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Opinion

Federalism and the Founders

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Beltway Confidential,Opinion,Philip Klein,Federalism,James Madison,Constitution

In my column last week, I noted that the Founders made it intentionally difficult for the federal government to impose sweeping legislation on smaller states, and argued that an abandonment of federalist principles actually helped explain the polarization in Washington. This has provoked a number of responses from liberal critics.

Over at Bloomberg, Jonathan Bernstein took issue with my drawing a distinction between a "pure democracy" and a representative republic. Bernstein insisted the two were effectively synonymous. Because the point was somewhat tangential to my overall argument, in my initial column, I didn't have the room to expand on the distinction, which was a reference to Federalist No. 10, written by James Madison.

In the essay, Madison explained why the new union would be different from a "pure democracy." He observed that in democracies, passions of the majority often overrule the minority. "Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths. Theoretic politicians, who have patronized this species of government, have erroneously supposed that by reducing mankind to a perfect equality in their political rights, they would, at the same time, be perfectly equalized and assimilated in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions."

Madison went on to note that, "The two great points of difference between a democracy and a republic are: first, the delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest; secondly, the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of country, over which the latter may be extended."

He explained, "The effect of the first difference is, on the one hand, to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations."

One might have a good chuckle at his optimism that elected representatives would have such integrity, but his overarching point was that a republic would temper popular passions so they don't trample over the interests of political minorities.

Over at the New York magazine website, Jonathan Chait offered another critique of my column. He argued that Madison and Alexander Hamilton opposed equal representation in the U.S. Senate, the primary check on the power of larger states, and only agreed to it as a compromise.

But it's the U.S. Constitution that represents the ultimate collective byproduct of the the Founders' work, and the end result is what's relevant in discussions about their vision. The parts of the Federalist Papers that I quoted in my column represented attempts by Madison and Hamilton to reassure states that if they agreed to join the union, their interests would be protected under the Constitution's actual design. Whatever system Madison or Hamilton would have preferred if they got their way on everything is less relevant.

My conclusion was that Washington is polarized due to a combination of two factors: 1) States are divided among themselves and 2) The federal government has deviated from the original founding vision by asserting more power over the states. Thus, instead of hashing out most problems on a state-by-state basis, whatever is being debated in Washington has massive ramifications for residents of every state, thus triggering passionate opposition.

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