Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Can Federalism Be the Seat of the Stool?

Writing at Culture11, John has a post that serves as an almost-perfect springboard for my guest-blogging at his usual homepage beginning tomorrow, where I am hoping to put forward some lengthy thoughts about secessionism, federalism, and individual liberty.

Regular readers of mine will be well aware of my argument that the so-called "Three-Legged Stool" of the Republican coalition has become philosophically incoherent to the point that it no longer has a common theme that serves to bind all elements of that traditional stool. For about the last year, I've been arguing that the only logical result was that libertarians no longer have enough in common with Republicans to be part of the Republican Coalition, to the point that the Dem Coalition will eventually be (though is not yet) more palatable to libertarians than the Republicans. Simultaneously, the Republican Party will be better off, electorally, without libertarians because this would allow them to present a more coherent worldview centered on something akin National Greatness Conservatism, which is entirely consistent with two of the three legs of the stool, and which could accommodate fiscally liberal, socially conservative "working class" voters. Various forms of this argument seem to be becoming something of a conventional wisdom within the libertarian blogosphere over the last few weeks.

John, generally speaking, disagrees with this assessment, arguing that even if GOP economic arguments must move slightly to the left towards the Grand New Party arguments of Reihan Salam and Ross Douthat, those arguments are relatively compatible with libertarianism. Underlying his disagreement, I might add, is the assumption that Republican willingness to invade foreign countries will of necessity fade (as long as this does not fade, there is no hope for libertarians to remain or return to the fold). I think this assumption is unlikely to come to pass, but even if it does, the dominance of religious conservatives on the national level is just too much to overcome. At best, I think this leaves libertarians as something of political free agents. And while Salam and Douthat may have good policy proposals palatable to libertarians, those proposals are far too specific to form the "seat" of a diverse political coalition. Instead, they are best seen as a way of bringing new voters into the GOP coalition without altering the coalition's "seat" (whatever that may be).

In any event, John's post today at Culture11 looks at the numerous remaining successful Republican governors and finds a long-overlooked potential "seat": federalism. He argues, correctly, I think, that the relative success of Republican governors does not provide a blueprint for success on the national level, as is the conventional wisdom. Instead, he says, the success (or lack of failure) of Republican governors is much more an endorsement of federalism, noting that Republican governors are extremely diverse from an ideological standpoint. By emphasizing federalism over all else on the national level, the Republican Party can accommodate any number of viewpoints. John then says "Presenting themselves, not as a single-minded party with an inflexible platform and no place for disagreement, but rather as a group that is focused on enabling local governance and a consequent sensitivity to regional particularities, can help Republicans to overcome their internal conflicts without having to throw the dissenters overboard."

I think, insofar as this goes, John is fundamentally right. While federalism as contemplated by the Constitution is far from perfect and too susceptible to local majoritarianism,* the local flexibility it permits can accommodate a diverse number of conceptions of freedom and liberty. The problem, as he acknowledges, is that uniting around federalism would require Republican conservatives "abandoning the attempt to make federal policy decisive on issues like abortion, marriage, drug policy, and euthanasia." For libertarians, of course, this is probably a feature rather than a bug, and I think John does a good job arguing why this would actually be good for social conservatives as well. In this sense, then, John has I think identified a viable "seat" to put the Three-Legged Stool back together. (But see Joe Carter's response, which raises a bunch of issues that I will probably address in my post at Upturned Earth on my proposal for improving federalism).

But after the last eight years of Terry Schiavo, medical marijuana raids, and attempts to prevent assisted suicide laws, I simply don't think federalism is a philosophy around which social conservatives are willing to rally any more....even if it is probably in their best interest in the long-run.

*Much of this can be alleviated through rigorous and expansive enforcement of the 14th Amendment, at least from a libertarian perspective - I don't think social conservatives would be too keen on that solution, though.