Nothing Trumps Federalism
DC has all the power, but it shouldn’t.
Conservatives have generally been pleased with the energy and productivity of President Donald Trump’s first week in the Oval Office. Yet there seems to be an unsettled realization in these early days that while Trump espouses some ideas and principles that please conservatives, he is operating within a federal bureaucracy that has become all-powerful.
The Tenth Amendment to the Constitution, which empowers states to do that which the federal government is prohibited from doing, has long been celebrated by conservative think-tanks, scholars and political pundits, but has been neglected for decades by Republican politicians who find difficulty in shifting power away from Washington. (To say nothing of Democrats, whose objective is shifting power to Washington.) The last time we had a Republican president and Republican Congress (under George W. Bush), there was little regard for the tenets of federalism.
That’s largely true because national politics is a contest to see who has the “best answer” to offer from DC, not Kentucky or Colorado.
These days, there’s a general sense that time is not on our side to make real change concerning the balance of power. This reality has been enhanced by the Women’s March that recently filled the streets of DC and other cities around the world with loud voices threatening to stop Trumpism before the ink dries on his executive orders. Unless Republicans are able to maintain their power beyond the 2018 mid-term elections, whatever progress is made could be reversed by a Democrat Congress or a Democrat president in 2021.
The fact that the center of power is now in the hands of presidents, members of Congress, and federal bureaucrats has resulted in a system unlike that envisioned by our Founders. They wanted our constitutional system to ensure long-term stability rather than become one in which the passions of various groups of people shifted public policy back and forth depending on which party was in power.
In Federalist 49, James Madison dismissed Thomas Jefferson’s idea of allowing a constitutional convention to be called whenever two branches of government deem it necessary, citing the need for “public tranquility.” Madison’s greatest concern was that constant changes in public policy at the federal level would threaten the long-term stability of the system.
Throughout The Federalist Papers, Madison reiterates his desire to protect the government from these frequent alterations. That Madison was so concerned about “public passion” at a time when Congress had very little power leaves us wondering what he’d think about our system today. Rather than addressing issues where power can be controlled (and limited) more easily, many Americans now await each new executive order, Supreme Court decision, or congressional vote to determine the course of our nation.
Republicans and conservatives are encouraged by the active nature of Trump’s first week. He is acting with swiftness and decisiveness, and he has a Republican House and Senate to help advance broader objectives. With little to check the power of Republicans, the opportunities for real change are greater now than ever before. Thus far, the president’s actions have been limited to executive orders designed to reverse the damage done by Barack Obama.
However, from health care to education to minimum wage to abortion, there are many important issues that are better solved by state and local governments. Thus far, Trump has hinted at taking this route, and doing so would not only advance the immediate political interests of conservatives and Republicans but would strengthen our federalist system. The question is whether Trump will learn that while a top-down approach to running the country may be efficient, it is rarely good for our Constitution.
Yet it seems that grassroots Americans have grown so disillusioned with a Republican Party that failed them in previous years that they’re willing to abandon the principles of federalism. The inability of Republicans to check the advance of progressivism has led many Americans to embrace an active federal government as long as it serves their immediate political objectives.
Moving forward, we constitutionalists can hope for a Trump presidency more aligned with our ideology and principles than what we’d envisioned. At the same time, the way in which Trumpism manifests itself in terms of federalism and constitutional limitations raises concerns about the implementation of this unique brand of populist-conservatism.
The 2016 election has caused us to once again think about the degree to which we want the federal government to determine the course of our lives. Whether Donald J. Trump can restore the republic without further eroding the framework of federalism is one of many challenges he will face as our 45th president.
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