The Modern Tea Party Movement and Anti-Federalism
Consider the opening words of a book written by the co-founders of the largest Tea Party group in the nation, Mark Meckler and Jenny Martin:
WE THE PEOPLE. With those three words, our nation began . . . We, the people of the United States of America, felt threatened. We felt angry. We felt helpless as we watched our beloved nation—the greatest nation in world history—slip away.
Here was an attempt to substitute the Second Founding with the First, by taking the first three words of the Constitution back from the Federalists, and enveloping them in the indignant tone of the Declaration of Independence. Because we usually do not think of ourselves as having had Two Foundings, it would be easy to miss the rhetorical strategy being deployed here. “We the People” are the first three words of the Second Founding, but they were crafted more than a decade after “our nation [first] began.” In 1787, there was no immediate foreign threat as there was in 1776, and the American people were perhaps disillusioned, but they were not angry. The Second Founders were anything but helpless; quite the opposite, they were possibly the most empowered and privileged in their generation (and possibly most generations in the history of the world) to have had the luxury of gathering by “reflection and choice” to write a new Constitution. The only people who “felt angry” were the Anti-Federalists.
If the Federalists and their disciples have specialized in creative syntheses and resyntheses, and layering new meanings on old ones, the Anti-Federalists and their descendants have always responded with historical revisionism. Since the First Founding came first, their followers never felt obligated to engage in any reconciliation with the innovators of their age. As Jefferson took it as a badge of honor that he would “never turn an inch out of my way to reconcile them [the Federalists’ leaders],” today’s Anti-Federalists are similarly unflinching in their commitment to (what they believe to be and indeed fittingly call) “first principles.” If Grover Norquist is uncompromising and inflexible, he is no more so than another earlier neo-Anti-Federalist, John C. Calhoun, who was so rigid he was called the “cast iron man.” Meckler and Martin were only doing what Madison, Jefferson, and Calhoun did, when they first insinuated Anti-Federalist meanings out of Federalist words, in the debate about the First Bank in 1791, the Revolution of 1800, and the Nullification crisis, respectively. Theirs was the same strategy Herman Cain deployed, if less wittingly, when the latter alleged, in a speech announcing his bid for the Republican presidential nomination in May 2011, “For the benefit for those that are not going to read it because they don’t want us to go by the Constitution, there’s a little section in there that talks about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” That section is actually in the Declaration of Independence. Here was another disciple of the First Founding who could not think of the Second Founding as legitimate on its own terms, but who believed that it needed to piggyback on the legitimacy of the First. Consider, also, the web page articulating the “Core Principles” of the John Birch Society, where the Declaration of Independence is twice cited and the Constitution not at all. Consider, finally, Governor Mike Huckabee’s anti-federalization of Federalism at the Republican National Convention in 2012:
So fearful were they [the Second Founders] that government would grow beyond their intention that even after crafting our magnificent Constitution, they said, “We can do even better.” They added amendments that we call the Bill of Rights that limit what the government can do and guarantee what “We the people” have the unimpeded right to do—whether to speak, assemble, worship, pray, publish, or even refuse intrusions into our homes.
Only an Anti-Federalist, original or modern, would see the Bill of Rights, which Publius had argued vigorously against, as an improvement on the Constitution. The frequency and predictability of the foregoing faux pas tell a deeper story, especially now that we have seen the pattern of revisionism that (the post-ratification) Madison, Jefferson, Calhoun, Van Buren, and others in the Anti-Federalist tradition had pioneered. The modern Tea Party and the conservatives who share the movement’s views are Anti-Federalists in their newest guise; their conflation of principles from the Declaration with words from the Constitution is merely the most recent attempt to do a makeover on the 1787 revolution in favor of government, which, as Gordon Wood rightly noted, had done no less than “shattered the classical Whig view of 1776”—the view espoused by the Anti-Federalists.
Even as the Second Founding is over and settled—since most Americans now concede by their actions that we do not have a constitutional right to revolution— we have nevertheless inherited a primal instinct to rebel from our First Founding. Revolution is in our blood, because we are the daughters and sons of revolutionaries. What the Anti-Federalists were recalling among those rights the Declaration of Independence held “self-evident” was “that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.” No movement in American politics has successfully exercised this revolutionary right since the Second Founding, but there are sections in the country that have never stopped believing in it. Today’s Tea Partiers, therefore, did not come from nowhere, and their ancestors predate the Confederacy. They possess a fiery temperament and an absolutist attitude they share with Patrick Henry, who had once asked for liberty or if not, death. If Rush Limbaugh was “ecstatic” about Representative Joe Wilson’s (R-SC) indecorous outburst in the middle of President Obama’s speech to a joint session of Congress on September 9, 2009 (when he yelled “you lie!”), it is because both were part of a movement of unyielding principle and radical democracy. When Governor Rick Perry charged that Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, would be committing treason if he authorized more “quantitative easing” (increasing money supply by purchasing financial assets), he was merely threatening to do what Andrew Jackson did to Nicholas Biddle and the Second Bank of the United States. What some (modern liberals) today see as incivility is for others (Tea Partiers) an ancient virtue—jealousy. This can be seen most clearly in the Anti-Federalists’ and their descendants’ unwavering commitment to the Second Amendment as an important bulwark to the symbolic and moral priority of the First Founding. As Newt Gingrich professed at the national convention of the National Rifle Association in 2012, “the right to bear arms comes from our creator, not from our government. It is one of the inalienable rights alluded to in our Declaration of Independence.” Vigilance and jealousy of power are the virtues of the First Founding, not the Second. Defenders of gun rights believe that citizens should enjoy the presumption of virtue, not governments.
Like Jacksonian Democrats and the Confederacy, at the heart of the Modern Tea Party Patriots’ cry is a return to constitutionalism and “originalism.” As Elizabeth Foley argues, “they [Tea Party members] have a unique and intense desire to learn about, honor, and preserve the Constitution.” But if we take the Tea Partiers at their word, we would misunderstand the side they are taking in the Lovers’ Quarrel. The theory that the Constitution enumerated only explicit, non-implied powers was the method Jefferson had first used to limit the mischief made possible by the document the Federalists had drafted to supersede his Declaration. Like the Anti-Federalists, the Tea Partiers’ hearts are with the First Founding, not the Second. As one of the Senators the movement successfully sent to Washington in 2010 revealingly wrote, “If the Constitution and common sense still have any bearing, the Tea Party isn’t the least bit radical—the federal government is.” Yet the Constitution of 1787 was just what created the federal government; the two share an inseparably linked fate. What Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) was presenting was American history, Anti-Federalist style.
So when Jill Lepore observed that the Tea Party “wasn’t just kooky history; it was antihistory,” she was exactly right. It was not coincidental that Sean Hannity, whom she quoted, referred to a Liberty Tree graphic he showed to viewers on FoxNews as “built upon the roots of life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, and freedom.” Predictably, Hannity’s affections were attached to the scripture that preceded the Constitution of the United States. Like the Anti- Federalists and the Tea Partiers, he believed that America was founded in 1776, not 1789. Yet, contrary to Hannity, in American history, not “all roads lead to the Revolution.” Only Anti-Federalist ones do. By revising history the other way round, Hannity was trying to reenact the status quo that the Anti-Federalists were trying to preserve. Or, as the name of one Tea Party group in Maine, the Maine ReFounders, tellingly suggests, Tea Partiers are really trying to refound or, more precisely, defound the nation along Anti-Federalist lines. Their sense of grievance and their visceral desire to “take back” America stems from, I argue, the atavistic memory of a victory that the Federalists had first snatched from their forebears. This affinity toward the First Founding and the Declaration might well explain why, in late 2010, Tea Party activists were particularly offended that Barack Obama had misquoted the Declaration of Independence, omitting reference to “the Creator.” This led one commentator from the Weekly Standard to ask,
Does the president believe in the Declaration? . . . His presidential victory speech last Election Night incorrectly dated this nation’s existence from the writing of the Constitution, not from the signing of the Declaration. His Independence Day remarks in 2009 managed to avoid mentioning, or quoting from, the Declaration at all.
A modern Federalist would have cared less. These charges come from a Declarationist and son of the First Founding. They parallel the firestorm Justice Samuel Chase provoked (leading directly to the 8th Article of his impeachment) when he told a grand jury in 1803, “there could be no rights of man in a state of nature previous to the institution of society; and . . . liberty, properly speaking, could not exist in a state of nature.” Barack Obama is a Constitutionalist and a Federalist first, and the modern descendants of the First Founding resent the fact that he, as Samuel Chase had similarly done to offend the Jeffersonian Republicans, had glossed over the history of the First Founding and so callously replaced it with the principles of the Second. Certainly, Obama occasionally spoke (and sometimes botched up, as we shall see below) the language of Anti-Federalism, as most liberal politicians have learned to do, but he did so only when he needed to bring to his side the half of the country who did not identify with his governing philosophy. What Tea Party members failed to appreciate is that a failure to properly quote or understand the Declaration of Independence—which possesses absolutely no legal status—is strictly an irrelevant matter for interpreting the Constitution of the United States (except that the former is in many respects the antithesis of the latter).
As the Anti-Federalist and Jeffersonian philosophies were fundamentally negative, so too is the modern Tea Party philosophy. The Anti-Federalists adopted the “Country” as opposed to the “Court” philosophy of the opposition to Walpolean England because it suited well their own negative orientation toward power. So committed were they to their negative politics that both Jeffersonian Republicans and Jacksonian Democrats continued to think of themselves as outsiders even after their victories in 1800 and 1828. In this, they revealed an intuition that the Federalist Constitution was never and could never really be their own. In their own way, the Tea Partiers have conceded just as much. It is perhaps why when chastising the Republican Party, Rand Paul would say, “We desperately need a real ‘party of no.’ ”Senator Paul and his supporters maintained that the Tea Partiers were the truest defender of the Constitutional faith, and at the heart of this faith was the principle of limited government, codified in the movement’s favorite provision, the Tenth Amendment, which was an affirmation of the eighteenth-century Radical Whig idea that power decentralized is power legitimate, while power centralized is power tyrannical. “The entire purpose of the Constitution,” Paul wrote, “was to limit the power the federal government had over the states . . . so strong is the regard for the Tenth Amendment, that various offshoots of the Tea Party have formed completely devoted to it.” Never mind that nearly the entire purpose of the Constitution was to create a federal government because the Confederation Congress had no authority over the states. Clearly, the Tea Party’s loyalties are not to the federal government, but to the states, which enjoyed their golden age from 1776 to 1788.
The Tea Party is not, therefore, a fringe party, but a more enthusiastic champion of many of the values that the Republican Party has espoused for decades. Indeed, the wisest in the party will understand that while the Tea Party will come and go, Anti-Federalism—the grandparent of all the conservatisms that have found a home in the Republican Party—will not. Thus the Party’s 1964 Platform opened with this ancient anthem against power: “even in this Constitutional Republic, for two centuries the beacon of liberty the world over, individual freedom retreats under the mounting assault of expanding centralized power.” Similarly, in September 2010, the Republican Party released a “Pledge to America” (reminiscent of Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” in 1994) promising to “honor the Constitution as constructed by its framers and honor the original intent of those precepts that have been consistently ignored—particularly the Tenth Amendment, which grants that all powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.” Major spokespersons in the party share this position. On April 15, 2009, Governor Rick Perry (R-TX) told reporters: “When we came into the Union in 1845, one of the issues was that we would be able to leave if we decided to do that. My hope is that America, and Washington in particular, pay attention. We’ve got a great Union. There’s absolutely no reason to dissolve it. But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, who knows what may come of that?” Perry appeared to think that our Union is no more than a league of friendship, with each state retaining its full measure of sovereignty, as the states did before 1789. In a similar tip of the hat to the First Founding, in his victory speech after winning the New Hampshire Republican primary in 2012, Governor Mitt Romney (R-MA) told supporters that while Barack Obama “takes his inspiration from the capitals of Europe,” he looked to the “cities and towns across America.” Or consider the re-interpretation of the meaning of the Constitution in the language of the Declaration displayed in the Republican Party Platform of 2012:
We possess an owner’s manual: the Constitution of the United States, the greatest political document ever written. That sacred document shows us the path forward. Trust the people. Limit government. Respect federalism. Guarantee opportunity, not outcomes. Adhere to the rule of law. Reaffirm that our rights come from God, are protected by government, and that the only just government is one that truly governs with the consent of the governed.
After two centuries, there remains one side of America that continues to believe in the primacy of the federal government, and another side that insists on the precedence of federalism and limited government. The Tea Party is passionate and even choleric about its agenda, and these too are Anti-Federalist traits. For if the Second Founding was an extended moment of reflection, 1776 was a time of passion. While it is true that principles ancient and modern equally weighed on the Second Founders’ minds when they deliberated and delivered at Philadelphia, the Federalists were more sanguine about the “Machiavellian moment” of their modernity, and pragmatic about its given facts, while the Anti-Federalists were more nostalgic, attentive to the connection between the regime and the character of its citizens philosophized since antiquity, and more wedded to absolute truths than achievable goals. Hence whereas the Federalists saw a pragmatic need for the new Constitution, the Anti-Federalists were idealists who opposed it as a matter of principle. This is perhaps why Madison, in Federalist 10, in proposing the multiplication of factions to mitigate the influence of the most powerful one, effectively denied that there was an objective hierarchy of values that government ought to protect. He might have been what a conservative today would call a moral relativist. While the Federalists were dedicated to maintaining community peace, the Anti-Federalists, like today’s conservatives who denigrate liberal political correctness, were not. The First Founders, after all, had launched a war to overthrow a king; the Second Founders mounted an intellectual revolution to rewrite the meaning of the American Union.
At the center of the Tea Party’s charge that America has been hijacked is a deep animus toward President Barack Obama and a deep, neo-Anti-Federalist intuition that he is not “one of us.” This is why, even though the Bush administration had also contributed to the federal budget deficits and had started the “bailout” of the banks during the financial crisis of 2008, the Tea Party movement emerged only after Obama’s first inauguration. The movement’s distrust of Obama can be found in the claims by the “birthers” that Obama is not a natural-born citizen of the United States or in the charge that he is a Muslim, both of which have traceable roots in the Anti-Federalist theory of representation that held that effective and accountable representation could occur only when there is a close resemblance between the representative and the represented. Though the president’s race might have something to do with these sentiments, it does not tell the whole story because the Tea Party’s objection to Obama’s policies is both personal and substantive. These fears of Obama as an outsider were put on display when Obama announced plans to broadcast a speech to schoolchildren on the first day of school in September 2009, and he was accused of propagandizing a “socialist” ideology. Many parents feared that the President was trying to indoctrinate young children with corrupt ideas. “Socialism” is but the modern name for “consolidated” government, a condition that Anti-Federalists feared would render citizens as unthinking subjects of a tyrannical government. Like the Anti-Federalists, these parents believed that schools were critical to the cultivation of virtuous citizenship, and needed therefore to be insulated from ideological contagion with particular care. This episode paralleled the anti-communist sentiments Republicans espoused in the 1950s. When he was the president of Columbia University, Dwight Eisenhower was hesitant about the idea of federal aid to schools because he feared that “unless we are careful, even the great and necessary educational purposes in our country will become yet another vehicle by which the believers in paternalism, if not outright socialism, will gain additional power from the central government.” If Eisenhower was not clear exactly what functions our public schools performed, John H. Cowles, testifying before the same committee to whom Eisenhower was addressing, was: schools were “the bulwark of our free institutions” whose responsibility was to “impress upon the minds of the pupils the ideals and traditions of our country.” The Lovers’ Quarrel, then, has played out even in education policy. While Democrats have generally advanced education reform as the solution to social and economic inequality, Republicans have tended to value education less instrumentally and more intrinsically for its role in cultivating civic virtue. As the Republican Party Platform of 2012 put it, “The principles written in the Constitution are secured by the character of the American people.” While Democrats have concentrated their reform efforts on affirmative action and access, Republicans have focused on school prayers and fighting liberal indoctrination of schoolchildren to ensure a virtuous citizenry capable of self-government.
The populism and anti-intellectualism of the Tea Partiers are also offshoots of the Anti-Federalists’ theory of representation. The latter fiercely rejected the Federalists’ proposals of virtuous representation, whereby the preferences of the people were to be distilled to leave out the passions and defects of democracy, because of their fear of domination by the “better sort.” Their descriptive theory of representation therefore led the Anti-Federalists to push for a more plebiscitary form of government. The Tea Party, by proposing to “take back” Washington for the people, has insinuated that there is a higher source of legitimacy than the Constitution itself—namely, the people. This is a view the movement shares with Jefferson, Jackson, Wilson, and Reagan. When presidential candidate Rick Santorum, speaking at a forum hosted by Americans for Prosperity, a group affiliated with the Tea Party movement, accused President Obama of being a “snob” for suggesting that every American should go to college, he was merely practicing Melancton Smith’s theory that “representatives (should) . . . resemble those that they represent.” (Conversely, the problem with John Kerry’s image in 2004 was not that he was wealthy, but that he was not a wealthy rancher in a cowboy hat, as George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan were.) Populism and anti-intellectualism, then, are not uniquely Republican or Tea Party qualities; they stem from the Anti-Federalist theory of representation.
Whereas most scholars characterize Tea Party members as possessing inconsistent beliefs—such as a pick-and-choose attitude about when government is desired—I suggest that their beliefs are mostly consistent, and their only error is the failure to appreciate (or admit) that the lion’s share of their beliefs run back to the “Other Founders.” The movement is also more than a top-down movement, even if it has sponsors in high and powerful places. To be sure, this descendant of an authentic homegrown ideological tradition— unlike, say, European imports such as communism or even Lockean liberalism—is one so deeply ingrained that its adherents seldom pause to reflect on the pedigree of their ideas. This too is testament to the enduring legacy of the First Founding and the cultural transmission of its values through the centuries despite the Second Founding. When members of the Tea Party rail against federal spending, it is because they do not think the spending comes back to them. They are harkening back to their primordial identities as members of small republics or states, trying to rewrite history only because the Federalists had first rewritten federalism. They see “death panels” as constituted by malevolent bureaucrats because they think the “Federal City” breeds cabal and vice with malign intentions to “spread the wealth.” As Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson report,
Despite their fondness for the Founding Fathers, Tea Party members we met did not make any reference to the intellectual battles and political compromises out of which the Constitution and its subsequent amendments were forged . . . nor did they realize the extent to which some of the positions Tea Partiers now espouse bear a close resemblance to those of the Anti-Federalists . . . The Tea Partiers we met did not show any awareness that they are echoing arguments made by the Nullifiers and Secessionists before and during the U.S. Civil War . . .
The Tea Partiers appear to be proffering their claims in bad faith because they have not admitted, or perhaps will not admit, their ancestry in Anti-Federalism, for to do so would be to concede the difference from and priority of the values of the Second Founding compared to their own. Yet the best way to make sense of the movement and its commitments is to acknowledge that its members hail come from a long line of American reactionism that began in 1787, when their ancestors stood athwart History and the Federalists, yelling “Stop.” In the Lovers’ Quarrel, old grudges die hard.
Barack Obama, Federalist
The Era of Obama has seen the defenders of the First and Second Foundings scrimmaging tooth and nail. The debates over stimulus packages for the economy, the budget deficit, and public debt, serious and enormous as they are, are variations on the Lovers’ Quarrel. The signature achievement of President Barack Obama’s first term—the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act—represents a surge in federal authority that places Obama squarely in the Federalist camp and our era as a neo-Federalist era. Indeed, at no point in the nation’s history has the Supreme Court determined it consistent with the Constitution that Congress’s taxing and spending powers permit it to tax as many as over 40 million Americans, should they fail to purchase a product, in this case health insurance.
A brief look at Obama’s writings and speeches suggests that he has always been a disciple of Publius. In a book specifically written to introduce himself to voters on the eve of his presidential campaign, Obama was careful not to step on Republican toes, but he did little to hide his neo-Federalist identity. Politicians can fudge or change their positions on specific issues, but whether or not they are Federalist or Anti-Federalist runs to the core of their identity and is not something they, or most Americans, can easily disguise. So in the section of "The Audacity of Hope" where Obama discussed the Declaration of Independence and rights, he observed, like a true Federalist, “a declaration is not a government; a creed is not enough.” His faith was in the Constitution, which had created governmental powers, not the Declaration, which had articulated our rights. Like the Federalists and unlike the Anti-Federalists, he considered the basic problem of political life as starting from a position of heterogeneous interests. Since the Anti-Federalists believed in a small republic, it was but an implied afterthought that political communities should be socially homogenous, so there would be no need for a government to be the arbiter of interests. The Federalists, on the other hand, in extending the sphere, not only had to accept heterogeneity as a given, but also had to find a new argument in defense of the new and much-enlarged political community they were envisioning. In this tradition, Obama wrote: “if my notion of faith is no better or worse than yours, and my notions of truth and goodness and beauty are as true and as good and beautiful as yours—then how can we ever hope to form a society that coheres?" Obama was no idealist insistent on The Truth, but a pragmatist committed only to the truth that could hold a society together. Discussing the scourge of slavery, Obama opined, “it has not always been the pragmatist, the voice of reason, or the force of compromise, that has created the conditions for liberty.” He understood that when Publius et al. extended the sphere, they also enlarged the ambit of our sympathies from those in our communities and states, to those in every state of the Union. This is why we would find out later that “empathy” was the virtue Obama prized in his vetting of judges for the Supreme Court. Empathy is a modern liberal virtue, as it was a Federalist virtue. Conversely, conservatives do not buy that empathy is a virtue; instead, these modern Anti-Federalists believe that the fellow-feeling one feels authentically for one’s brother or neighbor in the family or a small town is a natural sentiment far superior to the paternalistic artifice that is empathy. (“Compassionate conservatism,” an attempt by the second President Bush to extend the scope of conservatives’ sympathies and therefore the size of their electoral coalition, proved to be a relatively short-lived affair.) If the Anti-Federalists were correct that it was difficult if not impossible to cultivate fellow-feeling among, and responsive representation for, diverse peoples across an extended sphere, the Federalists can be lauded for trying—because Pluribus, not Unum, is the natural human path of least resistance.
Like the Federalists, who invited fellow Americans to imagine a Unum when there was only Pluribus about them, Obama understood that the Constitution “is not a static but rather a living document, and must be read in the context of an ever-changing world.” He was committed to the Constitution’s “elaborate machinery” because it was “designed to force us into a conversation.” He understood that the Constitution’s design implied “a rejection of absolute truth,” for that was the best way that the many could become one. If Obama thought the “Founders” were “suspicious of abstraction,” he must not have considered the author of the Declaration of Independence as a Second Founder . When, on the last page of his book, Obama canonized the service of those who “laid down their lives in the service of perfecting an imperfect union,” the reader is left with the distinct impression that he could think of no higher calling. In his victory speech in 2012, he affirmed this conviction, saying, “tonight, more than 200 years after a former colony won the right to determine its own destiny, the task of perfecting our union moves forward.” Similarly, in his Second Inaugural Address, Obama cited the sacred text of the First Founding, saying, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” and continued, “today we continue a never ending journey to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they’ve never been self-executing.” To accomplish that, we needed a Second Founding. Obama may have started his speech with the Declaration of Independence, but he cited the fundamental idea of the Constitution, “We the People,” five times.
At his core, Obama believes in the commitment of the federal government to the protection of every individual in the Union. In 2011, he gave an indicative speech at the dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, where he proffered a neo-Federalist rehearsal of the aspirations of the American people, and an invitation for the nation to focus, as King had, on the liberal and aspirational “ought” rather than the conservative “is.” Quoting King, Obama affirmed Union as a nation of individuals “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” “In this democracy,” Obama continued, “government is no distant object but is rather an expression of our common commitments to one another.” And so, he pragmatically and optimistically observed in his First Inaugural Address, “the question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works.”
None of this is to say that Obama did not learn to speak the rhetoric of states-centered republicanism to appeal to independent and conservative voters, only that his fundamental worldview is archetypically Federalist. Indeed, if Obama is occasionally eloquent, it is because he, like Lincoln, FDR, and Martin Luther King Jr., understood the seductiveness of the language of the small republic, and that American political eloquence is a function of the speaker’s ability to interweave and reconcile the antithetical principles of the nation’s Two Foundings. For example, in May 2012, Barack Obama completed his personal evolution on the issue of gay rights and declared his support for same-sex marriage, but at the same time held that states should be allowed to decide on the matter for themselves. He thought it was a “healthy process” that “states [are] working through this issue—in fits and starts, all across the country. Different communities are arriving at different conclusions, at different times.” He predicted that “this is an issue that is gonna [sic] be worked out at the local level, because historically, this has not been a federal issue, what’s recognized as a marriage.” Here was a Federalist making music to Anti-Federalist ears.
The best example of Obama’s creative resynthesis of the Federalist and Anti- Federalist traditions occurred in his celebrated keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. There, he quoted the self-evident truths of the Declaration (this time with reference to the “Creator” intact) and laid on thick the Anti-Federalist rhetoric of the small republic: “a faith in simple dreams . . . an insistence on small miracles; that we can tuck in our children at night and know that they are fed and clothed and safe from harm.” But like Lincoln had done at Gettysburg, he proceeded to pivot from Anti-Federalist ideals to Federalist ends:
Now, don’t get me wrong, the people I meet in small towns and big cities and diners and office parks, they don’t expect government to solve all of their problems. They know they have to work hard to get ahead . . . but they sense, deep in their bones, that with just a slight change in priorities, we can make sure that every child in America has a decent shot at life and that the doors of opportunity remain open to all.
Obama wrapped himself in Americana, the cloak woven from neo-Anti-Federalist dreams, and used it to lead his audience to the less familiar territory, just as the Federalists had done before. And so he would say, “alongside our famous individualism, there’s another ingredient in the American saga, a belief that we are all connected as one people.” This other ingredient, of Federalist origin, is “what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family: ‘E pluribus unum,’ out of many, one.” And so, in perhaps the most remembered part of this speech, he said,
The pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states: red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states. We coach little league in the blue states and, yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the red states . . . We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.
By tapping into the two indigenous strands of American political thought, Obama captivated the electorate in 2008, paving the way for his attempt at American political development when he came into office. His 2008 election theme, “hope,” after all, had made its first cameo appearance in this speech. Hope, of course, was what the Anti-Federalists felt about the citizenry. The Federalists, on the other hand, with their darker view of human nature, at least when operating in an extended republic, put their faith in the new science. Obama took the Anti-Federalists’ hope in the people and stretched it to include a newfound faith in the powers of the federal government. This creative resynthesis persuaded voters that 2008 would be the dawn of a new Federalist moment, a new age of government.
President Obama’s speeches since have often come short of the one that paved his meteoric rise to the White House, in part because his subsequent invocations of Anti-Federalism seemed more perfunctory and even dismissive, rather than incorporative or genuine. Healthcare reform was of course the landmark legislation of Obama’s first term, and debate about it lined up squarely along Federalist/Anti-Federalist lines. In his speech to Congress on healthcare in 2009, he attempted to do what he had done in 2004, but with a small but significant difference. “The danger of too much government is matched by the perils of too little,” he said. Like the neo-Federalist presidents before him, Obama took on the arguments of the other side and gave them fair hearing. “One of the unique and wonderful things about America has always been our self-reliance, our rugged individualism, our fierce defense of freedom and our healthy skepticism of government,” he said, paying homage to the Anti-Federalists. But unlike his 2004 convention speech, he posited a contrast rather than a creative link from Anti-Federalism to Federalism, saying that there was also another American ideological tradition he called “large-heartedness—that concern and regard for the plight of others . . . too, is part of the American character,” and that “sometimes government has to step in to help deliver on that promise.” “Large-heartedness,” like the virtue of empathy, is a Federalist ideal—not something that appeals to Anti-Federalists, and a contrast without a bridge does not creatively resynthesize but exacerbates the Lovers’ Quarrel.
On another occasion, in 2009, Obama even mocked the Anti-Federalists in our midst when at a fundraiser in San Francisco, he explained, “they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” Though he was not entirely wrong in that modern Anti-Federalists share the same jealousy of power and the mirroring theory of representation of their forefathers, Obama made the cardinal mistake of disrespecting the principles and adherents of the First Founding, while missing an opportunity to make the case for why the alternative conception of government he held was not malevolent but benign. Obama showed his partisan hand again at another campaign event three years later when he said, “there is a certain crowd in Washington who, for the last few decades, have said, let’s respond to this economic challenge with the same old tune . . . one that speaks to our rugged individualism and our healthy skepticism of too much government. That’s in America’s DNA. And that theory fits well on a bumper sticker. But here’s the problem: It doesn’t work.” The President might have gained more converts had he started from Anti-Federalist premises and conscientiously built an intellectual and emotional bridge toward Federalist conclusions, as Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt had successfully done before. At his best, Barack Obama can sound more like Madison than Hamilton, and in these moments he has been relatively successful in convincing Anti-Federalists that it is possible to have faith in a government that they do not yet love.
Reprinted with permission from "The Lovers' Quarrel: The Two Foundings and American Political Development" by Elvin T. Lim, published by Oxford University Press, Inc. © 2014 Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.