A Wealth of Imbecility

Sen. Elizabeth Warren during a hearing on Capitol Hill May 16, 2023. in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

We conservatives like to talk (maybe a little too much) about American exceptionalism, but spare a kind thought, dear patriot, for American weirdness

The United States of America are just what the name says: a union of states, each with its own powers, interests, and idiosyncrasies. It has been that way from the beginning, though the metastasis of the federal government (an unhappy accompaniment of progressive ideology and its so-called rationalism) gradually has given the country a more unitary and less federal character. The original union of states already was large, diverse, and unwieldy, and it has not grown any less so in the years since the revolution. Much of our governmental weirdness is rooted in accommodating that diversity. The biggest politico-economic fault running through our national bedrock was slavery, which, thank God, has been done away with. But many of the big social and cultural divides that complicated national life in the founding era are very much with us: the rural-urban divide, the distinctness and relative poverty of the South, the enduring cussedness of New England, etc. Free trade, to take one example, remains a divisive national issue today for the same reason it was in the 18th century: Its costs and benefits are not evenly distributed, and the economic character of our states and communities is different in different places. Maine’s biggest foreign trade relationship is with Canada (fish and crustaceans) while Nevada’s biggest trade relationship is with Switzerland (precious metals), and the gold business isn’t very much like the lobster business. 

Federalism was a big part of how we tried to deal with the challenges inherent in our national complexity and diversity. Some issues are inescapably national, or at least interstate, in character: international relations, including military alliances and international trade; immigration; relationships and controversies among the states. But many of the issues that are today treated as national controversies were issues for the states to handle in the 18th and 19th centuries. For example, the idea that the First Amendment restricts a state government’s relationship with religious organizations would have been big news to the citizens across much of our new republic, given that they lived in states that had actual established churches (i.e. churches with official status supported by the state). Only the federal government was prohibited from creating an established church. Other peculiar features of our national political life, such as the Electoral College or the fact that Wyoming (pop. 581,000) gets exactly as many senators as California (pop. 39 million), also are intended to protect the particular interests of the states, for instance by ensuring that the smaller, less populous states are not powerless against the larger, more populous ones. 

Which brings us around to “apportionment.” Stay with me for just a second. 

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