Obama Won, But He Still Has to Contend with Millions of Americans Taught to Hate Their Own Government
As Campaign 2012 ends, it is clear that perhaps the most profound transformation of American politics in recent decades has been the Right’s successful demonization of the federal government and its role in national life. Tens of millions of voters, especially white men, buy into Ronald Reagan’s dictum that “government is the problem.”
This animosity toward the federal government explains not only the Tea Party’s victories in 2010 but the buoyancy of Mitt Romney’s candidacy in 2012 despite his stunningly dishonest campaign and his off-putting political persona.
The hard truth for liberals and progressives is that the Right’s imposing propaganda machinery can make pretty much make anything into anything, whatever serves the Right’s ideological and political needs, while the Left has nothing to compare to this right-wing capability.
For instance, the Right’s propaganda has convinced many Americans of a bogus historical narrative which has the Framers enacting the Constitution as a states’-rights document designed to have a weak central government – when the reality was nearly the opposite.
The key Framers, James Madison and George Washington, organized the Constitutional Convention in 1787 to rid the young country of a governing document, the Articles of Confederation, that declared the states “sovereign” and “independent” and gave the federal government very limited powers. The Constitution stripped out the language about state sovereignty and made federal law supreme.
As Washington had noted earlier in supporting one of Madison’s ideas – to give the federal government authority over interstate commerce – “the proposition in my opinion is so self evident that I confess I am at a loss to discover wherein lies the weight of the objection to the measure.
“We are either a united people, or we are not. If the former, let us, in all matters of a general concern act as a nation, which have national objects to promote, and a national character to support. If we are not, let us no longer act a farce by pretending it to be.”
Washington had personally witnessed the dysfunction of the Articles of Confederation during the Revolutionary War when the “sovereign” states balked at sending promised supplies and money to his Continental Army.
The Commerce Clause
After the war, Washington recognized the need to build a national infrastructure of canals and roads to enable the sprawling young nation to grow and to succeed. That practical interest became a key factor for Madison as he devised the new Constitution with an explicit clause giving the federal government power over national commerce, the so-called Commerce Clause.
In Federalist Paper No. 14, Madison described major construction projects made possible by the powers in the Commerce Clause. “[T]he union will be daily facilitated by new improvements,” Madison wrote. “Roads will everywhere be shortened, and kept in better order; accommodations for travelers will be multiplied and meliorated; an interior navigation on our eastern side will be opened throughout, or nearly throughout the whole extent of the Thirteen States.
“The communication between the western and Atlantic districts, and between different parts of each, will be rendered more and more easy by those numerous canals with which the beneficence of nature has intersected our country, and which art finds it so little difficult to connect and complete.”
The Framers expressed through the Constitution what might be called a Founding Pragmatism. The Articles of Confederation weren’t working because the central government was too weak so the likes of Washington and Madison scrapped the Articles and created a strong central government under the Constitution.
Their interest was more in devising a system that would protect the nation’s hard-won independence and to thwart foreign commercial encroachment than in imposing some rigid ideology of liberty. After all, many Founders viewed freedom in a very restricted sense – at least by modern standards – applying it mostly to white men. In those years, slave-ownership was widespread and married women were legally subordinated to their husbands.