If one believes that many of the shortcomings of today’s politics can ultimately be traced to the abandonment of federalist principles—as tends to typify certain strains of right-wing thought—then the trend in national elections, which primarily subjects candidates running for federal office to scrutiny by other elected officials rather than to the judgment of their constituents, should be an alarming one.
It is perhaps telling that while many descry the influence of outside actors, particularly those with large pocketbooks, in local elections, the rodeo-like wrangling that goes on between would-be office holders and those already in power is exempt from this outrage.
Take, for example, the recent special election for the Alabama Senate seat vacated by now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Beginning with the Republican primary, the race was less a question of which candidate would best represent Alabaman residents and more a litmus test of who would best supplement the cadre of Trump-loyalists in the Senate. Alabama-specific issues took a backseat to the need to protect the anemic Republican majority in the upper chamber of Congress.
In other words, what should have been a state-focused race became subsumed by the higher demands of national politicking. This bizarre form of federalistic altruism, wherein lower-order interests are sacrificed for the greater partisan good, is troubling for a number of reasons. The most of obvious of these is the blatant denigration of state and local issues. By making state races merely an extension of federal politics, federal politicians institute a hierarchy of authority that directly contravenes federalist principles and the spirit of the Ninth and Tenth Amendments of the Constitution. It is not simply that federal issues operate on a different and higher plane than do state issues, but that the exigency of national politics nullifies the pressing demands of the state.
Yes, the federal government is the supreme authority in the land. But it’s also constrained in a way that states and localities are not. The enumerated powers listed in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution are not an exhaustive list of the rights operative in society. Individuals possess an almost innumerable numbers of rights; the mode in which these affect their lives is determined at state and local levels. The federal government has no similar authority; it is bound to the powers granted it by the Constitution. The hierarchy of authority that exists in the federal system is multi-tiered. Each possesses autonomy over itself. It is only when the lower order directly challenges the upper order that federal authority is wholly authoritative.
This means states, though answerable to the federal government in those few areas over which it has been given the Constitutional prerogative, are otherwise supreme. The open-ended nature of the Ninth and Tenth amendments means this is applicable to an almost endless number of topics, including the process surrounding the election of public officials who, even though they hold a federal position, represent the states and the people who inhabit them.
True, the Senate is an organ of the federal government. That the president and other members of Congress have a vested interest in the ideological predilections of a potential member is a given. However, these interests do not override the supremacy of the state and its residents. Particularly troubling in this regard is the litmus test of loyalty, especially to the agenda of party or president. When this becomes the lens through which elections are seen—as was the case in the Roy Moore imbroglio—it is not just political efficacy that suffers, but principle as well. The need to pad Republican numbers in the Senate and protect a political agenda married morality with the ability to pass legislation. Alabamans ability to make their own judgments about the candidate became lost in an echo chamber of national pundits lining up across a partisan divide.
Too often it seems the answer to every public nuisance in America is Congressional intervention and the introduction of new regulatory measures. This creates a culture of monism, wherein the assumption is that “the people”, that democratically deified group, is seen as one bloc with identical interests. This, of course, is far from the truth, as is evidenced from the pandering politicians due when the moment becomes exigent. It is only when controversial legislation comes up for a vote—as was the case with the SALT provision in the GOP tax package—that legislatures seem to remember they are meant to represent the unique needs and interests of the residents in their district. The overwhelmingly nationalistic lens of politics makes districts an inconvenient afterthought. Until this is changed, and the interests of states and localities are restored to primacy, a more effective politics cannot be achieved.
Also published on Medium.