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How Barack Obama can Pacify the Ghosts of Anti-Federalism to Advance the Health-care Debate

Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. In the article below he looks at the health-care debate. See his previous OUPblogs here.

As America goes into intensive partisan-battling mode this summer over health-care reform, it may be helpful for President Barack Obama and his advisers to sit back and understand the basis of the rage against their plan. An understanding of the resurrected ghosts of Anti-Federalism in today’s conservative movement may offer him some strategies for bringing the Republicans and Blue-Dog Democrats back to the discussion table.

The rage that is out there among conservatives may seem excessive and irrational to liberals, but it is based on an ancient American quarrel. The differences between the “Birthers” and angry town-hallers and Obama precede the Democratic and Republican parties; they precede the Progressive, the Whig, and the Jeffersonian-Republican Party. They were there from the beginning. For the biggest fault-line in American politics was also the first political debate Americans ever had between themselves. It was the debate between the Federalists and the Anti-federalists about the need for a consolidated federal government with expanded responsibilities.

In 1787 and 1788, Anti-Federalists hurled charges of despotism and tyranny against those who proposed the need for a stronger federal government with expanded responsibilities than was envisioned in the Articles of Confederation. Today, the analogous charges against the neo-Federalist Obama are of fascism and socialism. As Federalists reviled the Anti-federalists for their shameless populism, Obama has likened the angry protests staged by his health-care opponents as mob-like thuggery. Conservatives, in turn, have recoiled at liberal condescension; just as Anti-Federalists fulminated against the Federalist aristocracy.

The Anti-Federalists envisioned a small republic because they could not conceive of their representatives – sent far away into a distant capital and surrounded by the temptations of a metropole – would ably be able to represent their communities. The fear of the beltway and of faceless, remorseless bureaucrats directing the lives and livelihood of honest workers and farmers struck fear into the heart of every true republican (lowercase is advised), as it does the modern conservative. Death-panels weren’t the first Anti-Federalist conspiracy theory.

Today’s “birthers” and “enemies list” conspiracy theories are not new stories in themselves other than the fact that they reveal the visceral distrust conservatives have of Barack Obama, just as many Anti-Federalists turned (Jeffersonian) Republicans accused Alexander Hamilton of illicit connections with the mother country, England. Today’s “Tea Parties” are but the modern conservative articulation that they are, like the Anti-Federalists were, the true bearers of the “spirit of ’76.’”

As Cecilia Kenyon observed decades ago, the Anti-Federalists were “men of little faith.” This characterization is both accurate and one-sided at the same time, so it is no surprise that contemporary Democrats have taken the same line of attack, calling Republicans the “party of ‘No.’” The Anti-Federalists, like today’s conservatives, cannot bring themselves to trust the federal government or Barack Obama. Conservatives are using “scare tactics” because they are scared.

But their fears are not entirely unfounded and certainly not illegitimate, because a measure of distrust of government is the first defense against tyranny and the first implement of liberty. Liberals who have been so quick to trust the federal government should not only have a look at Medicare and Social Security, but acknowledge the mere fact that with one half of the country unconvinced (legitimately or not), the country’s faith in its government has been and will almost always be a house divided. This is a given fact of a federal republic; it is the blessed curse that is America. That is why in all areas in which there is concurrent federal and state responsibility – such as in education and immigration policy – lines of authority and execution are invariably confused and American lags behind almost every other industrialized country. In areas in which federal prerogative is clear and settled – that is to say in areas in which the federal government acts like any other non-federal, centralized government in the world – such as in foreign policy, the president can typically act very quickly (if not too quickly).

The conservative grassroots movement (staged or not) is a real threat to Obama’s health-care plan. But if the movement doth protest too much, it should ironically also be a source of comfort to the president. That there is so much anxiety and push back suggests that conservatives feel genuinely threatened. With Democratic control of all branches of government (and the open possibility of passing the health-care bill via the reconciliation process which will only need a simple majority in the Senate), conservatives believe that the liberals can transform their America into something their parents and grandparents would no longer recognize.

Here then, is the lesson to be learned. If the president wants to get anything done – he must strike at the heart of the problem: it is one of a fundamental, thorough-going(dis)trust. Barack Obama must convince Republican and Blue-Dog dissenters that he is one of them. Bowing before foreign Sultans and mouthing off about racial profiling did not endear him to conservatives, who only want to feel assured that the president is for them, not against them. These are minor gestures, which is why it won’t be tremendously costly for the president to present them as a peace offering. And calling protesters to his health-care plan a “mob” is definitely not a peace offering. It invokes the very perception of condescension the Anti-Federalists felt in 1787, reinforcing the ancient and original “us” versus “them.” To unite the county, he must transcend not only party, but ideology, and history itself. Barack Obama must break the legacy and transcend the language of our 222-year-old, bimodal politics. Quite simply, he must convince conservatives that he too can feel, and talk, and protest, and hurt, and fear, and agitate like a latter-day Anti-Federalist; and he is no less intelligent, no less rational, no less compassionate, no less constructive,  and certainly no less American for trying to do so.

Recent Comments

  1. Mike Roufa

    I’d love to think that the agitators at town hall meetings are free-thinking anti-federalists too. That’s a nice pet theory.
    Sadly, I’m far more inclined to believe that we’re surrounded by thoughtless automatons who readily assimilate Fox News and talk radio talking points. These people are mad that their “team” is losing and are determined to thwart ANY change that is unsupported by their brain trust.
    The same people who whole-heartedly supported federalism in the form of the Iraq war debacle are now against it in the form of universal health care. Yet they were also against action in Kosovo during Clinton’s administration. This is about conservative xenophobia and impotence, not about policy.
    Go Wes!
    Mike

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