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Henningsen: Federalists

07/02/10 5:55PM By Vic Henningsen
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(HOST) Teacher, historian, and VPR commentator Vic Henningsen has been thinking about how, since the founding of our democracy, the names of political parties and movements have been fairly capricious.

(HENNINGSEN) What's in a name?  It can be downright confusing if we're trying to understand America's political history.

Consider the Tea Party movement, which a number of commentators have called part of America's robust Anti-Federalist tradition.

The Anti-Federalists, recall, were those who opposed ratification of the Constitution; they favored retention of the weak, severely limited national government framed by the Articles of Confederation. They argued that so-called "Federalists," who sought ratification, would frame a consolidated government and would erase state autonomy. Anti-Federalists wanted the U.S. to remain a loose association of independent states - something like today's European Union.

But wait a minute: that's what the word "federal" means.  Its root is the Latin foedus, meaning "league, compact, or treaty."  So how is it that people who favored retaining a government that was indeed "federal," according to the definition, wound up getting tagged as "Anti-Federalists"?

Ah, that's politics, my friends.  Long before George Orwell pointed out the political uses of the English language, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and others employed the 18th century equivalent of "Newspeak" to demonize and discredit their opponents. Those who opposed the new Constitution - who, in fact, were truly "federalist" - were christened "Anti-Federalist," a term with distinct negative connotations.  In a simple semantic switch, those who favored the status quo were transformed into the 1780s version of the "party of no."

This language business gets complicated.  Anti-Federalists formed the core of one of America's first political parties, a group initially called Democratic-Republicans.  Under Thomas Jefferson they were known as Republicans, but by Andrew Jackson's time they called themselves Democrats - and remain so today.  For most of their existence they were the party of limited government and states' rights. But Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal and Lyndon Johnson's Great Society helped transform them into the big-government group we know today.

By contrast, the original big government party was the Federalists, who became the Whigs, who became the Republicans under Abraham Lincoln.  It was Republican Theodore Roosevelt in the early 20th century who ushered in the Progressive Era, using the power of the national government to address social ills created by the untrammeled reign of big business and industry.  Government regulation was a Republican invention. The Republican Party we know today developed in reaction to Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal and Johnson's Great Society and found expression in the views and policies of Ronald Reagan, who was himself a Democrat for many years.

It's a historical version of Abbot and Costello's "Who's on first."  Small-government Anti-Federalists, lineal ancestors of today's Democrats, would feel more comfortable in Republican ranks.  Federalists, the original big-government party and the forbears of today's Republicans, would identify with Democrats.  It's difficult to think of Thomas Jefferson and Mitch McConnell as a pair - or Alexander Hamilton and Nancy Pelosi - but there you go.
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