Contrary to the conventional wisdom held by talking heads, there is no going back to the days of “decency” and “respectability” politics.
The Tweedledee and Tweedledum of political parties discussing mundane issues is becoming an afterthought in the era of populism.
To be sure, we’re not going to witness a drastic rollback of government intrusions at the federal level, much less the abolition of the litany of unconstitutional laws and regulations emanating from DC any time soon. However, there is plenty of potential for states to poke Washington in the eye by nullifying its laws and pursuing their own policy agendas.
Florida governor Ron DeSantis recently got the decentralist memo when he announced on December 2, 2021, a new funding proposal for Florida’s National Guard and a plan that would resurrect the Florida State Guard, a state defense force that was disbanded in 1947.
This state defense force is expected to assist the National Guard in hurricanes, natural disasters, and other emergencies taking place specifically in Florida. DeSantis stressed that the Florida State Guard would “not be encumbered by the federal government.” In effect, the Florida State Guard would only respond to the governor. Furthermore, it would not be deployed for federal missions and would not receive federal dollars.
In predictable fashion, DeSantis’s move elicited a banshee shriek from his political rivals and the corporate press, who are utterly convinced DeSantis is on his way to building a private army. Agricultural commissioner Nikki Fried described DeSantis’s state guard plan as a step toward creating a “paramilitary force.”
Sober minds will recognize that a Florida State Guard will not put the state on an accelerated course toward full-blown private defense. However, it is still a positive step toward devolving power away from the federal government and letting states assume defense functions the federal government has gradually abrogated over the years.
One need not look further than the federal government’s bungled response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 to see what happens when the federal government is granted broad powers in tackling natural disasters. Hint: It wasn’t pretty and showed yet again why a lumbering federal government is incapable of tackling natural disasters when charitable organizations and sleeker state entities can do a much better job.
Hyperbole aside, DeSantis’s move to potentially revive the Florida State Guard should make Fried and her ilk jittery. Here, we’re dealing with people who believe that a centralized military body commanded by a cabal of leaders not subject to democratic mechanisms is more legitimate than state military forces.
The amusing part about the criticism directed toward DeSantis’s state guard plan is that several states—from blue bastions such as California and New York to solid red states such as Louisiana and Texas—have their own state guards. Even the territory of Puerto Rico has its own state guard that’s activated during times of emergency.
The attacks levied against DeSantis are nothing new. DeSantis has separated himself from the rest of the gubernatorial pack during his time as governor of Florida by effectively becoming the strongest resistance figure against the covid-19 biosecurity state.
Now he is pushing the envelope by bringing back the idea of state militias to the public discussion, institutions that have been thoroughly neutered by the federal government. Long forgotten is how the zenith of militia activity, particularly of the private nature, took place in the first half the nineteenth century, when militias were largely free from the grasp of centralized militia systems.
Historically speaking, state militias operated as independent military units unless national service was requested of them during times of war. In addition, state governors occasionally pushed back against federal control of state military units.
That said, the relatively decentralized nature of the National Guard was thoroughly sullied via federal usurpation starting in the late nineteenth century, which later went into hyperdrive during the twentieth century. Ryan McMaken noted that National Guard units were placed under the federal government’s thumb through the passage of the National Defense Act of 1933. This legislation effectively nationalized National Guard members, who were no longer exclusively under the control of state governors. Following the prevailing trend of heightened centralization throughout the twentieth century, governors had lost practically all their autonomy with regard to the deployment of state troops by 1990.
While centralization has largely come out on top in the past century, cracks are gradually appearing in the statist architecture. With unprecedented talk about secession or even civil war scenarios, America is reaching a breaking point. Novel forms of political organization will be needed to maintain domestic tranquility.
Now is not the time to lament the federal government going astray. Over the course of the last century, America has undergone several revolutions within the form that have made any significant change in Washington next to impossible. Let’s face it, there’s not going to be a deus ex machina coming from the federal government to make things right.
Genuine change will likely come through bands of disgruntled citizens muddling through at the state and local level. That kind of dirty work will be instrumental in the creation of decentralized alternatives to our present political order—an ossified arrangement that desperately needs an overhaul.
DeSantis’s stewardship of Florida in the covid-19 era may just be the political project that gets the decentralization train moving. But to replicate Florida’s example, people will first need to snap out of their obsession with the productivity black hole that is federal politics.