State Chauvinism

Back in the 1930s, when my father drove a delivery truck in the Big Thicket country of East Texas, he joined a Texas Ranger in a shooting contest beside a small country store. The target was a soft-drink-bottle cap stuck in the bark of a tree. My dad, who could strike a match with a pistol bullet, hit the cap dead center.

“Not bad shooting,” the Ranger said, “for a Georgia cracker.”

“Hell,” my Dad replied, “in Georgia we use pistols for teething rings.”

I share this little anecdote to point out that, at one time, most Americans thought of themselves as citizens of the states in which they were born and were very proud of them.

Even as late as the 1950s, I listened to a very angry black civil-rights advocate say, “These people are first of all white, second of all Southern, third Alabamian or whatever state they’re from, fourth American and fifth and finally a (expletive deleted) human being.” Bitterness aside, there was a lot of truth in his observation.

While ditching the racist part, we ought to go back to that. Being an amorphous member of so vast a country as ours is psychologically alienating. We should go back to thinking primarily in terms of our state and our region. Being a homogenized part of a homogenized whole is being a citizen of nowhere. Since the complexities of so vast a country are impossible to grasp, we end up focusing on ourselves as selfish individuals.

In our country, states preceded the federal government. The first war with England caused the 13 independent republics to form a confederation for the purpose of fighting the war. After the war, the delegates were instructed to strengthen the Articles of Confederation, and that’s what they did. We call it a “constitution,” but during the ratification debate, George Washington constantly referred to it as “a stronger confederation.”

If you will read the Constitution, you will see that the federal government is assigned very few tasks. Mainly it was to coin money and set its value, establish weights and standards, ensure a free-trade zone within the borders, carry the mail, provide a common defense and handle foreign affairs. It was granted only such power as necessary to accomplish its listed, specified duties. Everything else was to be done by the states.

It was an eminently sensible plan. After all, who would want 13 different monetary systems, 13 different foreign policies and 13 different armies? We wouldn’t have lasted two decades with such a system. On the other hand, it makes eminent sense for the states to handle such matters as health, education, welfare, the environment and social problems.

We have, of course, gotten very far away from that concept. As great corporations grew in the North, they wanted a national government that could do them favors. To get it, they had to crush the South, where people were libertarian on everything but the subject of slavery. The South believed that the federal government was merely the agent for the states and should do nothing that did not provide equal benefit to all of the states. In other words, they were dead-against pork-barreling, corporate subsidies and other favors.

Well, now that slavery is a nonissue, there is no reason why we cannot, with good conscience, adopt the Southern position. It is both immoral and wasteful to tax people in Montana to build projects for the sole benefit of people in New York City, or vice versa. Pork-barreling has corrupted us to the point that rather than being a nation of citizens interested in good government, we have become a mob greedily lobbying for “our” share of the federal pie.

This system has sucked both power and money away from the local and state governments, where they can be used most efficiently and democratically, to Washington, where the price of admission is a lot of money. We just experienced a presidential contest between millionaires financed by millionaires.

Big business is the chief proponent of a powerful central government. After all, it is both cheaper and more efficient to bribe one federal official than to have to bribe 50 state officials.

The footsteps of the average citizen cannot be heard in the halls of Washington because of the thunder of lobbyists in their Gucci shoes and $2,000 suits with their fat checkbooks.

We’ve had our revolution. Now we need to start devolution and return both the power and the money to the states. To do that, we have to focus our attention on our homes, our communities and our states. Overseas, we are Americans; within our own borders, we should be Georgians or Iowans or whatever state gave us birth.

Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years, reporting on everything from sports to politics. From 1969—71, he worked as a campaign staffer for gubernatorial, senatorial and congressional races in several states. He was an editor, assistant to the publisher, and columnist for the Orlando Sentinel from 1971 to 2001. He now writes a syndicated column which is carried on Reese served two years active duty in the U.S. Army as a tank gunner. Write to Charley Reese at P.O. Box 2446, Orlando, FL 32802.