Sunday, December 13, 2020

#348 / Federalism Or Feudalism?


On November 19, 2020, my blog posting was titled, "Federalism To The Rescue?" As is my normal practice, I made sure to repost that blog entry onto my Facebook Page, and one of my Facebook Friends promptly reacted, making the following comment: "Seems more like feudalism." 

"Federalism" and "feudalism" are actually two entirely different things (as the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary reveals): 

Federalism - The distribution of power in an organization (such as a government) between a central authority and the constituent units.

Feudalism -  The system of political organization prevailing in Europe from the 9th to about the 15th centuries having as its basis the relation of lord to vassal with all land held in fee and as chief characteristics homage, the service of tenants under arms and in court, wardship, and forfeiture.

Probably, my Facebook Friend was just being facetious in making his comment. I suspect he well knows the difference between "federalism" and "feudalism." Still, he may also have wanted to make a point. Specifically, he may have wanted to convey the thought that federalism, just like feudalism, is old and outmoded, and that we ought to move on. I think a lot of people might make that argument. 

Practically speaking, our contemporary governmental system has been significantly "nationalized," as I pointed out in that earlier blog posting, and as I pointed out, again, yesterday. This nationalized politics has, in fact, effectively replaced the "federalism" that is the principle of governmental organization established by the Constitution. To many - and maybe to my Facebook Friend - "federalism" probably seems parochial, and incapable of dealing effectively with the huge problems that affect us today. 

Many of today's most serious problems are clearly "national," or even "global" in scope, and less and less what we might call "local" problems. Some will argue that the Tip O'Neill statement that "all politics is local" is no longer really true. From that perspective, relying on "federalism" to provide us with good government would be like suggesting that we ought to give "feudalism" another try. I am assuming that a point something like this is what my Facebook Friend intended by his quip.

However, even granting that our contemporary governmental problems are often national," or even "global," in scope,  I still don't want to concede my point. I don't want to let go unrebutted a comment that seems to denigrate "federalism," by equating it to "feudalism." I think the Founding Fathers got it right when they built our national governmental system on the basis of federal principles.

Why do I think that maintaining an effective federalism is essential if we are going to preserve democratic and representative self-government in the United States?

Here's the main reason. The key thing that supports the ability of genuine self-government to endure is a deeply-held belief by ordinary people that they are, in fact, in charge. If the people don't believe that the government is their government, and that they decide what happens, then they have conceded that they are the "governed," and not the "governors." Once ordinary people no longer really believe that they are in charge of the government, they will have lost much of their ability to guide and direct governmental policy and programs, because they will no longer think that this is, in fact, their actual role. 

Abraham Lincoln properly said, in the Gettysburg Address, that our American idea is that our government is "of the people, by the people, and for the people." The "of" and "by" words come first, and they are the most important words. If the government does not stem directly from ordinary people, and if it is not, effectively, actually conducted by them, then it is not "self-government." So, we need a system that maintains the people's belief that they are in charge of the government. If they believe it, then they will attempt to exercise the powers of a self-governing people, and since "trying" to do something is the most important way actually to do it, maintaining this belief by ordinary people that they are in charge is essential to maintaining  self-government.

So, how best to instill and maintain that belief - the belief that ordinary people are actually in charge of the government? You can read something in a book, of course, but will you believe it? People believe what they experience in real life, and so our system of democratic self-government depends, in the final analysis, on ordinary people believing that they are in charge. They will believe that when, and only when, they experience themselves actually being in charge, in real life. People will believe in self-government when they see a tangible demonstration that what they want and demand that their government do will actually determine what the government does in fact. 

Where can you get such experience? Really, most easily, at the local level. 

When I was a member of the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors, I used to go to high school classes and talk about government. And I told the students that I was the most powerful elected official they were ever likely to meet. That was intended to shake them up a little bit, and sometimes it did. 

But how could I make that claim? Well, I was 20% of the voting power of the five-person Board of Supervisors. I and two other members of the Board (three people) could take any action that it was possible for our County government to take. The power to make something happen is real power. 

A Santa Cruz City Council Member is 14% of the voting power of the seven-person City Council. A member of the State Senate is one out of 40 State Senators - which means that a State Senator has about 2.5% of the voting power of the Senate. A State Assembly Member, one out of 80 members, is 1.3% of the voting power of the Assembly. A Member of the House of Representatives, who might come visit the class, was one person out of 435 Members - or .2% of the voting power of the House.

So, in terms of pure voting power, I was, as I said, probably the most powerful elected official that would ever visit a local high school class. 

Of course, having the theoretical power to take governmental action doesn't mean that the governmental officials who have such power will actually use it. People will start believing that they are in charge of the government when the government starts doing what the people want - and it is not always easy to make governmental officials do that. 

Still, the people will have a lot easier time getting their officials to take the actions the people want when the people only have to persuade or compel three people to do it. In Santa Cruz County, three members of the Board of Supervisors stopped runaway growth and development. That's what the people wanted, and we did it. Santa Cruz County went from being the fastest-growing county in the state, and the fifth fastest-growing county in the nation, to a county growing at or below the state average. 

The Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors took actions that resulted in the permanent protection of virtually ALL commercially productive agricultural lands in the county - something no other county has ever done. The people wanted that, and the Board delivered. The Board also voted, by a 3-2 vote, in 1975, to divert over one million dollars from other uses to fund community-based human service programs. Again, the people wanted those programs. A "Community Congress," in fact, developed an Alternative Budget which was then largely adopted on that 3-2 vote. People learned, in Santa Cruz County, that they could make the government respond to their priorities. 

When the federal government wanted to drill for offshore oil off the Santa Cruz County coast, the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors initiated a statewide, and ultimately a nationwide effort to stop this Outer Continental Shelf oil development. We had a lot of faith in the power of the people, and we (and all those who got involved) succeeded in stopping drilling almost everywhere where it hadn't already occurred. 

Community-based politics teaches those who get involved that ordinary people (if they are willing to get involved) can in fact change what the government does. It teaches them that they are the government. That lesson, and deeply embedding it in people's understanding and expectation, is the most important way we can .preserve and protect democratic and representative self-government. Because that lesson is most easily learned where the people's elected officials have the greatest voting power, and so can more easily achieve what the people want, it is vital to protect our federal system. It is at the most local level that ordinary people can best learn about the powers they possess. Once they do know about their power, they can insist - and they will insist - that their state government and the national government do what the people want.

The federal system is aimed at magnifying the effective power of ordinary people acting together, politically.

It is the opposite of feudalism!

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1 comment:

  1. "Seems more like anarchism."
    (Too bad humans aren't capable of governing themselves.)


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