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The Mississippi King

Are large numbers of Americans really willing to embrace a serious alternative to Progressive government?

This week’s Mississippi senate primary is the bellwether election of this primary season–not, as the media’s favorite narrative has it, as round 73 in the fight between the Tea Party and the Republican establishment. Much more fundamentally, it is a test: is a sizable portion of the American electorate willing to embrace a serious alternative to Progressive government?

The contrast in campaign messages between incumbent Thad Cochran and his challenger Chris McDaniel is dramatic. Mr. Cochran’s case is simple: I deliver (federal money). A Republican senate majority might land him the chairmanship of the senate’s Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry and the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee–prime positions from which to continue the good work that earned him the title “King of Earmarks” in 2010. At the time of writing, four of the six “featured updates” on his official government website highlighted efforts to bring home the federal funding bacon.

In contrast, Mr. McDaniel has endorsed Senator Mike Lee’s “conservative reform agenda,” pointedly promising to vote for a permanent ban on earmarks and to “fight to end corporate welfare, including bailouts, carve-outs and handouts to special interests.”

No election, of course, is ever a perfect contest between political visions–there’s always personalities, campaign strategies, popular moods, and other factors that play their part. But if the Republican primary voters of Mississippi nominate Thad Cochran for a seventh term in the senate, we’ll know that Progressivism is fully, and perhaps permanently, entrenched in one of the most conservative states in the union.

Talk about restoring constitutional government is just that–until voters are willing to give up their place at the pork-barrel trough. “Everybody’s doing it” is no better reason for taking Washington handouts than it is for jumping off that proverbial bridge.

As we noted last week, the founders did not anticipate the degree to which the national government has come to dominate our supposedly federal system. In Federalist 45 and 46, James Madison enumerates a series of compelling reasons why the states should have the advantage in a contest for power with the national government. But at the beginning of essay 46, he reminds his readers of an even more fundamental point—that the real power in our system belongs to the people:

The federal and State governments are in fact but different agents and trustees of the people, constituted with different powers, and designed for different purposes. The adversaries of the Constitution seem to have lost sight of the people altogether in their reasonings on this subject; and to have viewed these different establishments, not only as mutual rivals and enemies, but as uncontrolled by any common superior in their efforts to usurp the authorities of each other.

If Madison is right, then the answer to the question “who killed federalism?” is this: we, the American people. The balance of power constructed by the founding generation could not have been fundamentally altered without the consent of later generations. But the rest of Federalist 46 helps explain how the homicide was perpetrated, through an unholy alliance of Progressive means with parochial ends–a process well illustrated in the Mississippi senate race.

Madison assumes that the states will never lose their constitutional authority in part because they will always have more friends in national office than the national government will have in state offices:

[Federal] Measures will too often be decided according to their probable effect, not on the national prosperity and happiness, but on the prejudices, interests, and pursuits of the governments and people of the individual States.

The tendency of legislators to focus on parochial concerns is, of course, as evident in our day as it was in his. But the consequences of this focus have been fundamentally altered by the rise of Progressive government.

In Madison’s day, he could count on parochial interests to protect the authority of the state governments. In other words, a Congressman’s concern for the interests of his state would lead him to protect the political prerogatives of that state. The rise of Progressivism, however, severed this link between local interest and local power. Whereas Madison could confidently assert that “it is only within a certain sphere that the federal power can, in the nature of things, be advantageously administered,” Progressivism is grounded in the claims of social scientists for an expansive (one might say unlimited) scope of federal competency.

Advancing the interests of one’s state no longer requires protecting its ability to legislate regarding schools, social welfare, and public works from would-be federal usurpers. Rather, it entails cooperating with those usurpers and using every available measure of schmooze and seniority to direct federal funds home. Such behavior is the political equivalent of finding your constituents the most comfortable deck chairs on a sinking Titanic.

Because of this, Mr. McDaniel is acting a noble, but politically dangerous part in his challenge to Senator Cochran, campaigning, as one of his recent press releases put it, for “the kind of positive conservative agenda Mississippi wants and our nations [sic] desperately needs.” That’s a campaign that can only succeed if Mississippi really does want a United States senator, rather than a skillful manipulator of appropriations bills.

In his charge to the first United States Congress in 1789, President George Washington asked all elected representatives to consider the public good of the United States in their administration of American national political affairs:

In these [Congressmen’s] honorable qualifications, I behold the surest pledges that as on one side no local prejudices or attachments, no separate views nor party animosities, will misdirect the comprehensive and equal eye which ought to watch over this great assemblage of communities and interests, so, on another, that the foundation of our national policy will be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality, and the preeminence of free government be exemplified by all the attributes which can win the affections of its citizens and command the respect of the world.

Washington sought a politics grounded in eternal truth, not temporary, local expediency. He would repeat this call in his Farewell Address eight years later, fearing that after he was finally able to retire to private life, political sectionalism would tear the young nation apart.

Whereas in Washington’s day, local prejudices or attachments undermined the public good by promoting division within the American body politic, in our day, many Americans have been won over to the Progressive notion that human beings are naturally self-interested and materially-oriented, and thus ought rightly and unashamedly turn to the Federal government for relief.  The new sectionalism amounts to public troughism, in which the parochial politician is elected to deliver the economic goods to his clan, jealously and selfishly. This tribal sectionalism, however, is no better than the original sectionalism if it leaves men as dependent on their political superiors for their material security as it once left them dependent on their physical superiors for their personal security.

Thad Cochran’s defeat in a campaign animated by Mississippi tribalism would be a fitting end to a senate career that began in the same spirit. In 1978, Mr. Cochran’s predecessor, retiring six-term Democrat James Eastland, resigned his seat a week early so that Mr. Cochran could jump to the head of the seniority line among the twenty (!) new senators elected that year.

There is much to indicate that his challenger, Mr. McDaniel, would have other priorities if elected. On Tuesday, we’ll know whether the Republicans of Mississippi want Progressive tribalism or republican constitutionalism. If the latter, it will then be Mr. McDaniel’s responsibility to deliver.

David Corbin is a Professor of Politics and Matthew Parks an Assistant Professor of Politics at The King’s College, New York City. They are co-authors of “Keeping Our Republic: Principles for a Political Reformation” (2011). You can follow their work on Twitter or Facebook.

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