SAN DIEGO, Calif. - As you no doubt noticed, some of the reporters covering the Republican National Convention here were so bored they wanted to go home.
Indeed, one of
them did. Ted Koppel of ABC's Nightline imperiously announced he
was leaving before the party ended.
Ted missed a
good story. Come to think of it, he missed a bunch of good stories.
You put a good political reporter in with a few thousand campaign
workers, local activists and candidates, and she or he can find a
good story. That probably explains why the griping did not come
from the political reporters; it came from the TV "personalities."
But in this case, it wasn't just that something
happened. Something quite important happened. It took place without
debate, so it was easy to miss and tough to televise, but that
renders it no less significant - to the politics of the future, to
the country, and perhaps especially to the West.
What happened, quite simply, is that the Republican Party completed
one of the great reversals in American political history. At their
36th convention, the Republicans ceased to be what they were when
they began. Instead, the Republicans switched places with the
The Republicans were once the
nationalist party. They started life in the 1850s by rejecting the
idea of "popular (meaning local) sovereignty," insisting on one
nationwide standard for the extension of slavery into the
territories. In their first years of great power they unified the
nation by subsidizing the railroads and other public improvements.
Yes, in pursuing these policies, the Republicans also had a pettier
motive - making their friends rich. But in the process, they forged
a national community.
It was under Republican
administrations, starting with that of the greatest nationalist of
all, Abraham Lincoln, that the United States established land-grant
universities, created the national park system and built the
interstate highways. It was under Richard Nixon, the last
nationalist Republican president, that the country adopted national
standards for cleaning the air and water.
week the Republicans became what the Democrats used to be - the
states' rights party. In their platform, the Republicans declared
that their "agenda for change, profound and permanent change in the
way government behaves, is based on the 10th Amendment to the
The 10th is the one which states
that any powers not granted to the federal government are retained
by the states and the people. For good reason - the U.S. Supreme
Court called the amendment "a tautology" in 1939 - the 10th has
been largely ignored. Even James Madison, who wrote the amendment
as a sop to the anti-federalists, thought it unnecessary. True,
Thomas Jefferson took it seriously. But only until he became
president. Then he found a way around it. Otherwise, he could not
have arranged that little land deal in which the United States
acquired most of itself.
Since the Civil War,
and especially during the 20th century, the 10th Amendment has been
cited almost exclusively by Southern states' rights advocates to
protect their beloved tradition of racial inequality. No one who
heard Bob Dole's acceptance speech, which told bigots that "the
exits, which are clearly marked, are for you to walk out of," could
reasonably accuse the GOP of racism. The modern revival of the 10th
is more complicated.
There is some abstract
legal philosophy at work - the "original intent" legal philosophy
propounded by former Attorney General Ed Meese and by Associate
Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas - but there is also the
new political philosophy of the Republican party, or at least of
its most vigorous faction. It is a philosophy that denies there is
or ought to be a national community.
consider how profoundly this Republican Congress differed with the
view of that last nationalist Republican president. Richard Nixon
imposed a nationwide speed limit and proposed welfare reform based
on a nationwide minimum family income. Now we have state-by-state
limits and block grants.
Among the champions of
this new outlook - balkanizing or liberating or both, depending on
one's view - are Western mining, ranching, real estate and logging
interests who are convinced that the states would impose fewer
environmental restrictions on development. It was at their behest
that Dole started carrying a copy of the 10th Amendment around with
him last year, quoting it and pledging that under a Dole
administration, the federal government would do only what the
Constitution specifically authorized it to do.
Taken literally, this would be political suicide. In a stroke, it
would require doing away with Social Security, flood control and
farm price supports. But it isn't meant to be taken literally. In a
sense it isn't even meant to be taken seriously; otherwise the
Republicans would show just a touch of consistency in how they
propose to reduce the size and reach of the federal government.
Among the party's contradictions, they want to get rid of the
Department of Housing and Urban Development but not the Army Corps
of Engineers, which dredged the harbor here where some of the
delegates docked their yachts.
Dole is not about
to dismantle the federal government: "In a time of need, the bridge
between failure and success can be the government itself," he said,
pledging to preserve Social Security and Medicare. But in 56
minutes, he never mentioned either natural resources or environment
protection, and there is little doubt that on these issues, at
least, he has aligned himself with the states' rights faction which
now dominates his party.
Like its predecessor,
this states' right movement is regional. It has almost no support
in the Northeast and only a bit in the Midwest. It is stronger in
the South, but strongest of all in the West, where some people see
themselves and their region rather the way Southerners did 40 and
50 years ago.
One can easily take this analogy
too far; the worst ecological outrage is hardly on a par with the
systematic subjugation of a people. If the militias are the rough
equivalent of the Ku Klux Klan, they have so far (Oklahoma City
aside) provided more silliness than terror.
Still, the psychological similarities are unmistakable. There is
the same resentment of being condescended to by wealthier and
better-educated people, the same conviction that "outsiders'
(especially those who come to live among you) don't understand your
"way of life," the same regional pride which too easily degenerates
into a whiny paranoia.
Above all, there is the
same sense of being a people apart, almost like being an ethnic
group, almost like being ... well, another country, not part of any
national community that includes Maine, New Jersey and
Even those of us who get nostalgic about
the American national community have to acknowledge that the
states' rights crowd has an argument. Justice Louis D. Brandeis
once called the states "centers of experimentation," and even today
states such as Hawaii, Oregon and Vermont are crafting solutions to
the health insurance problem that may be well suited to their
situations. In a varied, heterogeneous society, the single solution
may have its drawbacks.
Still, it was a wise man
who warned that when office-holders engage in abstract political
philosophy, one ought to hold on to one's wallet. Behind every
proposed change in procedure, there are substantive winners and
losers. Whatever the intellectual and historical bona fides, strict
adherence to the 10th Amendment would make some folks very rich at
the expense of other people, or nature, or both.
Besides, while it lasted, the United States of America wasn't a bad
idea at all.
reports on national politics for High Country