“America 2.0” considered the plain fact that the America you and I live in is no longer the America the Founders envisioned for us.
Over the course of the past century, the Progressives have replaced the Framers’ federal government of limited powers designed to protect the American experiment in liberty with a vast new central government designed to regulate the lives of American citizens. Because there are so many, determining the actual number of federal regulations enforceable by criminal punishment at the discretion of an administrative agency of the central government presents great difficulties. According to Douglas Husak of Rutgers in his book Overcriminalization, there may be more than 300,000 separate regulations.
But the Progressives are not done yet. For them, America 2.0 is only a transitional phase to a truly post-American America—call it America 3.0. Hillary Clinton and Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) are loud and proud about the change to the Constitution that will bring about America 3.0, though what they are up to generally goes unrecognized for what it is. But when we understand how the Progressives created America 2.0, what their heirs are up to today snaps into focus.
To get our bearings, let us consider James Madison’s description of the original federal government in Federalist 45:
The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce . . . The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State. (Emphasis added.)
Please note that the “few and defined” powers of the new United States are “delegated” to the federal government by the sovereign “We the people.” In addition, those powers are “exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce.” This then is the original bargain that created the United States: the federal government is to handle “external objects” for the states united by the bargain. The meaning of “external objects” is made clear by the list of the four original agencies of federal government: the Departments of War, State, Navy, and Treasury. Today, that number would be reduced to three: the Departments of Defense, State, and Treasury.
The original federal government had a primary focus: national defense and the protection of the interests of the land of liberty between the various states and among the other nations of the world. All other governmental powers were either delegated by the people to the states or else retained by them unto themselves.
But the individual states did not surrender control of those powers delegated to the federal government. The Constitution created a standing body, the Senate, which would give the states a way collectively to maintain overall control of “the external objects“ of executive action. That’s why treaties with foreign nations and even the people nominated by the president to carry out executive actions, such as the heads of the federal departments and ambassadors, are subject to Senate approval.
And the governments of the states really did maintain control because in the Constitution of the Founders the state legislatures chose the senators. State governments therefore exercised their control over the departments of the government by means of the Senate.
The turning point came in 1913. In that year, this system, so carefully and brilliantly designed by the Framers, changed fundamentally with the 17th Amendment, which introduced the direct election of senators, bypassing the state legislatures. In 1913, Americans carelessly tossed aside the Founders’ brilliant solution to the problem of political power.
The consequences of the change have been many and profound. Probably the most obvious has been the rapid decline of the states’ ability to counter-balance federal power. The Senate had been a barrier to the passage of federal laws infringing on the powers reserved to state governments, but the Senate has abandoned that responsibility under the incentives of the new system of election.
Because the states no longer have a powerful standing body representing their interests within the federal government, the power of the central government has rapidly grown at the expense of the states. Today’s gargantuan central government increasingly relegates the states to function as administrative units.
The 10th Amendment, the final of the ten original amendments we refer to as the Bill of Rights, made it explicit that the powers of the federal government are limited to the enumerated powers, the powers provided by the Constitution. The 17th Amendment made the Great 10th a dead letter.
By the way, the Progressives soon overreached, as usual. The 18th Amendment, which changed the Constitution to allow for the prohibition of alcohol, followed soon after. It took a little over a decade for Americans to view Prohibition as a costly mistake and repeal the 18th Amendment.
That the 17th Amendment was also a mistake is by now clear. Instead of retaining many of their powers and responsibilities, and only surrendering a limited number of their powers to the federal government as the Framers intended, the states are more and more entangled in administering federal programs and in carrying out federal mandates. The federal government often even doesn’t fund these mandates, choosing to pass the costs along to the states. The many new departments of the federal government which have accumulated in Washington, D.C. during the Progressive Era, such as Housing and Urban Development and Health and Human Services, exercise powers that are not among the “few and defined” powers enumerated in the Constitution.
The process of concentrating power in the central government is what America 2.0 is all about, and that is why the Founders would have opposed the 17th Amendment.
The Framers of the Constitution aimed to preserve American liberty and the unalienable rights of Americans by preventing the concentration of political power in the federal government. Jefferson, famously, put it this way:
What has destroyed liberty and the rights of man in every government which has ever existed under the sun? The generalizing and concentrating all cares and powers into one body.
Jefferson and the other Founders were clear that “concentrating all cares and powers into one body” would inevitably destroy liberty in America.
The Founders put much emphasis on the importance of the independence and autonomy of the states to the preservation of American liberty. Lord Acton, the great scholar of the history of liberty who wrote “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” agreed with the Founders:
Federalism: It is coordination instead of subordination; association instead of hierarchical order; independent forces curbing each other; balance, therefore, liberty.
When Acton wrote those words, American federalism was much more robust than it is now. Today, it is reduced to a shadow of its former self. The resulting erosion of Americans’ individual liberty is no doubt the most important consequence of the Progressives’ change to the Constitution in 1913.
The direct election of senators put an end to an essential electoral safeguard of American liberty. Next on the Progressive to-do list is the direct election of the president.
The Constitution allotted each state as many electoral votes as it has Senators and members of the House of Representatives. Consequently, to become president of the United States one must even today win the national election state by state. Eliminating the Electoral College and electing the president by direct popular vote, as modern progressives are determined to do, would transform the office. Its occupant would in effect become the POTBCA instead of the POTUS (President of the Big Cities of America), and the last vestiges of autonomy guaranteed the individual states by the Constitution’s electoral system would be swept away.
Photo credit: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call