There are a lot of people who talk about Jefferson and Jefferson’s philosophy, who don’t have the slightest idea about his vision. His vision of an extended agrarian Republic, comprised mostly of independent yeomen, seems as close and familiar today as the nearest galaxy. Something similar might be said concerning Ronald Reagan, and I suppose it is inevitable that great men and presidents will be misinterpreted or rendered in politically convenient ways. I have personally heard Ronald Reagan on many occasions extol the virtues, as well as the constitutional imperative, of States rights. Yet the most aggressive nationalist and big government advocates now use Ronald Reagan as their patron saint—to endorse big government spending and imperial design! As if the context of Cold War and stagflation and political opposition were identical today. Of course they are not, and it takes some horse sense (in this case, understanding intent and sharing his vision) to enable us to move forward on what Reagan began—or indeed, on what Jefferson accomplished in very different historical context.
Simply stated, Ronald Reagan started to roll back the welfare state and to reassert the sovereignty of States in their proper constitutional orbit. He challenged a century of modern liberalism—from Reconstruction to Progressivism to World Wars, topped off by the New Deal and Great Society. Reagan’s message resonated with the people, because he clearly articulated the vision he—and we—shared with the Founders. His understanding of original intent led him to seek a paring back of the federal government and the restoration of real federalism—the vertical balance of power based on countervailing responsibility in the Constitution, between the States and the Federal Government.
In his draft of the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798, Thomas Jefferson declared, “Free government is founded in jealousy, and not in confidence; it is jealousy, and not confidence which prescribes limited constitutions, to bind down those whom we are obliged to trust with power.” According to professor of law and history David N. Mayer, Jefferson’s strong conviction was that the Constitution had “fixed the limits” of political power. In Jefferson’s view, cumulative accretion of power to the levels wielded by the federal government today was not allowed, at least not without radical amendment of the Constitution. The essence of Jefferson’s theory can be found in his remark, that “In questions of power, then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.” In his day, Jefferson depended on the strong reaction of an informed voting public, to roll back excesses in areas of foreign policy and economy that ultra-Federalists had steered through all three branches of government. Today the dirty little secret, known to pollsters and political hacks, is that there’s hardly an informed voting public around that isn’t lethargic. Even if we argue that apathy is less since the economic conditions worsened after 2008, few Americans are knowledgeable about political issues or even about their own government institutions. Skillful politicians and powerful media interests use polls to play upon the public and to lay the groundwork for so-called direct democracy—“mobocracy,” according to Matthew Robinson in his book about media’s political impact.
What’s happening now is the exact opposite of deliberative democracy. The “eternal vigilance” of the people has come up lacking. Laziness perhaps has enabled our process to become corrupted. So much so, that according to Richard Reeb, Jr., a political science and philosophy professor in California, we have essentially bypassed “limited government, separation of powers, federalism, and [the] economic and religious diversity that made popular government possible for the first time in human history.” Jefferson moved power back to the States, and he also successfully acquired land that outran (for a time) the consolidation of power and centralizing tendency in Washington. Reagan strove for something akin to Jefferson, albeit without a Louisiana Purchase. Reagan gave us the opportunity to take back our rightful Constitutional portion of power, by ending the Cold War and by empowering us economically through tax cuts and decreased regulation. Although he changed political assumptions and gave us a fighting chance, we are not winning in the wake of Reagan the way republicans won in the wake of Jefferson. Today there is a black hole in the American political universe, and Washington threatens to crush us. Tyranny, however well intentioned, must end. States must begin to insist upon their Constitutional prerogative, if we should ever hope to restore the Union. We are no less patriotic or American for saying this, no less committed to the people’s freedom and the Founder’s vision, nor “rebels” for saying we shall ‘pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor’ to achieve this end.