Federalism and American Identity | Alan Tarr
Articles,  Blog

Federalism and American Identity | Alan Tarr


Good Morning. First of all it’s a pleasure to be here
and to have a chance to meet with other federalism scholars and students
interested in federalism. Otherwise presumably you wouldn’t be here. My approach is going to be very different. The focus of my talk is on political identity and federalism. At
ten years after Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of
Independence, he wrote a short book called “Notes on Virginia” and what’s striking
about the book is that refers in the book Virginia as his country. His sentiment
there is actually a sentiment which was widespread at the time of the American
Founding. People identified closely with their particular state. Federalism was
not a choice for the founders. It was a given situation. People are connected
with there states primarily and so the system of government that was created
had to be a federal system. Move forward about eighty years to the outbreak of the
Civil War. Robert E. Lee, former commandant of West Point, was
offered command of the Union armies he turned down the offer. Instead he resigned
and fought for his state. Probably against many of the people whom he had educated at West Point. At the same time Justice John Campbell of Alabama resigned from the USS Supreme Court. He went back to his native state of Alabama and became
secretary of war the Confederacy. These examples are really pretty hard to
contemplate today because it’s hard to imagine anybody today acting in the way
that Campbell and Lee or in speaking in the terms that Jefferson did. There has been a
shift, I would argue, a dramatic shift in a way that you and I as Americans
identify ourselves politically. Our main loyalty now is overwhelmingly to the
United States. In the talks today, what I want to talk about is how that shift
occurred and what implications that shift has, if it has any, for American
federalism. We have a sense that there is a connection between one’s political
identity and federalism. A famed federalism
scholar, William Ryker, once wrote, if citizens when asked their citizen
identity reply I’m an American to the exclusion of I am of Hoosier or I am a
Texan, the scene is set for centralization. If they reply I am a Virginian or I am a Buckeye, it is difficult to imagine much centralization occuring. Let me begin by talking about the factors that might
produce a sense of political identity. Those who write on the subject have suggested three possibilities. Strong group loyalties within a population may
encourage creation of political institutions to accommodate those loyalies. One sees this, for example, most recently in the move toward a more
decentralized system in Great Britain. This in turn, this creation of
these political institutions, may promote the formation of a people’s
political identity. Let’s look at this more concretely. Suppose you have distinct groups in a
society that are concentrated geographically as you see Quebecois in
Canada, as you see Catalons in Spain. You might want to establish a federal system to accommodate this diversity. In doing so you are giving these ethnic or
religious or language groups the opportunity for political as well as
cultural expression of their identity. You hope in doing so, that this accommodation will serve to bind them to the country. In the eighteen thirties
Alexis De Tocqueville wrote a famous book called “Democracy in America” and refer to American patriotism as the, “summation of provincial patriotisms.” The link
between connection to a smaller unit leads to a connection to the larger unit as well. A second possibility, shared history in a
particular place may producing in the people a sense of political identity.
This may be particularly likely to occur if people has experienced a existence as
an independent political society before Confederation. This was true, for example,
in the colonies before we created the national government. If was true in
Scotland before you have the creation of the United Kingdom. A final possibility, a
final factor, political identity may be created by a
government that serves the people well. Iva Duchacek writer on
federalism wrote, “gratitude for benefits received and the expectation of more to
come constitute our foundation of political
loyalty.” Well how have these played out in the United States? Let me begin with
the last idea. The one that when sense of political identity and attachment is
connected to the benefits one receives from
government. In Federalist number seventeen, Alexander Hamilton claims that the state
governments, by serving the day-to-day needs of Americans, would be more likely
to earn their trust and their allegiance. The primary political identity would be
state. One might question knowing Hamilton’s politics, whether he really
meant what he said or whether this was merely an argument to secure adoption of
the Constitution. Whatever the case may be, the argument that Hamilton made rests
on a particular division of responsibilities between nation and state.
One involving active state governments and a federal government concerned
only with matters relatively distant from the lives of
citizens. This no longer exists. The situation no longer exist if ever it
did. In addition, in that same paper Hamilton says that citizens will most
closely identified with the level of government that was better administered.
Here understood as that which provides more benefits. Hamilton fully expected
that the federal government would be better administered because it was
better design that the state governments and because it would attract the most
talented the most ambitious individuals within the country. Today we may well be
more skeptical about how well the federal government operates, but because of its
broad scope we tend to look at it, we tend to look to it, anyway when problems arise.
Even problems that are localized. Consider for example where we went after
Katrina. And so the growth of the federal
government has been both the cause and the effect of a diminished state
political identity. Turn to the idea of group loyalties and political identity. The history of the United States is one of increasing demographic diversity. We are, as is often said, a nation of immigrants. Today more than thirteen percent of those people living within
the United States are foreign born. This has not encouraged state oriented political identity, because no stage is defined by race, religion, ethnicity or language.
Closest we got to that was a proposal for deseret, which people may be familiar with. Immigrants have historically dispersed throughout the country. Even today if
immigrants are concentrated in particular states, succeeding generations
tend to go where the jobs are and they may be a variety of places throughout the country. As a
result group identity, which has been strong 1900. According to one author, 488 German language newspapers in the United States, but those group identities have
not translated into political identity and certainly not into state political
identity. Public policy rather has sought to “americanize” those who are
immigrants to inculcate a common national identity and to a considerable
extent has succeeded. This whole idea of a melting pot which
was the prevailing metaphor used suggests that identities, including group
identities, are fluid and not fixed. That has been the experience in the United
States. Turn finally to this idea of shared history in political identity. Few
state residents, I would argue, feel a sense of shared history that might lead to
state political identity. There are a variety of reasons for that. One is
immigration from abroad. Immigrates may feel a connection with America. I want to leave
my home country and go to America. They don’t say I want to leave my home country and
go to West Virginia. So they’re not identity was an individual state and
they do not share the same history as longtime residents of a state. A second
factor is internal migration. Almost two percent of Americans move out of state
each year. According to the Census Bureau forty-one percent of Americans do not
live in the state in which they were born. It’s hard to create a sense of
shared identity and shared state identity when we’re a nation of itinerants. A third
factor is education. Regardless of where you go to school, a common national history is taught and
likewise encourages a common national political identity. It’s not merely the
history that is taught, but it is the history that is experienced. Over time Americans have
had to deal with a variety of crises and wars. From the World Wars, to 9/11, and even earlier. And these events have tended to create a sense of
political identity, because of the sense of a common problem or common endeavor. One might point as an alternative to the south where arguably a distinct culture
did develop. One rooted in common economic interests in slavery and racial
subordination and then the Civil War. Perhaps we could address this in greater
detail in the comments. My simple conclusion today we are overwhelmingly
Americans first and foremost in our political identity, rather than citizens
of the state in which we happen to live. This change in identity, I would argue,
has created a more centralized federalism, but has not led to its demise. If political identity does not keep
federalism alive, what does? And my answer, and here we probably somewhat disagree
michael and I, my answers is the structure and political safeguards for federalism. Let
me elaborate. State officials act to promote the legal fiscal and
administrative interests of their state Visa v. the Federal Government. They seek
to have input in the formulation and administration of national policy and
they are concerned with levels of federal funding that their governments receive and with the conditions placed on the expenditure of those funds. They want to maintain state programs and insofar as they are involved with
federal programs they want flexibility to carry out those
programs ways that accord with their own state circumstances. States pursue these ends
individually. It’s not surprising that every state has an office in Washington
for lobbying purposes and that they work closely with their congressional
delegations. And they pursue them collectively through groups such as the
National Governors Association, the National Conference of State
Legislatures, the Conference of State Chief Justice’s, etc. The actions of
these state officials, whether individually or collectively in these
groups, may not be motivated by a theoretical attachment to federalism. In fact I’m quite sure they are’t. But in
the course of protecting state government interests they are likewise advancing federalism. In Federalist 51 Madison says that ambition must be made to check ambition. He likewise says that those who administer each department, the federal government, must have the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resisting the encroachment of others. Madison talked about in terms of the relations horizontally within the government of highs equally to vertical relations between
nation and state. Despite the demise of state political identity, the World Bank in a
recent study said the United States is still the ninth least centralized state among all nations. So we end up with a sort of ironic conclusion, I think. Citizens of
the various states no longer identify primarily with those state’s. But state
officials, none-the-less, act to ensure that the prerogatives of those states are
respected. In doing so they are typically not responding to public sentiments, but rather they are and securing their own interests. Understood in terms of policy
preferences and the opportunity to act autonomously and exercise power. This
recalls Madison’s concern in Federalist number 51 that quote, “the
interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the
place.” The political identity of the citizen may have shifted over time, but
the political interests of said officeholders have not. So what keeps
American federalism vibrant? And I think is. What keeps it vibrant is the less the sentiments of the people than the interests of those holding power. As
I would suggest the hard-headed founders of the American republic, doubtless expected.
Thank you very much.

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