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Sunday, February 20, 2011

On the Virtue of a Constitutional Moment: Reassessing the American System of Government

A constitutional moment engaging the citizenry is urgently needed with respect to the system of government in the United States. In short, the citizenry should decide, as a people, whether to revert back to a federal system or to make the political consolidation that has ensued official. If the latter, Alexander Hamilton's suggestion that the states be districts of the US Government, whose energy he thought could not directly extend to the outer reaches of the empire (i.e., into the wilderness of states distant from the seat of the U.S. Government). This was Hamilton's view in the U.S. Constitutional Convention; his writings eventually published in The Federalist Papers were meant to sell the proposed constitution rather than to give his own proposal. His own view may have come to pass, though through incremental Congressional encroachment on the turf of the governments of the several states and concurring U.S. Supreme Court assuaging (or enabling) doctrines.  I submit that this process of change over many years has eventuated in a gap between the system of governance as it is and as it is to be constitutionally.  Whereas some people argue that we must revert back to the constitution following a "strict" construction, I believe we the people, as a people, should commence a constitutional moment of heightened attention and debate concerning whether we want centralized consolidation (i.e., no states), decentralized consolidation (i.e., states as districts), or federalism (which entails dual sovereignty and a balance of power between the general government and the governments of the states).  I believe the latter is the best suited for an inherently diverse empire-scale political union, but that the people reach a decision is the imporant point now.  For otherwise, we will continue to live a lie--to claim to be a federal system while actually being consolidated: essentially flying with miscalibrated instruments. 

Actually making a decision on the type of political system is better than having the system inadvertantly change as a byproduct of whatever issue is being legislated at the moment. If the latter habit continues, I suspect that the United States will continue along the trend of consolidation at the expense of the State governments, with Congress, the U.S. President, and the U.S. Supreme Court gaining more and more power without sufficient checks on their abuse of power.  Progressives could look back on Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court allowing President George W. Bush to essentially declare war on Iraq and command the forces, while conservatives could look back on "Obamacare" applying to every state. Being concerned about the government of the Union having too much power is or ought to be an American proclivity. So too, the need for a decision on what type of political system the United States should have bears on every citizen, regardless of party.  This is what a constitutional moment is, after all; the people itself rising to discuss the system of government itself without being distracted by partisan issues of the day. To be sure, such a moment requires self-discipline among the people and responsibility in the media, so to keep on topic.

I find myself wondering why I even make the arguments.  It would take so much energy and agreement just to get to a constitutional moment wherein the citizenry as a whole become engaged in revisiting the governance system itself.  We are so easily distracted, and do we, as a citizenry, really care whether our government is federal or consolidated?   It might be that most of the citizenry is ready to say good riddence to federalism.  If so, then so be it.  Let’s at least make a decision.  If we as a people are incapable of making such a decision, it might be asked whether we are capable of democracy itself. It would be ironic if we were preaching democracy to the Middle East while not embracing popular sovereignty here at home.