President Trump rarely uses the language of restraint, but his limited agenda makes clear the vast room available for a renewal of state and local politics as a necessary ground and embodiment of self-government…
We continue to witness the left’s refusal to come to grips with their loss of electoral power in Washington, D.C. Childish and sometimes thuggish behavior in the streets is surpassed in importance by more potentially deadly “resistance” from supposedly neutral bureaucrats and members of the minority party. The question at the national level is whether President Trump will be able to overcome unthinking opposition and make reforms that have been needed for decades and, as important, shift power away from the deep state, returning it to the people.
As we consider the difficulties involved here, we should not forget that other, equally significant shift in power from last November—that achieved in the American states. Republicans now control sixty-eight out of ninety-eight partisan state legislatures; they inhabit the governors’ mansions of thirty-three states, and are in control of both the entire legislature and governors’ offices of twenty-four states. This kind of rejection of Progressive extremism already has had consequences. Common-sense civil service reforms and restrictions on abortionists already have gained favorable treatment in several states, and reforms regarding health, education, and regulatory policies—as well as greater protections for the rights of religious communities and others targeted by Progressives—seem destined for enactment.
Constitutional conservatives like yours truly were hesitant at first about supporting the Trump candidacy because of his focus on using national power to achieve national prosperity. The concentration of power is by its very nature deadly to liberty and the rule of law, and many of us were not convinced that Mr. Trump was aware of this political truth. That said, the corruption and lust for power of our Progressive elites necessitated a strong response, which took the form of Mr. Trump. And from everything he has done so far, both in his appointments and in his restrained but effective use of Executive Orders, it seems clear that America dodged a metaphorical bullet (perhaps an entire magazine) through his election.
President Trump rarely uses the language of restraint, but his limited agenda makes clear the vast room available for a renewal of state and local politics as a necessary ground and embodiment of self-government. If reforms in healthcare, immigration, and regulatory policy are to take hold and bear fruit, it is important for state governments in particular to respond, and even lead, through their own programs of deregulation. At least as important, if the onslaught of the Social Justice Warriors is to be defeated, and traditional American norms are to be maintained and renewed, the focus must return to state and local policies protecting the rights and freedom of action of the intermediary institutions (family, church, and local associations) in which Americans lead the bulk of their lives.
As always in the conflict with leviathan, most of the needed reforms have more to do with reducing power in the center than with increasing it elsewhere. But serious reform that furthers the cause of ordered liberty requires action—and action beyond Washington. In addition to the continued need for Americans to make contributions within our traditional institutions, we need to return to the forms of political action that served as a precursor to the Trump candidacy, and that can enshrine reform in the Constitution itself, in large measure by simply reasserting its original structure and intent.
One movement gaining momentum in recent years is that calling for a Convention of the States. Promoted in particular by a group called Citizens for Self-Governance, the movement for a constitutional convention stems from frustration with our Washington elites. Rather than simply complain or “resist” like Social Justice Warriors, champions of constitutional federalism have sought to organize grassroots support and convince state legislatures to utilize Article V of our Constitution. Article V provides that proposed amendments to the federal Constitution may come from the national legislature, or from a convention called for by the states. Given the persistent failure of our national legislature—under whatever party—to address deep problems with American governance, or to stop the ever-growing encroachment of federal power on the states, it may well be time to work around Washington in seeking real change to revive constitutional self-government.
The central problems Citizens for Self-Governance seeks to address include America’s spending and debt crisis, the deepening problem of over-regulation, congressional attacks on state sovereignty, and the federal takeover of local decision-making. Among the most important amendments discussed are several that would correct judicial misreadings of our Constitution. For example, courts have allowed the federal spending power to spiral out of control through very loose and tenuous connection with the Constitution’s General Welfare Clause—a clause never intended to be used in this manner. An amendment restating the original (highly limited) understanding of the General Welfare Clause would make an extremely powerful tool for the defense of limited government. Likewise, federal regulatory powers have increased exponentially under false and mistaken readings of the Constitution’s Commerce Power. Today, the federal government regulates pretty much anything it wants to regulate on the grounds that it somehow “affects” interstate commerce. An amendment restoring the original, limited understanding of that term would restrain federal power, increase local control, and help resuscitate economic well-being. Other proposed amendments include: prohibiting the use of international treaties to modify and/or overrule American domestic laws; limiting the use of Executive Orders and federal regulations to prevent them from usurping the role of the legislature; and requiring the federal government to maintain a balanced budget.
More generally, the call of the convention would be to limit federal power in the name of federalism and ordered liberty. To be in order, proposed amendments would have to be aimed at this more general goal. Of course, resulting proposals would still have to be ratified by three-fourths of the states in order to be adopted and become part of the Constitution.
The call for a Convention of the States is not a call for specific amendments, though it admirably specifies the intent such amendments must have in common. The point is to bring together people dedicated to a restoration of authority to the people in their state and local communities; the goal is to restore the Constitution’s nature as a frame of limited government, ceding only enumerated powers to Washington. None of the specific proposals—indeed no one, specific Amendment—can hope to restore American self-government in a single swoop. There is no such “magic bullet” for the simple reason that governance is a process intended to maintain the peace and stability of civil society, not a machine for the production of prosperity or any other concrete Good Thing.
In an essay published here some months ago, I stated my concern that a Convention of the States could not serve as a substitute for local, civic action aimed at restoring ordered liberty and the culture on which it relies. I continue to believe this, but hasten to add that work toward such a convention, focused at the state and local level, would itself rejuvenate civic traditions long suppressed by our overreaching federal government. It would be a means of restoring our constitutional order and would be highly beneficial to Americans and the American political order. It would itself be a form of civic education for citizens, elected officials, and even those in administrative and judicial positions who have come to believe that they have a right to rule the American people from the heights of a power that is permanent and unrestrained by law.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.