Spotting a federalist in California is about as rare as finding a bus stop. Far from the protocol of the Washington beltway, in a state where excessive individualism is encouraged, and Newt Gingrich’s popularity still registers in double digits, federalist voices don’t exactly litter the landscape. What better vantage point to get a fix on the ongoing battle to dismember federal government? As you’ll recall, my starting point for study was the aborted Republican revolution of 1995, and its call to arms: the Contract with America. Federal government was indicted as “too big, too intrusive and too easy with people’s money.” The assault failed, but it marked the beginning of a series of attacks on Washington’s credibility that continues today.
“Rarely,” says American historian Alan Brinkley, “has there been an assault on the institutional, even constitutional underpinnings, of American government as fundamental as the one facing it today. Should that assault succeed, it would make profound changes in the character of our national government, the legacy of which could last for generations.”
While distrust and disdain of federal government is not as deeply rooted in Canada, the noisy nature of the American debate has certainly drifted north. “Flexible federalism” has become the rallying cry as Ottawa tries to prove to the provinces that it still has a few tricks left in its bag to keep Quebec in the family, massage the economy, or produce new jobs.
Calls for devolution are on the lips of provincial premiers as often as state governors, all in the name of moving government closer to its citizens, of course. It’s a trend not overlooked in Stanford’s bible, the course catalogue.
One of the most challenging courses I took was Kathleen Sullivan’s “American Constitutional Law”. A top First Amendment scholar, Sullivan’s passions are the issues around freedom of speech, and freedom of religion. Cataloguing the contest of wills between the U.S. Supreme Court and Congress proved to be the best analysis of American politics on campus.
Sullivan is also that rarest of California creatures, an unabashed federalist. She condemns the dozens of proposed constitutional amendments currently before Congress that would radically shift power away from Washington and to the states. Sullivan quotes James Madison, one of the framers of the Constitution, who believed that federal government was the best check on the “propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities”. And she argues that decentralization would trigger a “race to the bottom” among states, each vying to undercut the other in the fight to attract new business.
“The Anti-federalists lost the constitutional battle at the end of the 18th century. Nothing has changed in two centuries to make them right at the end of the 20th,” concludes Sullivan in her latest book, “New Federalist Papers: Essays in Defence of the Constitution”. Sullivan also provided me with a directed reading list.
Another course helpful to my research was the “Transformation of American thought and culture from 1865 to present”, taught by Richard Gillam. As billed, this course was an eclectic tour through the last hundred years of political reform, featuring work by Thorstein Veblen, Henry Adams, Herbert Marcuse, Lillian Hellman, James Baldwin and Irving Kristol. Gillam sees the current disillusionment with federal government as a legacy of the 40s: the upheaval of McCarthyism, rapid industrialization, and the lead-up to the second World War. It’s an interesting backdrop for the growing chorus of voices on both sides of the border who lament the demise of government, and the character of “civic life”.
Other professors/seminar leaders of note:
- William Perry, former Secretary of Defence with the Clinton Administration.
- George Shultz, former Secretary of State, and a Fellow of the Hoover Institution on campus.
- David Brady, professor of the Graduate School of Business and the department of Political Science. Brady has written nine books, several comparing U.S. and Canadian political systems. In the aftermath of the last U.S. election, he coined the term “revolving gridlock” to describe the Congressional snarl that has brought legislation to a standstill. Numerous polls conducted by Brady reveal a deep divide among Americans who want aIl the services government provides, but none of the regulation.
- David Kennedy, professor of history and an ardent fan of Walter Lippman’s 1915 classic, “Drift and Mastery”. Kennedy echoes Lippman’s faith in a strong, centralized government that led, in part, to the reforms of the New Deal era.
- John Taylor, professor of economics and former chief economic advisor to Bob Dole. Taylor also served as a member of the Council of Economic Advisors in the Bush Administration. Taylor designed Dole’s ill-fated economic package that included a 15 per cent tax cut, and a promise to balance the budget at the same time.
- Esther Dyson, chairwoman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
- Czeslaw Milosz, 1980 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, grandmaster of Central European poetry, and survivor of revolutions in Poland and Berkeley University.
In addition to my research topic, I also took courses in Cyberspace Law, Conflict Management and Negotiation (Graduate School of Business), Economics, Transatlantic Modernism (Art History) , Fiction Writing and Oceanography. The latter was a fluid mix of science and folklore, perfect preparation for a tsunami from Lake Ontario or, more probably, Queen’s Park.
Off campus, I had several fascinating conversations with Peter Schrag, former editor of the respected Sacramento Bee newspaper. Schrag has chronicled the twists and turns of California politics for over 30 years, including the most recent experiments to reshape government that he dubs “the populist road to hell”: term limits, supermajority votes, and balanced-budget amendments. Schrag contends that state government is now so handcuffed by voter restrictions that it barely functions at ail.
Schrag is particularly critical of the push for term limits: “By some strange working of the popular will,” he says, “the country will take some of the government’s toughest decisions out of the hands of legislators with long experience and deliver them into the hands of amateurs. The legislature has, in effect, become a bus station, where some people have just arrived and other are waiting to leave, and as a result the institution itself does not elicit much loyalty or devotion.”
California’s attempts to reshape government serve as cautionary tales for provinces contemplating similar reforms. My research should also be useful for a series on CBC’s “The National Magazine” about whether Ottawa should cut taxes or boost spending now that it’s speeding out of the red. The program will air in January.
One other note: I was invited to speak to Stanford’s graduate journalism students about CBC, and current affairs reporting. As you know, there’s really no equivalent to CBC Radio anywhere in the U.S. Documentaries from the now defunct “Sunday Morning” were the centrepiece of my presentation. What was supposed to be an hour lecture turned into a three hour Q&A session. It makes me wonder – not for the first time – if CBC isn’t being short-sighted by not preserving and promoting the documentary format that earns it such kudos.
All in all, it was an exceptional year. My fellow Fellows are some of the most committed journalists I’ve met, and I feel I’ve returned to Canada with a renewed sense of craft, a wealth of story ideas and new contacts. Quite simply, I could never have accepted a Knight Fellowship without the help of the Michener Awards Foundation. Thank you again.
“The National Magazine”
CBC Television, Toronto
November 26, 1997