A Struggling Nation
By: Wayne Brown
There is an old adage that goes something along the lines, “those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.” That is a rather sobering thought unless one does not know history and then it all becomes of little concern. In essence, for those who are not familiar with history, in the USA particularly, every situation we encounter today has nothing to do with the past thus must be addressed as such. A quick stroll back through the historical development of government and infrastructure shows that not to be the case. What it does is further reinforce the basis for why we are a nation that at its center subscribes to the rule of law and adherence to the guiding nature of the Constitution.
From the early beginnings of structured government and a binding union in America, we can see the on-going arguments that bounced back and forth promulgated on the basis of states rights versus the powers of the national government. Political parties evolved and formed along the lines of these beliefs creating a structure of political leanings and beliefs that would continue into the platforms of the major political parties of today. The complex yet simple disagreement as to whether America was a league of sovereign states joined in national union and directed by the constitution, essentially a perspective that puts forth the powers of the state over the national government or whether it was a binding union of states created under the constitution and inseparable in nature, basically the polar opposite perspective, citing the national government as the dominant element in the structure. Those subscribing to either approach were stubborn and emotionally staunch in their position thus creating a philosophical division within the country that would continue under various guises of debate right up to the present day in America.
Over time, from the days of the founding fathers up to the fighting of the Civil War, these philosophical issues would drive conflict within American politics. These issues were driven on both sides of the aisle by a multitude of factors. Pride, greed, economic advantage, control of commerce, interstate regulation were just a small sampling of the influences that came into play as each side in this on-going debate gained, lost, and regained ground throughout the many decades. Ultimately, the Civil War would become the battleground for the many of the issues driving the debate. The Civil War and its outcome would tilt the scale in the direction of a national government influence that would hold forth in time.
The Civil War is generally considered by most people to be a conflict that occurred due to the practice of slavery in the heavily agricultural south. While slavery was a pivotal issue, it does not represent the full picture. The more accurate picture would throw the issue of slavery on the backdrop of the age old on-going arguments cited earlier. On the basis of the election to allow slavery, did a given state have the right to secede from the union. One faction, those who subscribed to the strong states rights perspective, said ‘yes’. On the other side, there was a resounding ‘no’ based on the perspective that the union was inseparable. The issue of slavery became an inflammatory element that only raised the flames of this old disagreement.
Some have yet heard but the Civil War ended in 1865 and there seems to be an opinion that the North won. With that outcome, the position of the states rights argument was shifted more toward the minority. The federal government began a process of inserting itself into numerous aspects of what had previously been state and local government functions. It was the “Carpetbagger Era” in our history as the national government extended its long arm into the regaining control of the Union. While many on both sides of the aisle might tend to agree that this was an essential and necessary step in regaining unity after the war, it was a step which would hold forth for overshadowing powers of the federal government that lace themselves into current day conflict.
As the turn of the century occurred and America rolled into the industrialized era of the early 1900’s new aspects would arise that further weighted the argument in the direction of national government controls. Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt’s time in office set forth what he referred to as an “Era Of New Nationalism” in America. Roosevelt expounded the theory that states rights and an emphasis toward state government was basically gumming up the works in terms of the national government acting as a facilitator and provider for the people of the nation. In his mind, the federal government and specifically the Office of The President, the executive branch, was the steward of the public welfare.
Woodrow Wilson continued to follow Roosevelt’s path of national government dominance. Some credit Wilson with being the driving force behind removing the federal government from the yoke as servant of the states. Beyond Wilson, this path continued as Franklin Roosevelt took the office in 1933 with his Politics of The New Deal. With the aftermath of the Great Depression as his lever, Roosevelt argued that a national government was the most effective tool in addressing domestic issues which many states found themselves woefully inadequate to overcome. Weak financial institutions, the lack of monetary exchange, unacceptable levels of unemployment all fueled the argument for an intervening federal government into domestic affairs. Work Programs created jobs around infrastructural improvements with the payroll coming from the coffers of the government. Roosevelt would bring the country out of depression by spending funds that the federal government did not actually have in hand. Roosevelt would start the wheels turning on a process that would in the long term plant the seeds of what stands today as the national debt. Here again, many on both sides of the aisle would argue in favor of his methods as there were few workable alternatives at the time that appeared to have any impact in bringing the country out of depression. Along with achieving that step, Roosevelt’s actions would also further cement the position of the federal government in the domestic affairs of the American public. The implementation of a Social Security social welfare plan guaranteed that presence would remain well into the foreseeable future.
World War II further raised the dominance of the federal government in the lives of the American people. With victory achieved, the intrusion of the government into domestic issues did not seem of much public concern. America of the 1950’s was getting its industrial legs and expanding in all directions. Although the struggle between the issues of states rights and national intrusion continued, it did so mostly beneath the surface and was far less apparent to the average citizen who was enjoying the spoils of a prosperous country. These arguments seemed more or less put away until the 1960’s when America entered a period of social turmoil and came under the ideology of Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society. Johnson foresaw a personal legacy for himself as a President who cared for the welfare of all citizens and he willingly inserted the power of the federal government into domestic affairs to assure that the legacy would shift from a dream to a reality. With civil rights as the backdrop, Johnson created more and more federally funded programs designed to act on the local level to reinforce or subordinate existing programs. Federal funding became a “dope” of sorts to financially strapped states who were struggling with the growth of infrastructures necessary to accommodate the needs of the baby boomer generation exploding into adulthood. This dependency would take root and hold into the future and time and again become the deciding factor that tilted the scale nationally in disputes of states rights. Johnson also took steps to eliminate the silver that back our currency and signed legislation allowing funds collected for Social Security to be placed into the general fund and used at will by the federal government. The Johnson Era essentially also set in motion the steady growth of a national government that has continued on that path through the decades of the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s and beyond.
America of today is still mired in controversy and possibly may sit overlooking a division between factions of citizenry within the country that is wider and more inflamed than at any other time in history. Some point to a variety of issues as the propellant that drives these flames. But those who have looked at history are able to still recognize the problem as a familiar one. Today, we are faced with an extremely controversial healthcare issue, which, many would argue, goes against the will of the majority of the people that make up America. That conclusion may well be true; only time will tell, if there indeed is sufficient time left. One thing for sure is apparent, when you peel back this onion into its many layers you will find the all too familiar argument of states rights versus national government dominance as the backdrop and essentially the root cause. If that is not clear to you, maybe you can remember a recent news making event, when Rick Perry, the current Governor of the Great State of Texas, rejected federal funds associated with certain aspects of the federally funded bailout program designed by the Obama Administration. In rejecting the funds, Governor Perry cited articles of our history that extend all the way back to our founding fathers. He cited ‘States Rights’ as the basis for the rejection. Those who have studied history feel he has a pretty strong argument on his side.
We live in a time far beyond the Revolution. Every aspect of life has changed and mostly for the better. Given that fact, as a nation, we are still very much entrenched in the original arguments that haunted the founding fathers of this country. We must recognize that argument for what it is and address the struggle as such. History is repeating itself as we watch.