This essay is part of a RealClearPolicy series centered on the American Project, an initiative of the Pepperdine School of Public Policy. The project looks to the country’s founding principles to respond to our current cultural and political upheaval.
What is a political community? This seemingly abstract question has become perhaps the practical problem for our politics today. With the rise of globalization, identity politics, and nationalist populism, it is increasingly clear that any successful politics must be capable of articulating a plausible conception of political community — by virtue of which a wide array of otherwise distinct individuals might nevertheless be said to belong.
According to Aristotle, every community “is established for the sake of some good.” This is because “everyone does everything for the sake of what they believe to be good,” though they of course can be wrong about what “the good” is. It follows that a political community must also be established for the sake of some good. But what? Aristotle’s answer is human flourishing — happiness or the “good life” — just as it is for each individual.
Like Plato, Aristotle believed that such a community must be large enough to be self-sufficient, but must nevertheless remain relatively small. This was partly for practical reasons, since it is difficult to govern a city-state effectively if it has a “swollen population.” Moreover, to administer justice and to “distribute the offices according to merit” require that the citizens “know each other’s personal characters,” which is only possible in a small community. Then there is the difficulty, which especially preoccupied modern philosophers, that we do not all agree on what constitutes the good life, and these disagreements only multiply with size.
For such reasons, as Ryan Streeter points out, political philosophers throughout history have tended to agree with Aristotle that “the size of a polity matters” and that, typically, smaller is better.
One of the central innovations of the American political system is to flip this reasoning on its head in what James Madison called the “extended republic.” Here the political community is conceived of as an ensemble of distinct, smaller communities, which may disagree about how best to pursue the good life. Such a republic is thus a kind of second-order political community, which can tolerate a high degree of difference and competition between rival interests. This solves Aristotle’s practical problem by maintaining a dual system in which power is centralized within the federal government and, at the same time, dispersed throughout state and local governments. And it solves the problem of conflicting accounts of the good by ensuring that all communities, not just the majority, have a voice in this system.
For this to work, the power to govern must be delegated to elected officials — at both the state and national levels — who represent the citizenry. This is in contrast to ancient republics in which the citizens participated directly in government. Thus, while the inhabitants of Madison’s “extended republic” are citizens, not subjects, most of them are excluded “most of the time…from direct self-government,” as William A. Galston writes. And herein lies another key innovation of the American system: This “exclusion … opens up a large sphere of noncivic life — economic, social, cultural, religious — which citizens expect to conduct on their own terms.” As Tocquevile saw, the American political system works precisely because of the institutions of civil society that thrive within this sphere, and which mediate between the individual and state. Aristotle’s vision of a political community may be possible, then, but within a broader political community that includes within it a “variety of moral subcultures suited to enabling citizens to flourish together,” as Yuval Levin puts it.
Madison defended the idea of the extended republic because the United States was in its early days already relatively large and heterogeneous. One might imagine, then, that as our country has grown in both size and complexity, the Madisonian principle would have assumed only greater force.
But the opposite has happened. As our country has grown in size and complexity, so too have the problems it faces and, in turn, the temptation to seek centralized solutions to these problems. On one level, this makes good sense. Some problems require large-scale solutions of a sort that only the federal government can provide. But on another level, it is paradoxical since it is more and more challenging to agree on — much less enact — national solutions to such problems as a country becomes larger and more diverse.
This helps explain the rise in the 20th century of the so-called administrative state — that vast conglomeration of administrative agencies empowered to create and enforce law through regulation and rule-making. This arrangement was envisioned by some of its earliest advocates as insulating governance from the inefficiency of democratic politics and from Congress in particular. By transferring lawmaking power from Congress to executive agencies, the federal government would be able to act swiftly, decisively, and effectively to address the urgent and complex problems facing the modern nation-state.
Among the effects of this transformation was to centralize political power within a bureaucratic apparatus that would grow to assume the functions once reserved to the states and the institutions of civil society. This weakened the relative power of both states and local communities — as well as Congress itself — thus generating more demand for a strong central power to pick up the slack. But while many conservatives see here the rise of “Big Government” against individual liberty, Tocqueville saw already in the 1830s a much subtler logic at work.
According to him, individualism and statism are two apparently opposing but in fact mutually reinforcing sides of the same coin. Why? Individualism promotes radical autonomy — freedom from the constraints imposed by the family and community. Thus “liberated” from the institutions of civil society, the individual stands alone and alienated from his fellow citizens. Under these conditions, Tocqueville predicted, the individual will look more and more to a centralized power for protection. In a democracy, tyranny would not be imposed from without but demanded from within.
In recent decades, the rise of the administrative state, in particular, and the centralization of power, in general, have been themes on the American Right. But, of course, these tensions — between the state and the individual, on the one hand, and the federal government and state and local governments, on the other — date back to debates about the ratification of the Constitution itself. And these tensions have persisted from the rivalry between the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans up through the Civil War, the New Deal, Civil Rights, the Great Society, and into our own era. Conservatives, who had cheered Ronald Reagan’s promise to “get government off our backs,” decried Barack Obama’s use of executive power to effectuate domestic policy. Today, Trump’s unexpected victory and the rise of nationalist populism across the West have awoken contemporary progressives to the dangers of centralized power.
No surprise, then, that we have lately witnessed a resurgent interest in federalism and localism on both the Right and Left. But while these are welcome developments — both in themselves and for any potential they offer for a future political realignment — they are not, by themselves, sufficient to counter the forces Tocqueville described. Our political moment demands that we affirm both poles of the Madisonian republic: the devolution of power to the lowest competent authority as well as a national identity consonant with a constitutionally limited federal government. There are three reasons for this.
The first is that to reinvigorate civil society we must not only reinvest in state and local governments and communities but also transfer power back to the political institutions of our government, including the federal government. To do that will require Congress not just provide better oversight of administrative agencies but reassert its authority as the first branch of government, empowered by the Constitution to legislate on behalf of the people. This is no small task, not least because it is not at all clear that Congress wants to assume the risks that come with governance. Still, such a transfer of power is necessary to re-politicize the process of lawmaking.
The second reason is also practical. It is not enough for state and local governments to go about their businesses or to “resist” federal policies. A coherent federalism or localism requires a well-functioning federal government, which cooperates with and incentivizes states and local governments and communities to act as the “laboratories of democracy,” in Louis Brandeis’s over-used formulation. It is worth pointing out that we do not, as a country, agree on what policies should and should not be dealt with at the federal versus the state or local level. Public debate is needed on the purpose and goals of government at all levels. But Congress is the nation’s preeminent deliberative body; it is within its chambers that such disagreements and competing interests should be heard.
To accomplish any of this, Congress would have to unlearn the bad legislative habits it has acquired over the course over more than half a century. And the American people, in turn, would have to relearn how to evaluate Congress’s successes and failures. The public is right to hold Congress in low esteem these days. But Congress’s achievements, such as they are, should not be evaluated according to the technocratic criteria of efficiency and effectiveness. The parties disagree fundamentally on a host of issues, as do many of the members within each party, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding. The American people would likely hold Congress in higher regard if they thought their representatives at least made an effort to tackle the hard problems — those issues, such as immigration, where there is little agreement between or within the parties — knowing full well that no one group will get everything it wants.
This line of argumentation may be awkward for some conservative opponents of “Big Government” since it requires making the positive case for Congress — including increasing its capacity to conduct oversight and to govern more effectively. Here a distinction drawn by Sen. Ben Sasse is helpful. “Small government” is not the same thing as “limited government.” The former is a question of what policies to adopt — lower taxes, cut spending, reduce regulations, etc. — whereas the latter is a question of how to implement policies, how to govern. Most on the Left and Right can and should advocate constitutionally limited government as the forum within which to deliberate about what policies are best for the country.
This brings us to the third, more philosophical, reason. The underlying problem with our politics today is not big versus small government but loneliness. Stripped of relational commitments and obligations and the associations and communities that once sustained them, we increasingly see ourselves as (and increasingly are) isolated individuals, rather than citizens of a common polity. The ascendant political movements of our day — identity politics, socialism, nationalism — all recognize and respond to this state of affairs, albeit in different ways.
Politics abhors a vacuum, and lacking the intermediary institutions that provide the context for our diverse projects and goals, dangerous particularisms and ersatz forms of community — what Ryan Streeter has called the “politics of abstraction” — step in to fill the breach. What is needed now, as a supplement to and support for a renewed localism, is a concept of citizenship that can offer what these other political movements can’t: a genuinely common ground for individuals living in diverse communities embedded within a large and variegated society. Such was precisely Madison’s republican vision.
M. Anthony Mills is editor of the American Project and associate vice president of policy at the R Street Institute. He is the former managing editor of RealClear Media Group.