The Power(less), Research Time, 01/06/2017

Yesterday, I wrote about how the larger work of forging a unified American identity across all 13 states was a key purpose of the country’s federalist project, the United States’ second constitution.* But Alexander Hamilton had both lofty and brutally pragmatic reasons for wanting American federalism to succeed.

* Another reason why I find modern originalist jurists’ slavish devotion to a virtually Salafist originalism of the 1789 American constitution. That constitution was itself the second go-around of the American government’s structure. The Founding Fathers wrote it with the knowledge that they were fallible.

Grover Norquist is a well-spoken man who I respect as the most honest
and straightforward of the contemporary right wing. I mean, I reject
and am appalled by almost everything he stands for. But he doesn't
pussyfoot around the bush, and I respect that. It's a breath of fresh air.
It's the air of an ambition to build a one-party state. Still counts.
Actually, let’s compare and contrast some contemporary Americans with the originals. One of the biggest arguments to justify a lot of the Republican Party’s reactionary program has been “state’s rights.”

Giving more power to the states, and away from the federal government, is a major goal of the modern American right. They understand the presence of the federal government in local affairs as a massive intrusion on your life.

Now, it’s not as though a lot of people aren’t under threat by the federal government of the United States. I’d say we’re a generation particularly suited to understanding, in systematic and fairly rigorous terms, all those hideous powers of the government.

That’s what the mass incarceration system does – millions of people imprisoned for years on laughably minor marijuana offences, their careers after release ruined by laws and popular fears of hiring convicts. The growth of the private prison sector is just one dangerous (and sometimes confusing) addition to this long-festering social cancer.

The surveillance state does it too. This is more indirect, because its presence in people’s everyday lives is more of a hovering aura than the direct violence of gunshots and prison walls.

But the Republican right wing rarely focusses on this. Having to pay taxes, I think. Environmental protection laws. Workplace safety laws.

Yet what does the hippest Founding Father write? He says that an expanded federal government that can act on many local levels is a massive decentralization of power. It seems totally counter to the problems of today.

Now look at his examples of serious problems facing the country in 1789. It all comes down to a very Machiavellian answer – corruption.

Alexander Hamilton may finally have lost.
Hamilton describes local mega-rich (for the time) industry leaders. Plantation owners and factory chiefs. Men who, practically speaking, own their entire towns – or else, they hold everyone in their grasp through wealth and influence.

That's one original danger to American democracy – local oligarchs. A strong federal government would counter-balance their power.

The other danger Hamilton discusses are local state officials – mayors, appointees, legislators, and governors – who use their positions to exploit their people. Maybe they’re kleptocrats, for sale to the highest-bidding local businessman. Maybe they’re tinpot autocrats building a personal fiefdom for their ego.

These are groups who corrupt the practices of government and business for selfish reasons. People who’ve lost their sight of the public good, or who never cared for it in the first place.

The greatest danger America faced in 1789 – when the gun barrels of the War of Independence had barely cooled – was corrupt powerful people who’d abuse their power and public trust for their own gain.

So you'd need a powerful federal government to overcome the local schemes of on-the-ground businessmen and corrupt local officials.

Hamilton’s words are insightful and powerful. Maybe there was something to originalist legal theory after all. But I’m left with a question.

What happens when the corrupt men take over all the levels of government?

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