Federalism and Crisis Government


No emergency, real or imagined, is so immediate that we should place our rights and liberties at risk.

The 20th Century can easily be called a century of change when it comes to the relationship ordinary citizens have with their government.  Nearly every decade was faced with unique and paradigm shifting programs and agendas which changed the nature of American governance.  Teddy Roosevelt’s New Nationalism, Woodrow Wilson’s War Socialism, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, and Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty stand out as prime examples of this trend.  The trend continued into the 21st century, most visible in George W. Bush’s Patriot Act, Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, and now President Trump’s Trade War and push for the Wall.

All of the above examples have one thing common.  They are all executive responses to “immediate emergencies.”  Each instance pushed the office of the Presidency a little more beyond the constraints of the US Constitution and lessened the authority of the other branches of the federal government (and of state and local governments).  In each example, the other branches of government were either deemed too slow in their deliberations, too unwilling to take the necessary steps to solve the crisis, or simply surrendered authority by request of the President by nature of the ease in doing so. 

This article is not a discussion whether of any or all of the aforementioned policies are ultimately right or wrong or whether the given emergencies were real or imagined.  This article is a word of warning to everyone of all political persuasions that no matter the crisis which happens to animate our anxieties, we must remember to cherish our constitutional process.  We must hold sacred the finely tuned checks and balances of federalism.  The rights and liberties we are afforded in this country are only as strong as the form of government we have in place that protects those rights and liberties.  Given how rare our level of freedom is in the history of the world, and even across the modern world, we should not be so quick to place that freedom at jeopardy.

The idea of the imperial presidency is nothing new.  There are many, both on the left and on the right, who decry the expanded use of power by the President when an opponent holds the office.  Unfortunately, too few possess the requisite self-awareness to consider which actions might be a furthering of executive abuse when an ally holds the office.  This is often due to the nature of crisis government

Those familiar with the book 1984 might recall the idea that a government in constant crisis is able to better justify autocratic control over its people, who feel they must submit to added abuses in order to remain safe amidst the crisis.  While 1984 is an extreme example, the pattern nevertheless remains true with “emergencies” to which most modern Presidents have reacted.   Those on the Left respond in outrage to the abuses of a Republican president and yet cheer the abuses of a Democraticpresident.  Those on the Right rage at the overreaching actions of a Democratic president and yet excuse away the abuses of a Republican president.  Is this simply a manifestation of hypocrisy?  Not quite. 

It all comes down to crisis and emergency.  The Left is often concerned with climate change, poverty, and healthcare.  The Right, most recently, has largely been concerned with global terrorism, immigration, and globalization.  Go down the list of the examples provided earlier, you might find that most of them fall into these listed “emergencies”.  A Democrat who sees The Wall as a “vanity project” perpetrated by a “wanna-be-dictator” may have had no problem with extra-legislative actions such as DACA or the Paris Climate Agreement.  This is not because he’s a hypocrite.  It’s because he sees climate change and Central-American poverty as true emergencies needing immediate action while believing globalization and illegal immigration are not concerning.  This pattern is mirrored among many Republicans who similarly thought the Affordable Care Act was anattack at the heart and soul of the country and enacted by an “Anti-American traitor” and yet see no problem with the arbitrary use of executive power to start Trade Wars.

The reality of modern politics is that constitutional adherence to checks and balances, the limits of government authority, and professed reverence for federalism has largely become strictly the purview of out of power interests.  For eight years under President Obama it was largely Republicans who used opposition in Congress, the Courts, and in state and local government to check the power of the presidency.  Now that a Republican is president, all those same entities largely define themselves by how effectively they channel the presidential will.  And, all the same interests that marched unwaveringly to the beat of a Democratic president’s drum have suddenly found their belief in the checks and balances of our federal system in order to resist a Republican president at every turn.  This pattern, this vicious cycle, stems from both sides embracing crisis government

What we have forgotten is that our form of government was founded on the idea that no emergency warrants the weakening of the carefully constructed checks and balances of the federal system.  There are certainly instances where emergency powers are warranted and needed.  But those instances are far rarer than most are willing to admit.  Many, if not all, of the political concerns our republic currently faces are matters which can and should be dealt with through the proper course of constitutional governance and in a manner that preserves the checks and balances of our system.  The heightened emotions surrounding our elections are largely the result of disagreement over what to consider true emergencies and what to do about them.  If each side could resist the urge to engage in crisis government perhaps the rhetoric and the actions of political opponents would not reach such hysterical heights.  Both sides need to remember that the balance of power between parties will always shift.  Everyone should be wary of setting a precedence in response to their emergency which could be followed in response to another’s emergency.  Republicans who would not be comfortable with a Democratic president using emergency powers to dictate climate policy should probably be more careful when considering using those same emergency powers to deal with border security.  Democrats who are presently agitated over President Trump’s use of questionable executive authority to raise tariffs and destabilize the global economy should probably have been more concerned when President Obama entered into treaties without Congressional approval. 

I for one think it is time for Americans to give up their addiction to crisis government and to reacquaint themselves with the ideas of balanced and consistent constitutional governance.  I think it is time for Republicans to be watchful of Republican presidents, because they know a Democrat will again be president someday.  I think it is time for Democrats to be mindful of Democratic presidents, because they know a Republican will hold office again in the future.  Whenever the idea of answering an emergency by empowering executive authority beyond its present scope arises, it’s time for all Americans to honestly ask themselves whether they are truly prepared for whomever might hold the office of President in the future to wield that expanded power.  It is time, my fellow Americans of all political parties and ideologies, to understand that only in checking the abuses done in your name can you ever hope to check the abuses done in the name of others.