The massacre in Charleston, South Carolina, has revived discussion about the Confederate battle flag and its meaning. Liberals find it easy to condemn it, but Philip Klein, writing in the Washington Examiner, is correct: Conservatives should be even more hostile to the Confederacy and the Jim Crow South and its symbols.
"The invocation of 'states rights' among those waving the Confederate flag while fighting for the evils of slavery and segregation has been devastating to the cause of limited government.
"Not only were the institutions themselves an affront to liberty, but in fighting to defeat the institutions, the federal government claimed more power. And to this day, when any conservative tries to make a principled argument in favor of returning more power to the states, they have to grapple with the fact that for many Americans, such arguments are tainted by their historical association with slavery and segregation."
Yes. The debate about the level of government that is theoretically most appropriate to handle particular policy areas was obviously unimportant next to the moral imperative of eliminating state-sponsored bigotry and oppression. And those who argued against federal government involvement were morally obtuse or, more likely, simply disingenuous when they talked about "states' rights." Moreover, there was a democratic imperative at stake, separate from the moral one: An apartheid state in which basic political rights are restricted to only some groups is a failed democracy.
All of which, as Klein says, poisoned the case for meaningful state action.
I'll add two points.
Liberals, too, have suffered from the lack of federalist arguments. Klein believes that strong states will enforce what conservatives considered "limited government," but liberals might want strong states to engage in the kinds of active experimentation that liberals value. Of course, some of that happens now: the $15 minimum wage or laws barring employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. But liberals generally don't trust the states, and can't quite accept that there could be anything that California or New York might want that might not be appropriate for Alabama or Wyoming.
More important than either liberal or conservative arguments is the democratic reason for federalism. At least in part, the Revolution and the Constitution were driven by the idea of enabling every citizen to participate in politics. The Framers were wrong about who counted as a citizen, but they were correct about empowering the citizenry. However, Madison was also correct in his radical insights about large polities and democracy: that previous claims that democracies must be small had it backward, and that an extended republic, by reducing the chances of oppressive majorities, would have a better chance of thriving. Representation, a relatively recent invention in the 18th century, would allow his extended republic to work.
And yet, in a huge extended republic of more than 300 million people, this idea still carries the danger that the only thing available for most of us is representation -- and that being represented, however good and important it may be, still falls short of meaningful participation in politics.
Federalism makes up the difference, as long as state and local governments have important decisions at stake. As for participation, there are about 500,000 elected officials in the U.S., not to mention the people who work for those elected officials, and the professionals and amateurs who attempt to influence them. That's an enormous army of political action.
To be sure, this creates a natural tension: Although smaller jurisdictions make political action possible for many, they also sacrifice the large size that Madison said made oppression of the minority less likely. What's harder to judge is when that oppression is so egregious that the national government must step in, though one rule of thumb is that anything that interferes with democracy (by, say, disenfranchising people) is a good place to start.
This still leaves plenty of room for argument about which level of government should do which tasks. As far as I can see, there's nothing at stake for democracy in how we answer those questions; indeed, having such things to fight over is itself perfectly in line with democracy.
As Klein points out, this debate over federalism and the proper division (or overlap) of responsibilities between different levels of government has been tainted by the monstrous legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. That is yet another reason (beyond the obvious moral ones) for all of us -- conservatives, liberals and any supporters of healthy democracy -- should oppose the display of bigotry's symbols.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist covering U.S. politics.