On the “Idea of the Nation”

            While a graduate student I worked at my alma mater’s White Burkett Miller Center of Public Affairs and was privileged to meet and spend several days with the eminent Harvard University political scientist Samuel Beer when he participated in a symposium there. Beer was an expert on British politics and political theory, and even then was a courtly gentleman who had technically just retired from Harvard following a long and distinguished career; he moved on to teach part-time at Dartmouth College and later, at Boston College. He was 97 when he died in 2009.

            When I had an opportunity to spend time with him, Beer was then beginning to embark on an inquiry into U.S. federalism that would result in his magisterial To Make A Nation: The Rediscovery of American Federalism, published by Harvard in 1993, a volume many regard as his magnum opus as well as one of the finest books written on American federalism to date. Beer had been concerned by President Ronald Reagan’s arguments that the states were sovereign in America’s regime and that a nationalist must be a centralizer. Beer argued forcefully when I met him that Reagan’s thesis fit neither American history and constitutional design nor the evolution or practice of the nation’s institutions. He presented his critique of Reagan’s position in To Make A Nation. For all of the subtlety of that text’s historical and political argument, the book essentially demonstrated afresh that America was conceived and created as a nation and that the people collectively, and not the states, exercised sovereignty within it and they should embrace rather than fear that responsibility.

            Nonetheless, while Reagan was wrong historically and empirically, his notion that there is something inherently centralizing about recognizing the primacy of the collective will of the people through its instrument, the national government, remains very much a part of our political dialogue today, particularly for many current GOP supporters. I was reminded of this while reading David Brooks’ column in the New York Times the day after President Barack Obama’s second inaugural address, in which Brooks declared the president’s speech one of the finest of such efforts in American history, but decried its emphasis on the nation as naturally centralizing. Brooks is hardly a shrill ideologue, and yet he, too, appears to imagine that Reagan was correct, at least in his emphasis on national action as always leading to centralization.

            The problem with Brooks’ assumption, as Beer pointed out when examining Reagan’s claims, is that when the American government undertakes responsibilities it rarely does so by creating large national bureaucracies to implement them. Instead, because ours is a federal polity, the nation typically works through the 50 states and as often, thousands of localities, and tolerates the frequently huge discrepancies that result in policy and program outcome as a result of differing state and local government capacities and politics in the name of honoring its populations’ diverse needs. And, ironically, with the ascendance of neo-liberalism in recent decades, pressed in no small measure by the Republican Party, that tendency has been expanded to include complex partnerships for national service delivery not only through states and localities, but also in tandem with nonprofit and for-profit organizations. In short, the idea that because the national government is involved in an activity, it is somehow centralized thereby does not meet any empirical test of how the federal government actually delivers the bulk of its services, or for that matter, has ever delivered its programs.

            But even more problematically, as Beer might note, the sort of assumption Brooks, and before him Reagan, made is tied too often for too many to a misguided assault on the idea of the nation itself. The United States is not governed by its states, though these are vital to the regime and serve as one important service provider and bulwark against the emergence of tyranny within it. Instead, the people collectively ultimately govern the nation and these constitute its only sovereign. The nation is their paramount instrument of will and action. In lieu, however, of seizing this insight and realizing its portent, Brooks, like many before him, appears to imagine that the nation is somehow an “other.” It is not. It is, rather, the only and supreme instrument of the sovereign people who should not seek for other non-existent means to replace it while de-legitimating the nation in the process by dubbing its actions centralizing or worse.

            President Obama vigorously heralded the idea of the nation in his second inaugural address, as have many American statesmen before him: George Washington, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and many more. None of these leaders imagined that the people had to choose amongst the levels of governance they had created in their federal regime, or between their sovereignty and that of a mythical marketplace, convinced somehow that the market was more politically legitimate than their own standing. Rather, these leaders understood deeply that the nation was all that bound so diverse a people together. President Obama seems to understand that fact profoundly as well and he chose to remind Americans of that bedrock characteristic of their polity in his address. Far from calling for a centralized state or for the much dreaded and mythical “socialism” feared by the most strident of the Republican Party faithful today, President Obama was deeply within a quintessentially American tradition and well within the Constitutional structure envisioned by the Founders in his remarks. It is a pity, indeed, to see that misunderstood by even thoughtful opinion leaders in this time of fear and deep polarization.

            Samuel Beer was right: There is no substitute for the people’s willingness to accept responsibility for their governance in our polity and this they must do to address the challenges now confronting them. Seeking to avoid their own accountability and blame their only shared governance instrument—the federal government—for their current pass while continuing to search for additional scapegoats will do little but undermine the regime whose foundation they constitute.

A Personal Note

Today’s column marks the 100th I have authored and so represents a personal milestone for me. I want to thank the many of you who have encouraged me in this adventure, and especially to thank David Moore of the Institute faculty for suggesting I undertake this effort originally; John Dooley, CEO of the Virginia Tech Foundation, for actively fostering my engagement with it; and Anne Khademian, Director of the School of Public and International Affairs and Nancy White, Institute faculty, for their strong support as well. None of them are in any way responsible for my musings, but all have been important to my undertaking and continuing this effort. I thank them and those who weekly take time to read these commentaries for their continuing support and for the privilege this opportunity represents.