President Ronald Reagan was an enigma. His goals and the results he produced were often achieved by contradicting the accepted paradigms. He was known for strength and military prowess, yet America participated in fewer battles under him than any President in modern history. He helped individuals and small businesses at the bottom rung by letting money “trickle down” from the top. He was strong on immigration, yet gave amnesty to many.
Historians and political scientists are still trying to unpack how he was able to produce desired results by addressing the problems from directions opposite of Presidents before and after him. One of the least discussed but most profound contradictions in Reagan’s arsenal was “new Federalism.” Like President Richard Nixon before him, Reagan believed that if you take the power-balancing ideas of the original Federalist Party and apply them to modern problems, you can fix the broken aspects of American government.
His first challenge was overcoming the stigma associated with the early Federalists. Both their name and the twisting of their goals would seem to oppose what he wanted done, but this is a misconception. They wanted a stronger federal government than their opponents who believed in the primacy of the states. Federalists wanted a balance between the states and the national government. The anti-federalists didn’t want the national government to have much influence at all – no substantial army, no navy at all, and no ability to sign binding treaties with other nations. In essence, the Democratic-Republicans of Thomas Jefferson wanted every state to be sovereign to the extreme. If France wanted to sign a trade pact or alliance treaty, they’d need to do so with each individual state rather than with one United States of America.
Reagan’s vision of modern Federalism is to achieve the same goals of the original Federalists but from the opposite end of the spectrum. He realized that the national government was quickly becoming too powerful. He embraced the Federalist approach of checks and balances between the states and Washington DC that empowers either to properly represent their citizens. If someone in Michigan was being oppressed by the federal government, they could go to the state to seek protections. If it was Michigan that was oppressing this person, they could call on DC for help. Only through balance of powers can this country be properly managed. Only through balance of powers can the people’s freedoms be properly protected.
The reason it’s not discussed much is because he didn’t come close to completing his mission. Despite his charisma and intellect, he soon realized that the government he ran was extremely reluctant to give up any of its powers. This, more than anything else, is why we’ve formed a new Federalist Party. Even someone as strong and well-liked as Reagan was not able to break through the DC cartel’s self-aggrandizing addictions. We need a party that truly believes in reining in DC overreach to start winning seats at local, state, and national levels of government. Reagan needed help and the GOP was unwilling to give it to him.
Today, we need Reagan’s concepts of Federalism even more than we did in the 80s. Things have gotten worse. DC is a swamp, and while President Donald Trump is trying to drain it as quickly as possible, he can’t get it all done. In fact, his focus on reducing bureaucracy is righteous but is only one small part of the overall formula. Reining in government overreach requires a three-pronged attack and draining the swamp will only go after one of those prongs. We need more. Just as GOP leadership didn’t support Reagan’s efforts, we cannot expect them to initiate the purging of their own powers any time in the future, either.
Thankfully, we’re not starting from scratch. There are those in DC such as Mike Lee, Louie Gohmert, Ted Cruz, Justin Amash, and Ben Sasse who have demonstrated an understanding of the need to rein in federal power in all three branches, including their own. They are a minority even in their own party. This is why Federalists must coalesce around a party that’s willing to support them and bring fresh blood into the halls of government at every level.
Reagan had a wonderful vision of small-government Federalism that remains unfulfilled to this day. It’s time to put people into office who will truly take up his mantle and act to reduce the power being accumulated in Washington DC. As Reagan once said, “Government does not solve problems. It subsidizes them.” The time to solve the problem is soon. The way to solve them is being built today.