Mandeville, LA – By the early twenty-first century, Americans had become accustomed to, even took for granted, virtually everything against which George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had warned: gigantic public and private debt, a massive national government, entangling foreign alliances, a standing army, undeclared war in the form of military interventionism, the destruction of American agrarianism, and the list goes on.
Ascension to national legislative, executive, and judicial hegemony of Democrats or Republicans is, from this longer perspective, only ancillary to the larger question of whether power is flowing inexorably toward the national government, or away from it.
What some called a “New World Order,” others an “Imperial America,” had become very nearly the equivalent of the former Soviet Union: a huge, unwieldy, unsustainable, bureaucratic, increasingly totalized state. Given the gigantism of the American state by the beginning of the twenty-first century, one finds it hard to recall that this was not always the case, that indeed, even fifty years before, let alone a hundred and fifty, the American polis was weighted much more toward the local and regional than to the national government. In the course of its history, the very notion of an American confederation had been lost. In what follows, we will explore and seek to recover the revolutionary conservative principle of Jeffersonian American autonomy.
I have elsewhere pointed out that by the early twenty-first century United States, the terms “Left” and “Right,” though used often enough polemically, no longer could be clearly differentiated as regards centralization of state power. Up to the mid-twentieth century, the Old Right conservatives stood in the Jeffersonian tradition that encouraged confederation and local or regional rather than national authority, and opposed, for instance, the New Deal. But already in January of 1952, the outlines of a “New Right” began to appear, when William F. Buckley wrote in Commonweal that “we have to accept Big Government for the duration—for neither an offensive nor defensive war can be waged given our present government skills, except through the instrument of a totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores…. And if they deem Soviet power [or terrorism, or whatever, one might add] a menace to our freedom…they will have to support large armies and air forces, atomic energy, central intelligence, war production boards, and the attendant centralization of power in Washington.” By the early twenty-first century, such a perspective had manifested itself clearly in the second Bush administration, which oversaw a “centralization of power in Washington” like none before.
Given the brief history to which we have alluded here, it is self-evident that while political power is cyclical—Democratic partisan power wanes, and Republican power waxes, or the reverse—one can see a larger pattern in which the national government gathers more and more power to itself. In times of economic distress, like the economic depression of the 1930s, that power accrues to those who propose that the national government can protect citizens economically; and in times of security threats, as in the 2000s, that power accrues to those who propose, once again, that the national government can protect citizens if only more power is given to it. But it is only natural that if power is accrued in one place, it is drawn from another. This is the real and much longer-term cycle of power. Ascension to national legislative, executive, and judicial hegemony of Democrats or Republicans is, from this longer perspective, only ancillary to the larger question of whether power is flowing inexorably toward the national government, or away from it. The course of the twentieth and early twenty-first century shows only the former course of centralization of power. – Arthur J. Versluis, The Revolutionary Conservatism of Jefferson & Small [r]epiublics