12 August 2006

A Historical Note

Several states (e.g., California and New York) have recently begun initiatives to regulate carbon emissions, thereby taking the initiative against global warming that has not been taken up by the industry-beholden Congress. Those of us who grew up during the battles for civil rights do not normally associate state legislatures with progressive vision. Yet, in the early days of the republic...

In 1792, James Madison (“A Candid State of Parties”, National Gazette, Sept. 26, 1792) was worried about the fledgling Republican party. Why, if the Republicans truly represented the interests of the majority - "the mass of people in every part of the union, in every state, and of every occupation" - why didn’t they win every election? Indeed, why couldn't they get their voters to the polls to turn out the rascally Federalists? Turnout in national elections was only 1 in 4 eligible voters, significantly lower than in state or local elections.

John Taylor (A Definition of Parties; or, The Effects of the Paper System Considered, Philadelphia, 1794) blamed the special interests. With the setting up of Hamilton's Bank of the United States, government securities were available not only for commercial activity, but also for speculation. Those who benefited from paper-based schemes were, according to Taylor, exercising undue influence over the Congress, and (by propaganda and patronage) over the electorate.

It's no wonder they're so good at it; they've had 220 years of practice!

Taylor's manuscript was well circulated in Virginia, and impressed such worthies as Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe. They paid particular heed to his recommended solution, which was to encourage the state legislatures to take a more active role in running the country. Of course, that was in a time when state legislatures could exert more control, through the election of senators and the selection of presidential electors.

Nowadays, the linkage is different, but the approach remains sensible. Control of the state legislature means control of redistricting, strong local organization means strong turnout, and so on. Not all politics is local, but the kind we can really have a say in is.

A sidenote: This rumination is rooted in further reading in Sean Wilentz's The Rise of American Democracy. I really like this book.

Another sidenote: This is a cross-posting from 16th Street Forum.


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