Forgetting Jefferson

The long decline of the decentralist political tradition


Politics on a Human Scale: The American Tradition of Decentralism, by Jeff Taylor, Lexington Books, 581 pages, $54.99

Is America's Jeffersonian decentralist tradition alive, comatose, or irretrievably dead? With Politics on a Human Scale, the Dordt College political scientist Jeff Taylor offers a well-informed, near-encyclopedic examination of when and how America's once-dominant political tradition receded.

Taylor begins by laying out the decentralist's core beliefs: "Power distribution should be as wide as possible. Government functions should be as close to the people as practicable. In this way, individual human beings are not swallowed by a monstrous Leviathan. Persons are not at the mercy of an impersonal bureaucracy led by the faraway few. Decentralism gives us politics on a human scale." The underlying philosophy, he writes, has four key components: democracy, liberty, community, and the affirmation of an underlying morality.

This quadratic package clearly includes more than the libertarian passion for individual freedom. Reconciling democracy and liberty has always been a problem, as Clint Bolick of the Institute for Justice ably showed in his 1993 book Grassroots Tyranny. There is a similar tension between communitarianism, which focuses on mutual obligations within a group, and the individual's liberty to follow his or her own path even if that means disrupting community equilibrium. Traditional morality often parts company with liberty on such issues as gay marriage and abortion.

Taylor's great exemplar of this decentralist tradition is Thomas Jefferson, in whom most of these tensions can be found. The first modern political leaders he focuses on are two late-19th- and early-20th-century figures, one from each major party, who without being libertarians nonetheless defined a "path ultimately not taken by the Progressive Era and the New Deal."

One is William Jennings Bryan, a man widely remembered today as a quaint prairie populist whose most famous moment was his 1896 peroration that "you shall not crucify mankind upon a Cross of Gold." After losing three presidential elections as the Democratic standard bearer, Bryan served two profoundly unsatisfying years as secretary of state while President Woodrow Wilson lured America into World War I. He concluded his career as the tragicomic champion of creationism who was made a laughingstock among sophisticates by his arguments at the 1925 Scopes evolution trial.

Libertarians find little to approve in Bryan, viewing him as a consistent statist who embraced both social and economic interventions. They note his support for the Prohibition and income tax amendments, his demand for "free silver" to inflate the currency, and his lifelong battle to use the government to control corporate and financial influence. That's certainly true—especially the latter part.

But Taylor, who has studied Bryan carefully, notes another side to the Nebraska Democrat. At a time when Jeffersonianism was already starting to lose its grip on the public mind, Taylor writes, "Bryan's concern for the common people—many of whom were relatively poor—did not include using the federal government to solve their poverty problems. He believed in a laissez-faire economy through which industry, thrift, cordiality, and honesty would be naturally rewarded. He objected to governmental favors that artificially interfered with this natural order. That is why he opposed members of 'the privilege-hunting and favor-seeking class' who acquired wealth through exploitation and political favoritism."

Taylor's description of Bryan as a friend of "laissez faire" may perplex readers, but in his basic philosophy Bryan was no socialist. Unlike Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Roosevelt, Bryan really did believe that removing privilege bestowed by wealth-corrupted government would fairly leave the common people free to produce their own economic results according to their character, talents, and initiative.

Bryan's Republican counterpart was Sen. Robert M. "Fighting Bob" La Follette. Elected governor of Wisconsin on his third try in 1900 over the frantic opposition of the state's rail, timber, and banking interests, La Follette fought for party primary elections, for the "scientific" taxation of railroads (based on independently determined economic value rather than political influence), for initiative and referendum, and for worker safety measures, all under the flag of Progressivism. During his Senate years, from 1906 to 1925, he fought for the eight-hour day for workers in interstate commerce, for the Pure Food and Drug Act, for the prohibition of child labor, for women's suffrage, and above all for control of corporate power.

At the same time, he was a harsh critic of much of Wilson's big-government agenda. He opposed the Wall Street–led creation of the Federal Reserve system and was persistently suspicious of regulatory bodies such as the Interstate Commerce Commission and Federal Trade Commission, feeling that they had been captured by the industries they regulated. John Chamberlain, a onetime leftist turned classical liberal intellectual, "counted La Follette as an exception to the progressives who helped to move the nation toward regimented socialism," Taylor writes. The leftist historian Gabriel Kolko, Taylor adds, similarly sees La Follette as "standing apart from many Progressives in favoring competition, not monopoly (private or public)."

Just as important, La Follette was a strong opponent of Wilson's illiberal record on civil liberties and peace. Like Bryan, La Follette opposed Wilson's march toward World War I, so much so that he came close to being expelled by the Senate for his "disloyal" criticism of the war effort. He defended the "plain principle of international law announced by Jefferson" to secure neutrality outside of the Old World's wars. He staunchly opposed conscription, espionage and sedition laws, and Wilson's League of Nations, which he saw as forever embroiling America in transatlantic conflicts, and he endorsed amnesty for conscientious objectors.

In 1924 La Follette ran for president as an independent. The core idea of his platform was the statement that "the equality of opportunity proclaimed by the Declaration of Independence and asserted and defended by Jefferson and Lincoln as the heritage of every American citizen has been displaced by special privilege for the few, wrested from the government of the many." His ticket garnered 4.8 million votes (17 percent) but carried only one state (Wisconsin). La Follette, exhausted, died the following year, as did the equally exhausted Bryan.

The coming of the New Deal was the death knell of the Bryan/La Follette tradition. Franklin Roosevelt came to office wearing the shredded cloak of Democratic veneration for Jefferson, but soon he was wearing something more like the tunic of Mussolini. Joseph Ellis, a left-of-center Jefferson biographer, once wrote that "Roosevelt's appropriation of Jefferson as a New Deal Democrat was one of the most inspired acts of political thievery in American history, since the growth of federal power during the New Deal represented the triumph, in Jeffersonian terms, of 'consolidation' over 'diffusion'"—i.e., decentralism.

The surviving La Follette/Bryan Progressives were not impressed. In An Encore for Reform: The Old Progressives and the New Deal (1967), the historian Otis Graham found that a majority of the figures he examined were at least skeptical of FDR's early corporatist phase, and that many were strongly opposed, sometimes acerbically so. Roosevelt's National Industrial Recovery Administration and its government-enforced cartels were not the sort of reform that either Bryan or La Follette ever had in mind.

By and large, Taylor finds nothing to applaud among the later Democrats, with the possible ambiguous exception of Gov. George Wallace. Taylor rightly castigates the "real and vile bigotry" Wallace fostered in the early 1960s, but leaves the reader with the wistful thought that, with the memory of that bigotry erased—perhaps through a Men In Black–style neuralyzer?—a later post-racial Wallace might have become a towering pro-decentralist figure in national politics.

It isn't a convincing scenario. Wallace criticized much of Washington's big-government meddling, especially when it had a racial component, but he was enthusiastic for big government with respect to the government he was in charge of, spreading around the pork like any southern governor of the time.

A more credible standard-bearer for Jeffersonianism among the post-FDR Democrats would be Fred Harris, an Oklahoma senator from 1965 to 1976, who Taylor mentions only fleetingly. Harris' 1973 book The New Populism condemns not just big business but big government, taking on farm subsidies, wage and price controls, the Interstate Commerce Commission, and the Civil Aeronautics Board. Like La Follette before him, Harris favored antitrust enforcement but had a genuine populist hostility to Washington-centered bureaucratic programs. His book also includes a powerful chapter titled "If a Little Capitalism is Good What's Wrong with a Lot?" that makes a Jeffersonian case for employee ownership and profit-sharing. Harris' national ambitions failed, partly due to some personal problems and partly because the onetime party of Bryan, and especially its financiers, had no interest in nominating an anti-establishment agrarian who had taken up the La Follette flag.

On the Republican side, Taylor approves of Sen. Robert Taft and Sen. Barry Goldwater's limited-government and federalist messages, and he acknowledges that Goldwater opposed the 1964 Civil Rights bill on pure constitutional principle, not racism. After Goldwater's 1964 electoral cataclysm, though, Taylor can find precious little to applaud among Republicans.

One hundred and fourteen pages and 356 footnotes are devoted to cataloging the inconstancy and perfidy of scores of Republicans who at least once, somewhere, sometime, committed an anti-Jeffersonian transgression. The only living Republicans for which Taylor has kind words are the paleoconservative Pat Buchanan, the libertarian Ron Paul, and the Tea Party conservative Jim DeMint.

George H.W. Bush? George W. Bush (who Taylor annoyingly refers to as "Jr." and characterizes as the head of "the Hubert Humphrey Administration that never was")? Rudy Giuliani? Newt Gingrich? Mitt Romney? As Sen. Everett Dirksen once responded to an unlikely legislative proposition, "Ha, ha, ha, and, I might add, ho, ho, ho."

Some of the disqualifying transgressions unearthed by Taylor seem excessively circumstantial. Jack Kemp would seem to be a likely candidate for Taylor's approbation, given his enthusiasm for stimulating economic activity through low-tax enterprise zones, converting public housing to tenant association management, reforming welfare reform through citizen empowerment, and reducing income tax rates to stimulate economic growth. (On the other hand, Kemp's supply-side pitch for tax reduction was aimed at increasing revenue to pay for existing government programs.)

But Taylor argues that Kemp fell away from his early promise, ultimately becoming a Bush bureaucrat and uninspiring running mate to the even less inspiring Bob Dole, famously branded by Newt Gingrich as "tax collector for the welfare state." In fairness, Taylor might have recognized that by 1996 Kemp's star had largely set, and Dole's handlers were vigilant to keep Kemp from upstaging the doomed candidate at the head of the ticket.

Taylor is also dismissive of Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, who he describes as "a consistent supporter of big government and crony capitalism," citing Ryan's support for TARP, No Child Left Behind, the auto bailout, Medicare Part D, raising the debt ceiling, and international interventionism. This is true on all points, but I confess considerable sympathy for Ryan's courageous efforts to steer the country away from the looming fiscal abyss, and his thoughtful support for strengthening civil society.

Taylor is particularly hard on columnist George Will, today perhaps the most respected voice of conservatism among the nation's media. Taylor accuses Will of being "an adherent of conservatism only in the sense of being indebted to an elitist and statist type of conservatism with roots going back to Hamilton and Aristotle." That may be a fair characterization of Will's earlier views, but it ignores the more libertarian positions the pundit has been taking recently.

Taylor's verdict on Will marks a strange contrast with his treatment of the former congressman and OMB director David Stockman, whose recent libertarian-leaning views are stressed and whose earlier wanderings-his support, for example, for former Texas Gov. John Connally's campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 1980-do not attract Taylor's attention. Connally was the protege and chief vote stealer for Lyndon Johnson, the architect of wage and price controls and repeal of the gold standard for Richard Nixon, and an advocate for universal conscription. If Taylor is going to criticize Will because he backed "Scoop" Jackson for president in 1976, surely Stockman's support for Connally is a more egregious sin. Or perhaps neither man should be tarred forever for their early misjudgments.

Ah, but what about Ronald Reagan? In a 44-page chapter with 119 notes, subtitled "Conservatism Co-Opted," Taylor argues that "contrary to conventional wisdom, the Reagan revolution never occurred…because Reagan did not surround himself with revolutionaries." Taylor then goes through chapter and verse of the transgressions against Jeffersonianism of practically all of Reagan's top appointees. (Chief of Staff James Baker, for example, had spent most of the previous decade as a Bush family operative explaining to Republicans that Reagan was wholly unqualified to hold high office.) Taylor offers a long list of the anti-Jeffersonian missteps of the Reagan years: increasing Social Security taxes, exploding the national debt, failing to abolish the Department of Education, failing to repeal draft registration, underwriting guerrilla wars in Central America, and so on.

Taylor concedes that "Reagan was able to keep the party together—social conservatives and economic conservatives, paleoconservatives and neoconservatives, libertarians and moralists, populists and elitists." That was no small achievement, especially when coupled with fatally undermining the Soviet Union and pulling America out of a serious recession. Nonetheless, "Republicans who were promised Reagan's policies and personnel received Bush's instead." The 1980s, Taylor argues, "were closer to Eisenhower and Rockefeller than Taft and Goldwater. For those who desired politics on a more human scale, regardless of their stated ideology, this was a tragic missed opportunity." Amen to that.

Well, then: After eight years of missed opportunity with Reagan, four years of failure under Bush the Elder, eight more under Clinton, another eight under Bush the Younger, and now eight truly execrable years under Obama, is there any scintilla of hope for a revival of Jeffersonian democracy, liberty, community, and morality?

Taylor surveys today's broad political landscape for hopeful signs. His findings are not impressive. Perhaps there is a hidden, fragmented, inarticulate majority out there yearning for another Bryan, La Follette, or Reagan to lead America back on the path of Jeffersonian decentralism. If there is, it hasn't yet found a credible leader.