By Tony Woodlief –
Two phenomena corroding self-governance and liberty are the unchecked and metastasizing agencies of the executive branch, and the shameful abdication of responsibility by our elected representatives.
The only alternative to Imperial rule from DC is self-governance within the Federalist system.
Chapter 1 – The Great American Con
The human reality that politicians crave dictatorial powers is why the American Founders created a host of checks and balances to restrain both would-be tyrants and emotional mobs.
The political parties have served to check one another’s ambitions, but the intersection of greater stakes and more powerful technology in the political realm is where things have begun to go awry.
The US government mechanism was built to resist the self-interest of its agents by deploying – in a brilliant governmental innovation – the self-interest of other agents within its machinery. The machinery of our government is now malfunctioning.
The steal that has been effected by the political class is relentless centralization of authority in Washington, DC, much of it in the hands of unelected judges and executive agency officials. Whereas America’s Constitution assigns most of the work of governing to communities and states, our nation’s capital has become an Imperial city. When authority sits in DC, it belongs to the political class.
The political class is stealing our right to self-governance, which is essential to American citizenship. The centralization of power in DC has also eroded the authority of our elected legislators.
Chapter 2 – the American Sphinx
Most Americans have a tenuous grasp of basic economics, low political knowledge, and inconsistent opinions, and vote for politicians primarily out of blind partisan loyalty. Widespread ignorance appears to threaten the proper working of the American Republic.
Chapter 3 – American Partisans
The danger for our country is that while our most involved partisans are a small minority of the population they have an outsized influence and their numbers are growing. They are the foot soldiers of the political class. The political class is, “the collection of officeholders, party and issue activists, interest group leaders, and political infotainers who constitute the public face of politics”. Partisan ideologues are the political class’s enlistees in its cultural and political battles.
The two major parties tend to adopt positions based more on strategic calculations about fundraising and marginal vote gain then on a coherent set of principles.
In spite of being a small minority, ideologues and partisans have substantial influence within government, cultural and social institutions and, increasingly, our nation’s largest corporations.
Political elites on the left and the right believe themselves to be in an existential battle. Too much ideology and partisanship foster too much blind party loyalty, the opposite of responsible democratic practice; it is the kind of willfully blind tribalism that enables totalitarians to come to power.
Chapter 4 – The Pragmatic American
The group of dedicated ideologues and partisans is growing and constitutes at least 20% of the American body politic, and their animosities are deepening. Partisans despise each other today. The positions they hold were framed by elites in their parties and special interest organizations. They are not the positions held by regular citizens.
Chapter 5 – Scientists, Mad and Political
Woodrow Wilson thought America should have political parties with much sharper ideological distinctions. He despised federalism and the separation of powers between the executive and legislative. His aim was to inject enough ideology into American life to turn elections into national referenda, empowering one-party, through uniform control of the presidency and Congress, to implement its agenda from top to bottom without interference from the minority party.
Wilson introduced into American political science the poison of advocacy for expanding the power of Washington DC to control everything.
The American Political Science Association’s (APSA) reformers sought far-reaching, radical changes in areas ranging from national economic planning to reforming the voting laws in southern states.
Our constitutional separation of powers and all the compromises it required was intolerable to reformers. The reformers of the 1950s wanted to sweep aside constitutional principles in order to fashion a nation state capable of micromanaging the economy.
Political parties were once a source of unity, rather than division. The trouble began when the political scientists got what they wished – ideological political parties instead of broad, non-ideological coalitions.
Lyndon Johnson’s idea was to muffle the idealists to enlist support from all social and economic sectors. He was in fact peddling an ideology, that of expanding national power to fine-tune the economy, pursue egalitarianism, and promote American-style democracy around the globe.
Conservatives reasoned the only way to break free from the establishment groupthink was the same party polarization that yielded distinct alternatives to voters. Since the 1950s liberals have dominated the Democratic Party and conservatives the Republican Party, and the effect has been to polarize the two parties.
What threatens to destroy us is the fact that so many members of our political class who engage in polarization as a profession have abandoned any pretense of fidelity to truth, the Constitution, and we citizens, who are the beneficiaries and guardians of that Constitution, and it encourages us to do the same. The political class strives to elicit the worst in us because our animosity is its gain.
Chapter 6 – The Monster Comes To Life
The orchestrator’s of American polarization unleashed a destructive force upon the Republic.
George McGovern was a principal leader of reforms that radically undercut party control over the Democratic presidential nomination process.
The McGovern – Fraser Commission reforms, enacted by Democrats, but which spread to the Republican Party through state election law changes, had the effect, as reform author James O’Hara noted, of creating “a system that was open to capture by an aroused minority.” The “states that went furthest in the direction of muting local party officials and opening the door to activists evidenced greater polarization, not just between the parties, but between party activists and their own rank-and-file.”
Following Watergate, Democrats took away much of committee chairmanships’ power and forced the more powerful committee chairs to more equitably share subcommittee control.
“A transformative period of reform in Congress took place alongside the McGovern – Fraser reforms. The two movements shared key personnel, motivations, and theoretical premises about the function of parties.” The effect was to make oratory the chief, if not the only, criterion of legislative ability.
Coinciding with this reform that would turn every moment at the microphone into a potential news or fundraising clip, was the penchant among new congressmen to cast their agenda in the language of rights rather than priorities and trade-offs. These new legislators articulated their agenda not merely as policy objectives but as constitutional and ethical “rights” with a profoundly moral dimension. Elevating policy goals to the status of rights would prove to be a crucial step in the evolution of ideological partisanship in the United States. The application of such a moral dimension to the framing of public issues acts to prohibit compromise in pursuit of a common objective.
Members of Congress, sorting themselves into ideological camps and performing in front of television cameras, discovered that casting policy differences in moral terms gave them a rhetorical edge in the escalating partisanship battles.
Democrats broke the monopoly of powerful committee chairs, and simultaneously decentralized authority over committee assignments and left the flow of legislation in the hands of the Speaker. Congressional leaders further centralized power by tripling their own staffs while slashing committee and individual staffs in the House, and trimming them in the Senate. Footnote – The danger of centralizing power is that it tends to fall into the hands of the people most interested in having power, who are almost always the last people we want to have it.
The displacement of traditional local party machines by informal party organizations shifted power from local leaders to ideologues. Political machines distrusted ideologues, informal party organizations rely on them. The result is extreme candidates and highly polarized politics. Reformers did not make the two major parties more representative of broader interests, they made them more representative of activist interests.
Not only did the political class turn partisans into bitter enemies, they concentrated the stakes by relentlessly nationalizing our partisan politics. Local party leaders’ influence on the presidential nomination process was all but eliminated, displaced by independently organized political candidate operations, and the whole process made subservient to national headquarters. The two major parties transitioned from organizations with large memberships and physical presences in many communities to professionalized organizations located primarily in Washington.
Local public officials and locally minded Congressmen, who felt a responsibility to represent their constituents’ parochial interests, were displaced by movement-minded politicians who built a volunteer base of partisans. Party leaders and their allies likewise focused on national political strategies that pleased their activists and donors. Footnote – ironically, the focus on national policy and conflict has ultimately made a political system less capable of fixing long-term national problems.
The nationalization of power – a continuation of New Deal thinking – necessarily meant the further destruction of citizen self-governance. The reformers believed it was the job of the political class in Washington to rule the country.
The reforms enacted in the name of democracy yielded a system in service to the political class. The ideologues reformed the parties’ institutions to render them more permeable by, and accountable to, issue and ideology driven activists like themselves.
The ideology of nationalized politics and control was what bound the liberal reformers to the Wilsonian reformers who had preceded them. Both groups believed that the future of America was control from Washington.
The political scientists had set out to replace blind party loyalty with distinctive principles; the reformers instead married ideology to parties. Ideology became malleable in service to partisan victory, and partisanship became more venomous with the transmogrification of policy disputes into disputes over values.
The unholy fusion of party and ideology rewarded individual ideologues and discouraged compromise.
Chapter 7 – The American Panoptic
Our media choices have proliferated – each more capable of being tailored to individual preferences and convictions so the users can seek and reinforce their political, religious, and social leanings.
It is the strongest partisans who have ended up with the most politically homogeneous social networks. You need not close your mind on purpose, the algorithm will do it for you. Groupthink is the default of the algorithms
A major theme in this book is the unwitting conspiracy, which arises as individuals in the political class pursue their self-interest within the context of the incentives and technologies that dominate their world, collectively behaving as if they have conspired to spark civil war and destroy American self-government. Another theme is the nationalization of American attention, so that our minds are drawn away from our communities toward the national stage in Wasington.
The algorithms driving social media and entertainment platforms facilitate both animosity between citizens and nationalization of attention.
Social media companies reinforce their algorithm driven tailoring to ensure that no user has to see anything that offends him or challenge his beliefs. As people slip deeper into ideological whirlpools they become immunized to facts that undermine their beliefs. They become more committed to what their side holds to be true, more impervious to inconvenient truths. This is the reality for strong partisans of all stripes. People immersed in partisan tribalism simply cannot participate in reasonable discussion with people who disagree with them.
The most extreme partisans are about 20% of the population. Their partisan and ideological convictions are their primary motivators, essential to their identities.
Chapter 8 – Through A Glass Darkly
Many of our national journalists, like those at MSNBC, actively work to advance a progressive agenda.
It is possible that the plunge toward negativity of media across the entire world was due to the rise of the web itself and the increased competition that news outlets faced. As clicks became the arbiter of news value, shock became essential to media corporations’ profitability.
In their hunger for click generated revenue, media outlets broadcast shallow, slanted, irresponsible – and occasionally even fraudulent – portrayals of the problems that are inevitable in any large and diverse country. The media induced gap between reality and perception has been steadily growing since 2003. Surveys show a slippage in positivity, among Democrats in particular, toward bedrock American institutions like free enterprise and freedom of expression.
To polarization entrepreneurs all politics have become personalized. Ideologues choose what they want to believe, and they believe the worst of those who disagree. It is a logical step to conclude that any means necessary to defeat their political opponents is justified
Chapter 9 – The Spoils of War
Venal politicians and their operatives benefit from the present savagery of American politics in the same way that large corporations benefit by costly government regulations, which both drive smaller competitors out of business and dissuade new, potentially more effective, competitors from setting up shop.
Political toxicity not only keeps away many decent leaders, it discourages everyday citizens from getting involved. To run successfully a candidate for federal office must please party leaders, activists, consultants, and campaign donors, the majority of whom are at the extreme left and right tails of the American political distribution. These are the people who have engineered the success of increasingly polarized candidates, driving moderates, consistent consensus builders, and compromisers from politics.
A candidate must still appeal to the average voter. What motivates his base does not appeal to regular Americans. By casting his opponent as evil and incompetent a politician can avoid clear issue positions. Negativity gets more bang for the campaign buck.
Neither party seems able to build a genuine bipartisan consensus on crucial policy issues because their bases will not tolerate it. Our legislators, envisioned by the Founders to be the primary creators of law, become gridlocked, inviting rule by bureaucratic agencies and the courts.
By profiting from fostering extreme partisanship the political class ensures that solutions amenable to majorities of Americans never get a hearing. Policymakers cater to the desires of partisans and ideologues. The framing suits the ideologues peddling the culture war. The more heated the ideological divide the more heroic the ideological politician becomes. So long as hyperbole dominates our political discourse, pragmatism is kept at bay and the desires of party activists get inordinate representation.
Every problem is now cast as a national emergency.
Chapter 10 – The Incredible Shrinking Legislature
The Founders intended that Congress would create the laws and spend the money, but Congress has ceded much of its constitutionally assigned power to an over-active federal bureaucracy. Increasingly the rules governing everyday Americans are crafted, not by our elected representatives, but by unelected bureaucrats. Congress has facilitated this imbalance of power by relieving itself of the responsibility of taking clear stands that might be unpopular with significant groups, leaving interpretation to the federal bureaucracy – the administrative agencies.
Congressmen’s offices used to be staffed with experts in various policy domains important to constituents back home; they replaced those capabilities with communications operations staffed by full-time propagandists. Phalanxes of party aligned nonprofits, campaign bundlers, media operators and other influencers, all helped steer legislators away from what they were elected to do – govern – and ushered them into nonstop fundraising and political theater.
The price of an all-out, nonstop effort to win by framing opponents as enemies of the people is that legislators are unable to govern once they are in office.
Congress is shaped to enable the diverse interests and views of our society to be represented in a way that also enables them to negotiate and bargain, and ultimately to accommodate each other. This is a primary purpose of Congress as an institution – to enable and compel accommodation in a divided society. – Yuval Levin
Congress writes vague laws because otherwise its members cannot agree. This gives federal agencies even greater ability to interpret the laws as they see fit. We have a monumental obstacle to rein in – a federal apparatus that renders American self-government all but impossible – Congress is drastically overmatched by the resources of the administrative agencies.
Chapter 11 – The Imperial City
Qualified immunity is a doctrine manufactured by the Supreme Court in 1982 to shield government officials from lawsuits when they violate citizens’ rights. Executive agency officials are not disinterested parties.
It is important to understand how the machinery of our modern federal bureaucracy works, and the danger it poses to American self-government.
Environmentalist and nearly all single issue activist strategy involves two tactics: nationalization and judicialization.
In one federal government agency after another, officials with strong convictions about how you and I should live our lives have been working their will for decades, amassing layers of rules and directives that the courts treat as if they were congressional laws. For every law passed by Congress, federal agencies issue 27 rules that have the force of law. Often, instead of going to the trouble to issue rules they just offer “guidance” with the implied threat that it is advisable to comply.
This unchartered and relentlessly growing organism has been mangling congressional laws for decades, and as laws passed by a more polarized Congress become necessarily more vague, federal agencies gain even wider latitude to oversee American life. Instead of subjecting the inevitable trade-offs of public policies to open debate, federal officials creatively interpret the laws as they see fit, then labor to produce enough regulatory sediment to prevent the next administration from undoing their work.
It is the federal agencies that are defining who the criminals are. Most troubling is the extent to which federal crimes are established, not by elected representatives, but by federal agencies interpreting congressional laws. By the 1990s there were more than 300,000 regulations that carried criminal penalties.
Federal agencies have birthed a hybrid creature. It combines the powers to make, adjudicate, and enforce the law, and places that vast power in the hands of officials who never have to face American voters and account for their actions. The result is a state within the state – an administrative state within the Constitution’s United States. – Philip Hamburger
The federal government has grown astronomically since the New Deal, rendering its operations too vast for any reasonably sized Congress to oversee, “just 535 members of Congress with about 20,000 staff working to support them, must contend with their counterparts in the executive branch, whose numbers are several orders of magnitude greater and whose permanence and institutional memories tend to be far superior.” – Philip Wallach
Chapter 12 – A Return to the United States
The Constitution lays out a specific – and specifically limited – set of responsibilities assigned to America’s federal government apparatus, with the clear intention that these functions be subject to oversight and approval by the representatives we elect in our home states. The 10th amendment provides that all powers reside – unless specifically granted to federal officials in the body of the Constitution – within the states and the people.
The Founders trusted states over the federal government because state and local officials are closer to the people, who have greater ability to communicate with them and hold them accountable than they do federal officials. As Madison explained: the powers delegated by the Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the state governments are numerous and indefinite.
The necessity of citizen action for American government to work reveals the centrality of two requirements for self-government: freedom and virtue. The first is a condition in which people must live, the second a quality they must possess. Freedom is the absence of external constraint. Virtue entails the presence of internal restraint.
The Founders recognized freedom and virtue as counterbalancing forces in a healthy community. Freedom without virtue leads to license and ruin, when norms and values break down. Absent freedoms like private property and free enterprise, communities remain desperately poor.
Understanding these twin pillars of self-government reveals the ultimate threat the unchecked federal behemoth poses. It undermines productive, cooperative endeavors. It seizes, not only the authority that originally resided in states and communities, but even that reserved for our elected representatives in Congress. This decades long overrunning of freedoms has methodically undermined the virtues essential to a free citizenry, and replaced them with subservience. The softly creeping tyranny of the political class impoverishes life and spirit.
We cannot allow the present level of power to reside in the federal government and still hold it accountable via the mechanisms woven into our Constitution. The American Founders designed the system to keep that kind of power out of the hands of federal politicians and agents, not make them behave nicely once they have grasped it.
The New Civil Liberties Alliance is performing valuable work with lawsuits challenging the power of administrative courts, those dangerous hybrids that undermine law and justice by blending the roles of judge, jury, and executioner. The State Policy Network’s members have been doing critical work restraining the power of the federal government in the states.
Given what the federal behemoth has become, only a nationwide network of watchdogs, policy analysts, independent journalists, and public interest legal teams has a chance of evening the odds. Since the 1990s, state-based research centers, investigative journalists, and litigation groups have been the ones to shine a light on federal incursions into our communities.
A major challenge is how federal agencies bend states and communities to their will with funding that has strings attached. This is the poisoned carrot to complement the big sticks agencies wield against our communities. Federal dollars are suborning one of the most basic functions of local government, which is to protect citizens and preserve order. They are turning states and cities into mere administrative districts of Washington. The choice for independence over dependence is what has to animate us at the state level if we are going to take back from the political class our right of self-government.
The enduring conceit of the political class is – that power should be entrusted instead to people like me.
Chapter 13 – Recovering American Identity
The absence of social capital explains why some communities remain mired in poverty, crime, and social pathology despite truckloads of federal-aid. Societies with ample social capital function better. No matter how well designed the government, the social capital of the society surrounding it will determine whether it is corrupt and abusive, or instead serves people’s needs. The American Founders understood that “a dependence on the people is the primary control on the government.”
Americans now have less trust in the political judgments of their fellow citizens and this undermines our willingness to trust the legitimacy of elections, of government decisions, of democracy itself. This suits the political class just fine. The less citizens participate in and trust the political process, the more our legislatures stay gridlocked, the more power gravitates to Washington, and the more excuses political elites have to make decisions outside the legislative process.
Progressivism protects experts from accountability and brings the common man to heal in the name of democracy and progress.
Unfortunately, the people most interested in building up connections between Americans that are rooted in healthier identities than partisanship also favor the kinds of policies and programs that appeal to progressives.
At best, the leaders of the new progressivism will be veterans from the ranks of America’s big institution do-gooders. Academics, educational specialists, managers from the nonprofit and public- private partnership domain, all of them with the best of intentions. At worst, they will produce presidential commissions on citizenship, US Department of Education directives to revise curriculum, funding from federal agencies and their allies in the foundation and corporate world; every grant aimed at strengthening political allies, weakening enemies, and raising up new cadres of acolytes. Undergirding all this would be the usual efforts to revise what words mean and what therefore may not be said, to redraw boundaries so opponents are beyond the pale.
The last thing we should do is give the political class more power to conjure plans for national unity.
Chapter 14 – A Manual for American Self-Governance
Many large foundations have bankrolled efforts – often in conjunction with federal endeavors – to steamroll communities in pursuit of goals held by the political class.
A key reason agencies have run roughshod over congressional laws is the overwhelming decision-making and information advantages they have built up over Congress. Members of Congress who are serious about reclaiming their traditional oversight and legislative role need to beef up their independent research organizations. Congress has effectively outsourced policymaking to the executive branch and to the thousands of lobbyists who have become the true keepers of expertise and policy know-how in Washington.
Organizations like the Congressional Budget Office, the Government Accountability Office, and the now defunct Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, which used to keep watch over federal incursions on state and local authority, can play a valuable role in counterbalancing reams of data from deceptive federal agencies and ill supported claims from lobbyists and interest groups.
Too much of our education system, driven by exactly the kinds of federal meddling and manipulation that undermined American self-governance in so many other areas, has been bent towards indoctrinating students with left wing ideology and churning out obedient standardized test takers, not interesting individuals capable of logical, civil discourse. Public and charter school engagement should be very different from what administrators want. It means citizens asking a lot of questions about curricula and standards and quality of teaching. The State Policy Network affiliates are nearly all working on education reform, a central focus of the Network across the country – school choice, homeschooling, charters, improved public school curriculum, putting children’s interests over those of teachers unions, government educrats, big tech, the college loan cartel, etc.
Catholic schools outperform public schools primarily because of greater parental involvement.
Copyright @ 2021 by Tony Woodlief