The COVID-19 pandemic has occasioned a growing national dialogue about what a decent and competent democracy should stand for and how it should manage its affairs. There is little doubt that the pandemic is testing our commitment to a federalistic constitutional system to a degree unmatched since the 19th century — even the states’ rights movement and the related civil rights movement did not pose as grave a threat to the federal system as the current crisis.
Founders like James Madison were intent on creating a “quality” democratic nation for the American people, not just any old kind of democracy. The evidence can be seen in Madison’s defense of a non-elected federal judiciary as well as the Constitution’s provision for Senate confirmation of candidates for high-ranking executive department positions.
Constructing a “quality” democratic republic requires criteria for distinguishing between good and poor quality. For James Madison, the determinative criteria had to do with his understanding of what equals a quality “way of life” for a people who value freedom as well as safety and who connect both with happiness. The Founders finally settled on a constitutional system that would incentivize the American people to “be all that they can be” by squeezing their “faculties” to the max and then making beneficial use of the fruits of their labors.
To give the American people a real shot at enjoying the happiness that comes with “being all that they can be,” the delegates who worked on the Constitution came up with was a federalistic republic that divided governmental power both horizontally and vertically — power would be divided among several governments and then within those governments. Important responsibilities were assigned to each level of government, with the expectation that states and localities would be principally responsible for nurturing citizens who would be up to the task of self-government.
Alexis de Tocqueville, author of what is still the most incisive study of democracy in the United States, argued that freedom and civilization are protected in America largely due to the federalistic structure of the constitutional system, and especially to the shaping and nurturing of citizens that goes on in the multitude of small communities that have been incorporated by the states.
Local self-government teaches citizens to bargain and form coalitions; it teaches them that self-governance is complicated and difficult; it teaches people to accept defeat and celebrate victories with civility; and it nurtures habits essential to production and commerce as well as service and charity. Extensive communal interaction means citizens are compelled to come face-to-face with the happiness enjoyed by their neighbors as well as the tragedies that are an inescapable part of human existence.
The lifestyle of a free people, to borrow a phrase often associated with old age, is not for “sissies.” Both Madison and Tocqueville understood that serious work is required to nurture citizens who are up to the job of thoughtful self-government and who have the knowledge and discipline to deal rationally with the tragic side of human existence.
The COVID-19 virus has unleashed centrifugal and centripetal forces, but it is the centripetal or centralizing forces that are most worrisome because they pose a special threat to our federalistic system. The unique resources of the federal government along with its stable of constitutional powers account for much of the centralizing bias associated with the current pandemic.
If federalism or the preservation of states and localities as significant political entities is good for freedom, and for civilized existence, then too much centralization should trouble the partisans of human freedom and dignified existence.
The modern, especially Western, conviction that human existence should be free of tragedy, or at least subject to considerably less tragedy than our ancestors accepted as natural for fallible and finite beings who are consigned to exist in an imperfect world, poses its own threat to freedom and civilized existence.
People who assign excessive value to safety and security, who are too consumed with evading the tragic side of human existence, might easily exchange fundamental freedoms or sacrifice the conditions required to protect fundamental freedoms to gain protection from potential harms.
Responsible self-government and the intelligent pursuit of safety and security by a people who wish to be free requires incredible self-discipline and considerable courage — the courage to control their fears and accept the inevitability of adversity.
Making one’s peace with the tragic side of human existence does not necessitate a complete disregard for safety. What making peace with the inevitability of adversity does, however, is restrain the human impulse to assign excessive weight to security or safety, while also encouraging humility over arrogance, thus benefiting the cause of freedom as well as the rational and humane pursuit of happiness.
For Madison, human existence is inherently imperfect and tragic. This assumption is critical to his defense of limited and fragmented government as well as the system of checks on the exercise of governmental power that together create beneficial conditions for the flowering of human freedom, the containment of human arrogance, and the affirmation of genuine human dignity.
If human freedom is fundamental to human dignity, then having a civic and social culture that teaches us to master the natural fear of the tragic side of human existence, even of death, and simultaneously teaches us how to restrain and master the impulse to seek national solutions to all of our ills, is indispensable to a “way of life” that is rational, free and dignified.
• David Marion is Elliott Emeritus Professor of Government and Foreign Affairs and a fellow of the Wilson Center for Leadership in the Public Interest at Hampden-Sydney College.
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