There is a strain of modern political thought that equates specialized knowledge and topical expertise with elitism, itself rooted in anti-populism. Such thinking contributes to high levels of political inefficacy as the operational premise of representational government is that legislators, who dedicate their time to informing themselves on issues that affect their constituents, will use their knowledge of both the issues and their constituencies to make political choices calculated to promote the interests of residents in their districts. Even more than that, this strain of populism makes willful ignorance a cardinal virtue. To resist political edification, to shrug off the participatory duties that accompany citizenship in a free society as a mark of one’s disdain for a corrupt and self-serving system plays to populist iconography. “Democracy” is reduced to the idea that the people, possessing ultimate virtue, are the unassailable force driving politics; anything that deviates from their will is illegitimate and subversive.
This attitude, however is one of paradox. Having banished substantive discussion and labelled all partisan differences, no matter how genuine, as dysfunctional, the citizenry complains of a venal and unserious politics. Yet, rather than recapture the responsibility of governing themselves—an integral connotation to the theory of popular sovereignty—the polity regularly drifts to the polls in a state of somnanbulance to vote to reaffirm the much-derided status quo, complaining all the while of the onerousness of even this most base form of civic participation.
While the polity’s self-imposed lethargy makes them as deserving of blame as the structural flaws in government, federal officials certainly cannot be left off the hook. While the reflexive disdain Americans possess for politicians is at times too caricaturized, the astounding impotence of politicians certainly does nothing to improve public sentiment. There can be no question that federal politics is deeply flawed; the national legislature seems caught in an infinite loop, where the same issues are ever up for debate and are forever shunted a few years down the line, just past the next electoral cycle. Solutions, on the extraordinary few occasions when they are settled upon, are at best temporary.
In some respects, this is simply the price of life in a free society. The right to conscience, which is effectively the right to rule oneself, means each subsequent generation of citizens needs their turn to participate, even if only indirectly through choosing their representative, in the political decisions that impact their life. Political solutions in a free society necessarily lack the permanence that contributes to the perception of long-term stability and security in nations less subsumed by a core duty to protecting civil liberties.
Missing from the debate over what elements are most deserving of blame and what reforms are most likely to address them, however, is perhaps the most fundamental and brilliantly unique element of American government: federalism. Too often political problems and solutions are cast in one-dimension: that of an all-encompassing federal government. Often, though, the simple truth of the matter, particularly where executive and legislative shortcomings are concerned, is that the system is dysfunctional and unable to offer serious solutions to political problems to a bevy of issues precisely because it was never intended to do so.
Chief among the problems faced by federal officials is the question of competing interest groups within the polity. When needs are diverse and directly contradictory, as is often the case when issues are treated on a federal level, some level of cognizance is required of governors. This means public officials cease to become mere conduits for their constituents’ interests, playing a largely reflexive part in the political process. Instead, they become proactive molders of policy, making value-judgments about whose needs are most deserving of support and attention. This introduction of cognizance not only violates the principles of civil libertarianism, turning governors into governesses, but means citizens are no longer equal before the law. Competition between disparate interest groups, when government is neutral, holds society in a sort of equilibrium. When government actively pursues interests, this competition quickly turns hostile.
The brilliance of American federalism is that, by devolving the majority of political issues to the localities in which the problem arises, the issue of interest prioritization is neatly sidestepped. Legislators do not need to determine what issues are worthy of federal support because these issues are settled at state and local levels, where the actors directly involved—and who have greatest knowledge of the situation—are also the ones enacting solutions. As one must live with one’s neighbors, this approach also decreases the likelihood that all disagreements will erupt into full-scale tribalistic partisan wars, where every difference of opinion is translated into existential hostility.
This, though, requires that individuals become participatory agents in their own lives: they must become governors of themselves. A disinterested polity is one that compounds the systemic problems of abandoning federalism. It can save itself, but only by becoming more engaged.
Also published on Medium.