Wednesday, October 23, 2013


POLITICS ON A HUMAN SCALE
The American Tradition of Decentralism 
 
by Jeff Taylor 
 
Lexington Books
2013
 

Foreword by Congressman Glen Browder
 
available in
paperback, hardback, & ebook

publisher’s website 
     #decentralization        #democracy
#power                      #liberty
    #AmericanHistory        #community
#TenthAmendment     #morality
#RepublicNotEmpire
#ThomasJefferson
#19thCenturyAbolitionists
#Bryan-LaFollettePopulists 

Sunday, October 6, 2013


Book Synopsis

Politics on a Human Scale is about a contemporary concern with deep roots in American history: decentralism.  Human behavior is a mixture of competition and cooperation, of individualism and integration.  Each side of the equation contributes something of value to life. 

It is a tricky thing to structure government in a way that helps to maintain social equilibrium.  Liberty and order are both important.  A weak government will fail to promote justice and commonweal.  A strong government will hinder freedom and rights.      

Part of the desirable equilibrium is a sense of proportionality.  Some sizes, some amounts, some levels are more appropriate than others.  Decentralism is the best political tool to ensure equilibrium, to promote proportionality, and to obtain appropriate scale. 

Power distribution should be as wide as possible.  Government functions should be as close to the people as practicable.  In this way, individual human beings are not swallowed by a monstrous Leviathan.  Persons are not at the mercy of an impersonal bureaucracy led by the far-away few.  Decentralism gives us politics on a human scale.  It gives us more democracy within the framework of a republic. 

The longest chapters in the book deal with crucial turning points in U.S. history—specifically, when decentralists lost the upper-hand in the two major political parties.  Decentralism in our nation runs deep, both intellectually and historically.  It also has considerable popular support.  Yet today it is a virtual political orphan. 

In Washington, neither major political party is serious about dispersing power to lower levels of government or to the people themselves.  Still, there are dissident politicians and political movements that remain committed to the decentralist principle.

Power needs to be held in check, partly through decentralization, because power holds a great and dangerous attraction for humans.  Recognition of this human tendency is the first step in guarding against it and getting back on a better path. 

Saturday, October 5, 2013


Chapter Summaries
 
Chapter 1 – Introduction: The Quadratic Persuasion
Decentralized political power is characterized by four values. The quadratic persuasion of decentralism includes four philosophical underpinnings: democracy, liberty, community, and morality.

Chapter 2 – The Country Party: Agrarianism Surveyed
There is less population density and more individual liberty in the country compared to the city. There are fewer formal constraints and a greater sense of personal responsibility on farms and in small towns. Paradoxically, freedom is maximized in such an environment yet a sense of community also flourishes. Urban areas include their fair share of decentralists and big-city anonymity provides liberty of a sort, but agrarianism remains foundational to the dispersal of power and independence from the state.

Chapter 3 – Nullification and the Politics of State Sovereignty
Nullification—the deliberate disregard of a federal law by a state or lower level of government—is a potentially powerful tool for decentralization. The refusal to enforce what is considered to be an unconstitutional or unjust statute can represent a retrieval of power by a more appropriate level and a restoration of authority on a more human scale.  In the history of the United States, nullification has sometimes been a means of advancing freedom and democracy.   

Chapter 4 – The Path Not Taken by the Progressive Era and New Deal
The party that created nullification via Jefferson and Madison, and was suspicious of federal bureaucratic control as late as the early 1900s under W.J. Bryan’s leadership, turned in the opposite direction as a result of its embrace of Woodrow Wilson in the 1910s and FDR in the 1930s. In this way, the national Democratic Party became committed to big government both domestically and on the global stage.

Chapter 5 – Southern Democrats and Selective Devolutions
Naturally inclined as they were to remember old times in the land of cotton, many southern Democrats retained the decentralist, constitutionalist, and populist traditions of Jefferson and Jackson. Over time, however, many leading southern Democrats in D.C. were co-opted by the imperial city. By the 1960s, the Democratic parties in the southern states were no longer principled opponents of big government—most of the opposition that was still in existence was highly selective and poisoned by racial bigotry.

Chapter 6 – Me-Too Republicans and Averted Revolutions
In the mid-twentieth-century, Jeffersonian politics experienced a revival within the Republican Party under statesmen such as Robert Taft and Barry Goldwater. Even though Goldwater was nominated for president by the GOP in 1964, his triumph was an aberration as most Republican leaders continued to echo the centralizing, big-government policies of the Democrats.

Chapter 7 – Ronald Reagan: Conservatism Co-Opted
The nomination and election of Ronald Reagan seemingly brought victory to the conservative small-government wing of the party, but the victory was, for the most part, an illusion. The Reagan interregnum was co-opted as liberal GOP centralists donned the mantle of “Reagan Republican” after 1980 even as they continued to pursue their traditional policies of constitutional elasticity, federal domination, deficit spending, government/corporate alliance, and internationalism.

Chapter 8 – Dissident Voices in an Age of Centralization
Although the establishments of both parties, regardless of region and rhetoric, are pillars of a national and international status quo in which big government and big business work together, often at the expense of the common good, there have been movements and politicians that have resisted the trend. These dissident voices can be found on both the Right and the Left.

Friday, October 4, 2013


Book Reviews


“With a vast and impressive knowledge of American political history, a skillful pen, and a generous heart, political scientist Jeff Taylor—proud son of Iowa, the Tall Corn State—explores, illuminates, and, yes, celebrates the decentralist tradition in American politics.  If you want to know about our heritage of peace, agrarianism, local democracy, and the dispersion of power—that is, if you want to understand the history, personalities, and promise of the human-scale alternative to the American Empire—this is the book for you.”  
          - Bill Kauffman
professional writer; former aide to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY); author of Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette, America First!, Look Homeward America, Ain’t My America, and Bye Bye Miss American Empire (among other books). 


“Jeff Taylor’s book, Politics on a Human Scale, provides an essential account of the much-touted but practically neglected themes of decentralization and populism in American politics. Taylor shows how the forces of centralization have consistently co-opted much of what is called conservatism and how a human scale politics is not only beneficial to human flourishing but indispensable for a free society. This book is a valuable step in fostering a better future.”
          - Dr. Mark T. Mitchell        
professor and department chair of Government at Patrick Henry College; editor-in-chief of Front Porch Republic website; co-editor of The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry; author of The Politics of Gratitude: Scale, Place & Community in a Global Age



“Madison thought the House of Representatives should have one member for every 30,000 population.  Today there is one for every 720,000. By mid-century there will be one for every million.  The Census Bureau predicts a billion people in America by end of the century.  Professor Jeff Taylor argues that America has grown simply too large for the purposes of self government. In this comprehensive study which touches all aspects of the topic—constitutional, moral, political, and even theological—he shows how and why power should be devolved back to state and local communities.” 
          – Dr. Donald W. Livingston
emeritus professor of philosophy at Emory University; editor of Rethinking the American Union for the Twenty-First Century; co-editor of Hume: A Re-Evaluation and David Hume: Political Writings; author of Hume’s Philosophy of Common Life and Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium: Hume’s Pathology of Philosophy


“Jeff Taylor’s Politics on a Human Scale is a comprehensive and deep ideological analysis of important changes in American political history.  With numerous examples, Taylor reveals the power of elitism in both the Democratic and Republican parties.  Whatever your ideological orientation, the book is an open invitation to consider the importance of a foundational American political value.”   
          – Dr. Karl Trautman
political scientist and department chair of Social Sciences at Central Maine Community College; former policy analyst for Democratic caucus of Michigan State Senate; editor of The New Populist Reader; author of The Underdog in American Politics: The Democratic Party and Liberal Values


Excerpt from the book’s Foreword
by former Congressman Glen Browder (D-AL)

Jeff Taylor’s new book is an impressive achievement that merges moral purpose with philosophy and politics.  This publication is a broad and deep analysis that will require focused attention and basic understanding of American political history.  But it will reward the serious student with an intriguing reinterpretation of our federal system.  Even casual, page-skipping readers will find fascinating vignettes about the key players and developments in our national democratic drama.     

After reading an advance copy of the publication, I find his work intriguing and important in several respects.

(1) First is the author’s openly normative call for “politics on a human scale” and decentralized democracy.  Taylor’s moral purpose derives, as he acknowledges, from ancient antecedents such as the Bible and Plato, growing up in Iowa farm country, and, in more structured manner, his reading of Thomas Jefferson’s agrarian philosophy.  The prescriptive imperative of his analysis is the hope that individuals and social groups in today’s America—pursuing politics at the human scale—will correct the moral domination and inappropriate accumulation of power in centralized government.

(2) Even more impressive, in my judgment, is Taylor’s comprehensive new analysis, in which he defines and assesses a distinctive decentralist tradition in American political history.  His book looks at decentralism through the terrain of culture, politics, economics, and religion; and it involves the values of democracy, liberty, community, and morality.  He proceeds chronologically, focusing on crucial turning points in U.S. history when centralists in both major parties assumed an upper-hand over those who favored Jeffersonian democracy.

(3) Third is Taylor’s skillful incorporation of so many philosophers, politicians, ideas, and events into the historic struggle between centralization and decentralization.  The sources for this analysis comprise a “who’s who” of political philosophy and thoughtful debate throughout the history of western civilization, and the discussion is replete with virtually every official, opinion-leader, and political development of consequence from the founding of our country to the headlines of the twenty-first century. 

The documentary citations—1,200 footnotes and 500 bibliographical sources—attached to this massive compilation represent, by themselves, a gold mine for anyone researching the specific topic of American federalism and the broader history of American democracy.

(4) Finally, I find Taylor’s discussion about the possibility of a different future for American democracy particularly interesting.

While acknowledging the almost-inevitable centralizing course of our history, he believes that contemporary political winds may be blowing in a better direction.  He argues that burgeoning social decentralization is straining the current system and ever-bigger government will reach its limits, and he applauds the growing popularity of “dissident voices” on the current scene. 

I am convinced that if our political elites would take this book to heart, then we might elevate our national dialogue and perhaps improve the performance of our national democratic experiment.

Jeff Taylor has provided a worthy literary feast.  Enjoy!

          – Dr. Glen Browder, political scientist
               and political leader 
former eminent scholar in American Democracy at Jacksonville State University (AL) and distinguished visiting professor in National Security Affairs at Naval Postgraduate School (CA); former member of U.S. House of Representatives; former Alabama Secretary of State; former member of Alabama House of Representatives


Double-blind peer review
of Lexington Books manuscript

            Content

This manuscript is a fresh, highly original effort to define a distinctive “Decentralist” tradition in American political life, one that has been misunderstood and mislabeled by most historians, and one of particular relevance to the contemporary American political scene.  It grounds this tradition in a solid and compelling analysis of Thomas Jefferson’s ideas and legacy, explains how the authentic democratic values behind “Decentralism” survived the distortions of John C. Calhoun and the apologists for slavery (and later racial segregation), flourished in the ideas and political campaigns of William J. Bryan and Robert La Follette, distinguished itself from the Progressivism of the two Roosevelts and Woodrow Wilson, and struggled to find coherent expression within the often hostile 20th Century Republican “big tent.” 

As a work of broad intellectual/political reinterpretation, the only comparable effort that I can think of is Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind.  Published in the early 1950’s, Kirk’s book found and/or constructed a “Conservative” tradition within American thought, at a time when Liberalism of various hues seemed to be the only game in town.  Politics on a Human Scale has the potential to redefine American intellectual/political context in a similar way.  Its treatment of Bryan and La Follette is particularly important and compelling, rescuing Bryan from those who cast him as a second-rate thinker and La Follette from those who want to hang the Socialist label around his neck.

            Scholarship

The author has performed his/her research in a sound and thorough way.  A broad understanding of and attention to the existing literature on the relevant questions is clear.  The author gives fair attention to the standard arguments regarding his/her key figures, yet succeeds—by and large—in exposing their inadequacies and misinterpretations.  The end-noting is comprehensive.

             Audience

This book should attract a large and diverse audience.  It ably challenges virtually all of the standard interpretations of American political life, from the Left, the Center, and the Right.  It leaps beyond the straightjacket of the “Liberal-Conservative” spectrum to reveal a much more interesting and complex American political heritage.  It also explains how current anomalies in American politics—such as the growing coalition of “Main Street” and “Wall Street” within the Republican Party and the growing popularity of the “libertarian populism” of Ron and Rand Paul—are clarified when viewed through the “Decentralist” lens.  It also fits contemporary iconoclasts in American intellectual life—such as Wendell Berry and Bill Kauffman—within a coherent and rich intellectual tradition. 

 Accordingly, this manuscript has the potential to win mass-market attention and a wide readership . . .  not just in academia, but in and through publications such as The Economist, Time, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal.  At the same time, it is ideally suited for students in upper- and graduate-level courses in American history and American political thought.

            Competition

This manuscript carves its own path, shakes up the standard interpretations, and has no discernible competitor.

            Revisions

Politics on a Human Scale focuses on active politicians (e.g., Bryan, Calhoun, Goldwater, Reagan) and only secondarily on intellectual figures.  Still, there are some modest misinterpretations and gaps in the argument.  Concerning political figures, I would urge a second look at the relationship of Theodore Roosevelt to agrarianism (discussed in Chapter 2). . . .  Also, a book focused on “The American Tradition of Decentralism” should probably give some attention to prominent intellectual figures in the 20th Century who openly argued from a “Decentralist” position (even using the label in self-description) . . .

            Recommendation

With considerable enthusiasm, I recommend publication of this manuscript.  Its core argument is powerful and compelling; its scholarship is thorough; its reinterpretation of American intellectual-political history is important and illuminating; its writing is crisp and clear; and its potential for critical attention and sales is large.  My suggested revisions are modest and somewhat on the margins, and do not detract from the comments immediately above.  Moreover, this manuscript casts a good deal of new light on contemporary American politics.  It has the potential to shake-up and redefine (in a healthy and welcome way) understandings of both the American past and present held by the reading and thinking population.