Gaspar de Crayer
No Place For Rumors Commentary Community Book Review
A Time for the Citizen Politician
By A. G. Moore August 19
The United States electorate and the world financial community were stunned -- though not necessarily surprised -- by Standard and Poor's downgrading of the United States' long-term sovereign credit rating. In explaining its downgrade, Standard and Poor's stated that the "gulf between the political parties over fiscal policy...makes us pessimistic about the capacity of Congress and the Administration to be able to leverage their agreement this week into a broader fiscal consolidation plan that stabilizes the government's debt dynamics any time soon."
As commentators dissect S&P's downgrade rationale, the "gulf" described in the S&P statement grows wider, not narrower. Although ideological entrenchment is stoked, to some extent, by political cynics -- those who seek to gain advantage from the budget crisis -- the "gulf" cited by S&P is neither new nor aberrant in U.S. history. The themes that fuel so much of the disagreement between today's "progressives" and "conservatives" have deep roots in U. S. history.
The clarity of this historical lineage is somewhat clouded, unfortunately, by the political cynics who co-opt traditional "conservative" terminology and wed it to a militarist and corporatist agenda. Steve Forbes, for example, offers an excellent instance of this co-option. In his 2000 presidential bid, Forbes championed "freedom" and "small government". At the same time he advocated for increased military spending and an expansionist foreign policy. In his campaign brochure he wrote: "We (can) construct viable missile defenses for ourselves and our allies in Europe, Israel, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea -- to name a few "(italics mine).
Though the "gulf" between political parties cited by S&P may be in part due to the work of cynical political actors, the wedge that creates this gulf has another source, one that is intrinsic to the United States' national character. From the earliest days of the republic there was a profound disagreement about just how unified the nation should be. Or even if there should be a nation. At the start of the Revolutionary War perhaps 20% of the colonists did not want to separate from England -- and, indeed, many colonists fought on the side of the English.
With victory from England, there was little accord about how the new colonies should be administered and how much unity there should be among the newly-liberated states. The first administrative compact between the states was barely a government: it did not allow for control of interstate or international trade, the raising of a national army or the levying of a national tax. Eventually, this administrative entity, The Articles of Confederation, was abandoned for a more unifying form of government, which was defined by the U. S. Constitution. But many of the original thirteen states did not agree easily to the Constitution -- they insisted adamantly on inclusion of provisions in the document that guaranteed individual rights and state prerogatives. Thus was the Bill of Rights tagged onto Constitution and in that Bill of Rights an emphatic assertion of state sovereignty: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." (Tenth Amendment).
Even the term, The United States, was a reflection of disunity -- not until after the Civil War, when the issue of state autonomy was dealt a violently definitive blow -- was The United States considered a singular, instead of a plural, term.
Every argument put forth today by passionate advocates for state sovereignty has an echo in the past. Ron Paul -- Dean of the libertarian/conservative movement (as opposed to the corporatist/conservative) -- wants to abolish the Federal Reserve; Andrew Jackson ran a presidential campaign in which he inveighed against the establishment of a national bank. Paul wants to end foreign military adventures; in 1807 Jefferson chose to limit U.S. international commerce rather than risk war with England or France. Paul advocates for the elimination of the IRS and all federal income taxes; Jefferson said, in his first State of the Union Address: "...sound principles will not justify our taxing the industry of our fellow citizens to accumulate treasure for wars to happen we know not when, and which might not, perhaps, happen but from the temptations offered by that treasure."
J. C. Calhoun: Vice President, Pro Slavery
and States' Rights Advocate
By 1832 the tension between those who asserted state sovereignty and those who asserted the supremacy of a central government culminated in the Nullification Crisis. This precursor to the Civil War was a bald assertion by South Carolina that it retained the right to withdraw from a union it had joined not fifty years before. The Nullification Crisis, as it took shape, was more than a "gulf" -- it was a chasm. A chasm that was an expression of regional and philosophical differences which had existed in the United States since its inception.
In 1865 -- after the blood consecration of the nation by more than 600,000 combatants -- the United States was finally sewn together in a forced union. But, as the saying goes, you can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink.
Many of the traditional sore issues remained and as time passed and the wounds from the Civil War mended (although significant scars remained), informal resistance to a strong central government organized into legitimate political expression.
The time is ripe for this expression to resound on the national landscape. There has been an obvious failure of the central government to remain free from corrupting influences. There has been a hemorrhaging of national treasure in pursuit of apparently pointless military adventure. Monetary policy is to all appearances a creature of the banking class.
It's no wonder state residents think they can do a better job than the collective entity in Washington known as "the government".
And so the nation finds itself facing an abyss. Traditional distinctions between regions and cultures that have always existed become more important as a sense of national rationale evaporates.
Standard and Poor's sees a gulf created by intransigent parties; this rating agency, which is the object of so much ire, is perhaps the only organization with the guts to declare that the emperor has no clothes. People are not united in the United States. While disunity has not reached the kind of critical mass that precipitated the Civil War, more downgrades and consequent declines in the U. S. standard of living can bring the country there.
There is a way for the country to come together, to act as a united association of distinct states. But this cannot be accomplished without a collective will, and that will cannot be manufactured. It must come from a true belief by the people that the government which taxes them, which regulates them, which influences their school, their environment, their health does so honorably and honestly.
Abraham Lincoln said, "A house divided against itself cannot stand." He was right. But unity cannot be imposed indefinitely by force. A people must believe they are invested in the national mission, a mission whose purpose they share. And one that justly serves them and their families.