How we think about government matters

Authored by Ray Nothstine

A few years ago, I was flying home from Nashville, Tennessee and immediately something caught my eye as I passed a gate that was in the process of boarding a flight to Atlanta. There was a woman enthusiastically waving a “Jon Ossoff for Senate” sign right next to the ticket agent. How bizarre, I thought. Did she buy a ticket merely to campaign for Ossoff? Is she even a Georgia resident? How many of the passengers are Georgia voters? Is this public cheerleader repelling potential voters or is this an effective method against not taking a chance at leaving just one potential vote on the table?

Whether we like Sen. Ossoff or not, the incident teaches us quite a bit about our contemporary angst over elections and our views about government. The truth is that most Congressional elections shouldn’t matter as much as they do. They probably shouldn’t matter to the extent that one is seen groveling for a preferred candidate in an airport boarding line. Are airport boarding lines no longer safe spaces from political campaigning?

If anybody has spent a decent amount of time on social media, they probably have witnessed the dynamics of strangers yelling at other strangers about election results in states they have never visited or have no connection to at all. Californians getting on Twitter and yelling about Alabamans being “rednecks” for voting for Tommy Tuberville and then the yelling back at Californians for being “libtards.” Maybe we’ve even been guilty of a public political tantrum or two ourselves.

These trends speak to the primacy of national politics and the centralization of even more power in Washington. The stakes get higher and higher, but it’s obvious those entrenched in the system benefit the most from the dysfunction and discord. The media loves it, too. More drama to keep folks plugged into and hooked on the 24/7 news cycle.

There have been so many unheeded warnings on the alarming trend of centralization, but one nearly a century ago stands out. Former president Calvin Coolidge, who often saw himself as a civic educator, warned Americans that it will prove costly if we think of the federal government first when we think about the very term “government.” Coolidge’s primary point is that the centralization of thought and power towards national affairs in D.C. is a threat to the very notion of self-government and an American way of life. He preferred the term “national government.” Of course, historically speaking, “federal” meant the sharing of power between the states and national entities. After all, a “federal” understanding of government means the dispersion of political power.

Calvin Coolidge throwing out baseball at the 1924 World Series. (Library of Congress)

Whether it’s enforced or not, the Tenth Amendment makes it clear that most power is consigned to states and localities. One of the main reasons for this is a simple one: Americans are governed best by the government that is placed closest to them.

In the long run — for a healthier society — getting the proper structures of government right is more important than policy wins.

If we think of the government as a machinery that is best ruled by so-called “experts” from a distant location, we’ll morph into mere serfs. Yet, many individuals clamor it for daily under the banner of security, political tribalism, or an “as long as my team wins” mentality.

Our American inheritance offers us much more than spectator politics or political fandom. Plus, wouldn’t it be nice to have a system that doesn’t require quite as many public spectacles as we are witnessing today?

The American founders set up not only different branches of government but separate and distinct spheres of power sharing. Unfortunately, today, states offer little to no pushback because they are increasingly under the thumb of the national government.

Unfortunately, bribing states for their preferred centralization schemes with printed money carries enormous advantages.

The simple truth is that we desperately need to think of government completely differently than we do now. Nothing will change if that doesn’t change. Thinking of the national government for solutions first is a sure-fire losing proposition for Americans regardless of political preferences.

Former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal gave a speech in Charlotte, North Carolina in 2013 where he noted that “America is not the federal government.” It’s a simple point but lost on those constantly abuzz about the business and brokenness of Washington. How do we fix it? The truth is thinking about self-government requires deemphasizing Washington. The alternative is to remain consigned to fighting over the table scraps thrown to us by narrow visionaries feasting off the perpetual conflict. That path only offers up what centralization has always offered: more dependence, decline, and despotism.

Our new publication exists to push back against the system of incessant centralization that is clearly broken. Recognition of the problem and a return to foundational principles are the first steps forward.

Ray Nothstine is the future of freedom fellow and a senior editor and writer at State Policy Network. He edits American Habits.

Authored by:Ray Nothstine


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