On Thursday I spoke at a panel at the Federalist Society’s National Convention entitled: Is Everyone for Federalism Now? The title is a backhanded tribute to the President. Finally, he is bringing us together, because he has caused the liberal resistance to Trump to appreciate federalism—a cornerstone of conservative thinking about constitution! But that is actually the shallower reason for the renewed interest in possible cross- ideological agreement on America’s most famous practical contribution to governance. The deeper reason is that a whole new school of law professors has embraced federalism under the new name of “national federalism.” Two of its most distinguished adherents, Heather Gerken and Abbe Gluck, were on this panel.
Count me a skeptic, however, about the prospect of any enduring alliance. To be sure, there may be tactical and opportunistic use of federalism by those who oppose the administration: that is the nature of politics particularly in Washington where for many politicians the meaning of the Constitution changes depending on whether they are in power. And there may be a few actual areas of rapprochement: it is conceivable, for instance, that some liberals may join conservatives in opposing commandeering of state officials.
But in general there will be no intellectual convergence because the right and left’s understanding of federalism—its content, origins and purposes—is very different. The right believes that federalism derives from a text of the Constitution that limits the power of the federal government, giving different responsibilities to federal and state officials. The purpose of this distribution of power is ultimately to protect individual liberty from government.
In contrast, progressives who promote federalism support a federalism that promotes activist government and exists largely at its sufferance—almost the opposite of constitutional federalism.
In an important sense, everyone must be a multiculturalist, because each culture is itself a multiculture. Take the social and political culture of the West. It is famously constituted by a dialogue between two intellectual poles—Athens and Jerusalem—a culture of reason and a culture of faith and tradition. But, of course, the culture of the West is not only a social and political culture but an aesthetic one. And here it is composed in part of all sorts of national cultures that are themselves the products of subcultures within the nation.
All cultures thus are mongrel cultures. A culture is also never static but always in motion propelled by collisions with others. And what emerges from the collisions is the result of millions of choices of individuals over generations who determine how to mix and match what many cultures offer them. At its best what underlies all multicultures is the dynamism of liberty.
Unfortunately, much that goes under the name of multiculturalism today is a multiculturalism of coercion.
One way of understanding American history is as a struggle between consequential Presidents who expand liberty and consequential Presidents who expand the state. On this view, most Presidents are frankly not all that important: their decisions are marginal and many are reversed or substantially modified.
If so, Donald Trump’s victory had an important benefit for liberty, even if he himself is no classical liberal, because it prevented Barack Obama from being a consequential President on the statist side of the ledger.