fellows. Eventually, he believed, the habit of virtuous behavior, even if initiated for entirely self-interested reasons, could take hold and in due course give rise to something very similar to the original virtue itself. But he did not make the mistake of thinking that behavior and attitude could be compelled by exhortation alone. There must be an institutional framework of rewards and reinforcements. There must be arenas for meaningful acts of citizenship. Fortunately, he believed, the American framers took care to “infuse political life into each portion of the territory in order to multiply to an infinite extent opportunities of acting in concert for all the members of the community.”
In other words, Tocqueville saw in the federal idea a way that Americans could retain the spirit of republican citizenship even when embracing the self-interested dynamism of liberal individualism. In so doing, Americans were in effect reconciling the essential principles of both classical and modern political thought. This did not mean that Tocqueville took a doctrinaire view of precisely how political authority should be subdivided; and it certainly did not mean that he opposed an energetic national government with broad responsibilities. But he did understand that political communities, if they are to have any real moral vitality, must find ways to spur their inhabitants on to the free exercise of their highest natures and provide them public spaces in which they can do so. It must permit them—and require them—to be citizens. This need not mean, to be sure, turning foreign affairs over to the plowman, who was never very interested in them anyway. Indeed, the federal principle has little in common with the growing plebiscitary tendency in American politics, since it favors the careful discrimination of appropriate spheres of responsibility and esteems solid local knowledge over pseudo-cosmopolitan “opinion”—particularly the ill-informed opinions generated by mass media and measured by pollsters. By permitting citizens maximum freedom and scope in the administration of minor and local affairs, one draws them into public life by giving them a genuine, palpable stake in it.
Writers from Aristotle to Montesquieu insisted that a republic had to stay relatively small, because only a small polity could possess sufficient social and moral commonality to be self-governing. And though James Madison argued that an “extended republic” could more effectively control the tendency toward faction in popular governments, he also insisted that the jurisdiction of the central government be “limited to certain enumerated objects,” with the states and localities retaining “their due authority and activity.” Indeed, he speculated that were the Constitution to abolish the states, the general government would soon be “compelled, by the principle of self-preservation, to reinstate them.” He did not assume that a large and diverse nation could offer the same sense of moral community as a small and relatively homogeneous republic (though he did assume that the national perspective would usually be the more elevated and dispassionate one). Rather, he assumed that “a judicious modification and mixture of the federal principle“ could combine the advantages of both.
For today’s politicians to fulfill the spirit of Madison’s words, they may now have to move in the opposite direction—away from the relentless centralizing trends of the past century and toward institutional arrangements that seek to multiply the opportunities for public association. Acts of public association take place within a sphere that is clearly delimited and contained, making of citizenship a sustained and reciprocal activity. The challenge is to find ways of restoring the sense of accountability and belonging offered by smaller, more human-scale institutions, institutions that can serve as schools of citizenship while retaining the benefits of national government. This is precisely the promise of federalism. It does not require us to renounce a national government, only to specify and enforce its limits. And it does so not only to limit the power of national government—though that was clearly one of the Framers’ chief intentions—but to preserve kinds of association, and therefore qualities of soul, that are beyond the power of nationalism to sustain.
There are, however, plenty of hard questions to be asked. Perhaps the hardest one, a question that immediately arises when one contemplates the elimination or reform of certain national entitlements, is: Does devolution have the capacity to generate civic virtue where it does not currently exist? Or, instead, does civic virtue have to be already present in order for devolution to be successful, or for it to make any sense at all? Can devolution energize the virtue that is already there and transform the lives of those who had lacked virtue? Or will it simply produce even more suffering, squalor, and moral chaos than we already have? And are we really prepared to make the sacrifices entailed in the exercise of civic virtue? Or have we as a people become so habituated to a thousand forms of pleasant (and unpleasant) dependency that we are now incapable of this kind of austere moral assertion and have entirely lost our taste for self-governance?
Perhaps, however, an excessive emphasis upon republicanism exaggerates the role of citizenship, and diminishes the role of religion, in the inculcation and perpetuation of virtue. Most of the Founders were convinced of the indispensability of religion as a bulwark of public and personal morality, and they frequently used the word “virtue” in ways that did not necessarily suggest an allusion to strictly classical antecedents. Indeed, one of the remarkable features of the Founders’ discourse is the ease with which they employed a variety of political vocabularies—republican, liberal, and Protestant Christian, ancient and modern—in expressing their convictions on issues of civic virtue. They had an enviable and quintessentially American eclecticism, an ability to extract and incorporate whatever was valuable in a political language or system of ideas without being imprisoned by its totality. The case for public virtue could, in their view, be argued as persuasively on grounds of religious piety or of educated self-interest as it could on grounds of civic obligation. Indeed, one could do all three, and sometimes did, without feeling the least incompatibility among them.
There are considerable advantages inherent in such a mixed moral discourse, including a built-in Madisonian defense against the excesses to which any one language might be susceptible in isolation. And these very advantages offer us a clue to one of the most salient features of the soul of man under American federalism. By attempting to accommodate within a single overarching structure what are in fact different principles of government, traceable ultimately to different views of human nature, the federal system demands of its adherents extraordinary powers of discrimination. They will need a highly developed ability to distinguish what laws and actions are appropriate to each given sphere, an ability to distinguish between and among different spheres of possible activity—and in so doing, to grasp and distinguish the different axial principles appropriate to each.
Although this description suggests that federalism should be understood as part of the great tendency toward functional differentiation so characteristic of modernity—and in a sense it is—in fact the federal idea owes its distinctiveness to a different source. Liberalism rests upon the principle of separation of spheres of activity: religious, social, political, economic, cultural, familial. (We owe, for example, our conception of “the market” as an independent economic institution standing outside the network of social, kinship, religious, and cultural ties to such pluralism.) But to the extent that American federalism manages to keep its republican component alive, it contains within itself a holistic countercurrent and counterargument to this very pluralism—an institutionalized recognition of the fact that, when we act as citizens, we refine and fulfill something in our nature that can be touched in no other way.
If this is right, then federalism entails a very complex vision of the human soul, one that requires us to be forever balancing not only contending external interests, but competing understandings of what it means to be most fully human. And there is every reason to believe that these dualities will be unstable and shifting, rather than resting once and for all in a grand equipoise, or even as “a machine that will run of itself.” Individuals in a federal system must have the ability to operate mentally on more than one track, recognizing sometimes the principle of virtue, sometimes the principle of interest (or of maximizing utility), sometimes the principle of liberty, and sometimes the principle of pious obedience—disdaining none, but granting none a trump of all the others.
There is something in all this that does not come naturally, that goes against the grain. It is not for nothing that the word “integrity” has such a high standing in our language; by and large, we trust singleness of mind and purpose, and distrust multiplicity, which we often reduce to duplicity. Purity of heart, said Kierkegaard, is to will one thing. But it is precisely that wish to be devoted to only one thing—that passion for unity, that yearning for the consecrated life—that the federal idea requires us to resist, though, paradoxically, it also requires that we leave a respectful space for such needs.
In a superficial sense, the federal idea would seem to be oddly in tune with the mood of postmodernism, with its antagonism to “totalizing” systems of thought and its hostility to unitary ideas of human agency and personality. But that similarity is only seeming. Any modern federalism will ultimately be reliant upon the structure of a sturdy constitutionalism, which clearly fixes the very boundaries and spheres within which the play of contending forces is allowed to take place. It will emphasize the importance of sturdy institutions, as vessels designed to contain and direct the plural forces that federal arrangements unleash.
Indeed, federalism inevitably places an extraordinarily high premium upon something that has gotten a bad press from all directions in recent years: procedure. Not only does it assert that it makes a great deal of difference whether we do the right things in the wrong ways. It even calls into question the easy distinction that is so often made between procedure and substance—for in a federal system, in many cases procedure is substance. The Latin roots of the word “federalism” suggest this, since they point to the element of trust, embodied in the making of contracts, treaties, leagues, and compacts. At the heart of a federal system is the willingness to entrust some portion of governance to those to whom it is delegated or assigned—recognizing that the opportunity for citizenship is itself a political good of the highest order.
Yet for all the sturdiness of such constitutionalism, there is in federalism a recognition of a kind of restlessness and mystery and indecisiveness at the heart of American political life—as if many of the most important questions remain open and unsettled. To express this, I can hardly improve on the words of political scientist Martin Diamond, one of the most thoughtful students of American federalism, in his essay “The Ends of Federalism”:
The distinguishing characteristic of federalism is the peculiar ambivalence of the ends men seek to make it serve. The ambivalence is quite literal: Federalism is always an arrangement pointed in two contrary directions or aimed at securing two contrary ends. . . . Hence any given federal structure is always the institutional expression of the contradiction or tension between the particular reasons the member units have for remaining small and autonomous but not wholly, and large and consolidated but not quite. The differences among federal systems result from the differences of these pairs of reasons for wanting federalism.
There is wisdom in this ambivalence. And the fact that such wisdom emerged out of an intensely political process takes not a thing away from it. Historians are prone to the genetic fallacy, to believe that an account of something’s origin is a full account of its nature. It is particularly easy, when looking at the U.S. Constitution, to see only the seams and fault lines of compromise—large states against small states, North against South, landed wealth against personality, and so on. It is also easy to see those compromises as mere way stations on the inevitable path to a powerful national union, of a sort that the Articles of Confederation—an example of old-style federalism—could never have produced.
But there is more to the story of the Constitution than an understanding of it as an attempt to produce a powerful national union, which was held back for a while in certain respects by various bands of nervous nellies and self-interested parties. The American style of federalism, for all of its ad hoc qualities, tried to do something very grand by attempting to balance virtue and interest and arrive at a form of liberty that incorporates both ancient and modern understandings of political life. In an age that pretends to worship diversity, that should be reason enough to look to the federal idea with new respect as an idea that attempts to accommodate and reconcile the respective strengths of a variety of ideas about human nature and human society.
It does not necessarily require us to turn back the clock, as critics so often charge, and undo the past century and a half. A fairer criticism, however, might be that it attempts something akin to squaring the circle, or reconciling the incompatible. That may well be so. But it is equally true that the soul of man under nationalism (or Wilde’s socialism) leaves a great deal to be desired, quite as much—to move to the opposite end of the spectrum—as does the soul of man under pure localism, or pre-political tribalism. Federalism proposes an avenue of escape from the constrictions of this dilemma. But it does so at the cost of imposing a high order of complexity in thought and action upon its citizenry. To be sure, in political life everything has its price, and every live option has its problematic dimensions. What is not clear is whether Americans are prepared to pay the price of such complexity. If not, then there will no doubt be other prices to be paid. Indeed, we are already paying them.
Wilfred McClay teaches history at Tulane University and is the author of The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern American.
Photo by Gerd Altmann licensed via Pixabay License. Image cropped.