Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Op-ed to the Boston Globe, 12/1/07

New England
Should Seek Greater Autonomy on National Issues

By Bernie Quigley on 12/11/07

At the beginning of the war on Iraq two writers and a college professor from the three northernmost New England states proposed that under Jefferson’s view of the Constitution, the New England states need not participate. To our surprise, George Kennan, possibly our most important ambassador since Franklin, heartily endorsed this idea. We also suggested that if the U.S. no longer wanted to be part of the UN, then the New England states should send their own representative to the UN. John Kenneth Galbraith, still at his desk at Harvard at 94 in 2002, thought this idea “ . . . wonderfully to the good.”

We have come to a crisis in the United States. Habeas corpus, key to the evolution of the English-speaking people since the 12th century, has been randomly discarded without raising an eyebrow. Waterboarding, a torture technique refined in Nazi Germany, is all in a day’s work and the Washington Post revealed last week that key Democrats, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, were fully briefed on waterboarding as early as 2002 and registered no protest. And General Abizaid’s assessment that the objectives in the Middle East will require “ . . . 50 years of war,” raised no objection either from an accommodating Congress or from the passive multitudes.

I believe that this crisis has come about because Alexander Hamilton’s vision of federalism has reached its outer limits. Hamilton and Washington believed in a single strong central government and weak states and regions. This may well have been the correct path when the western regions were still in wilderness and while the Northeast dominated the political agenda after 1865. But demographics have changed the political landscape.

As a result of these new demographics, we in New England can no longer dictate to the rest of the country and today we are being forced to live under the political influence of the heartland religionists and their “faith-based” politics. Increasingly, Boston and New York no longer control the conversation. Texas does.

The rise of the Religious Right is an organic consequence of changing demographics. Influence in our country has shifted from the New York and Boston regions to the South, Texas, the Southwest and Midwestern states because economy and population have moved there continually since the end of WW II. Naturally, when the South became economically and politically integrated into the world economy and began to gain influence on the national agenda, Southern people would demand that their own values be expressed in their own cultural idiom. And as it has been since the earliest days, these values would be in opposition to those of the Northern regions, particularly those of New England. This, writes the great Southern historian Frank Owsley, has been the “Irrepressible Conflict” in American destiny long preceding the Civil War.

It should be noted that in the variety of religious forums and “value forums” sponsored recently by the Religious Right, only John McCain and Ron Paul have explicitly opposed torture. This in no way speaks to New England and New England’s values.

In Vermont today we see signs which say, “U.S. out of Vermont.” And for the first time since 1812, there are fledgling secession movements in Vermont and New Hampshire.

Secession is not the answer. But New England today has to face the fact that we can no longer impose our values on the rest of the United States, particularly the South, the Southwest and a good part of the Midwest. Hamilton’s direction is yielding to demographics, and Jefferson’s vision of unique states and regions and peoples, loosely connecting the one to the other, growing over time, rich in character and each with its own identity and personality is ascending.

New England was in any case Jeffersonian before 1865 as were our earliest poets and visionaries. We were closer to nature and perhaps closer to each other than our “Hamiltonian” neighbors in New York and in the more industrialized regions. I believe we still are Jeffersonian and I believe with Jefferson that the only sure defense against a wayward and unpredictable federal government is strong states and strong regions.

In order to retain our New England character and culture we must return to Jefferson’s vision. But we should return to Jefferson by increment; without causing chaos or disorder. “One size fits all federalism” (my phrase, now used by Romney) was the right path in terms of economy and culture when the western regions were empty spaces. But today, a regional approach to government would be far more effective on issues of work, poverty, economy and environment.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in California, Governor Jodi Rell of Connecticut and Mike Bloomberg of New York have all recently taken the Jeffersonian approach in opposition to the federal government on issues of environment and gun control. Gov. Schwarzenegger in particular has brought a direct challenge to the federal government, signing climate treaties between California and British Columbia and England in direct opposition to federalist custom and lore since 1865.

This is the natural next step in our American journey.