Republican candidate and former military general Dwight D. Eisenhower defeated his Democratic opponent Aldai Stevenson in 1952 in an electoral landslide. The election marked a turning point in American politics as Eisenhower's victory marked the first time in 20 years that a Republican president would be residing in the White House. After over a decade of enforcement of New Deal policies and accompanying regulation, Eisenhower won the country’s support largely on his campaign promise to roll back bureaucracy and tackle widespread corruption.
Once in office, Eisenhower worked with Senator Robert Taft to gather a group of top federal and state legislators as well as academic scholars to examine how his White House and the Republican Congress could go about cutting government programs. The group, known as The Commission on Intergovernmental Relations or Kestnbaum Commission, declared its purpose to be that of studying “the proper role of the Federal Government in relation to the States and their political subdivisions” and ending the “confusion and wasteful duplication of functions and administration” caused by the rapid establishment of numerous New Deal programs.
In their report the commission’s members began by recognizing the severity of the Great Depression and World War II. Given the circumstances faced at the time, the members recognized why the federal government took steps to respond strongly and quickly to these crises. However, the commission members argued against maintaining the government under such a nationally-centric system for the long term. Instead the commission members proposed that the Eisenhower administration reconsider the American founders’ original idea of embracing federalism, or split sovereignty between the states and national government. The importance of federalism, the members suggested, was that it served to balance government functions and allocate duties to the proper level.
The commission argued that clearly defined federalism is the best government system for “promoting individual freedom, mobilizing consent of the governed, providing a democratic training ground for citizens and officeholders, and permitting diverse laboratories of policy experimentation.” Rather than eliminating agencies entirely, the Kestnbaum Commission recommended that government be streamlined to the lowest levels possible in order to focus on empowering citizen involvement and responsiveness from the ground up. To enact such change, the commission offered the following simple rule:
“Use the level of government closest to the community for all public functions it can handle; utilize cooperative intergovernmental arrangements where appropriate…reserve National action for residual participation where State and local
governments are not fully adequate and for the residual responsibilities that only the
National government can undertake.”
According to the commission, Eisenhower would fulfill his campaign promise and experience success if he and his administration could find ways to marry the framework of the American founders to the current times. By leading the country back to a clearly defined federalism, Eisenhower's administration could retain national power for future emergencies while also empowering state and local government for routine tasks.
Eisenhower approved of the commission’s report and responded with the creation of an Advisory Board on Intergovernmental Relations to execute the proposal. Eisenhower also established an intergovernmental affairs office within the Bureau of the Budget, a Joint Federal-State Action Committee, and separate Congressional committees on intergovernmental relations to monitor progress. Over the course of Eisenhower's tenure, and due in no small part to these changes, public functions and federalism blossomed as his administration began to worked increasingly well with state and local governments. Together the various levels of American government cooperated to enact the nation’s first highway system, aid programs for elementary and secondary school construction and education, and effective public health, agriculture, and urban renewal grants to stimulate growth.
Gradually, however, Eisenhower’s initiative to streamline intergovernmental relations through federalism faded away. Under Lyndon B. Johnson the government unwound cooperative federalism as his administration vastly expanded centralized regulations and mandates. Eisenhower’s network of intergovernmental offices and committees were largely disbanded in order to make way for increasingly nationally-focused governance. The renewed preference for national mandates, moreover, was by no means limited to Democrats as it continued well into the 1970's and beyond. One need look no further than George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” Act to see a continued bipartisan preference for top-down mandates at work.
With a return to such national centrism, it is no wonder that Americans today feel increasingly distant and isolated from their government. The 2016 election cycle in particular has showcased increasingly vehement calls for change. On one end, Republican voters have demanded an end to career politicians and the Washington bureaucracy that seems to ignore their concerns. These demands have been met with a Republican candidate in Donald Trump who relishes his role as a Washington outsider. However, Trump’s proposed solutions thus far do not appear to be in any way similar to the type of structural change needed to redirect the system. Instead, the majority of the real estate mogul's platform tends to be focused on relaxing government regulations for businesses and cutting taxes without any alternative for restructuring government function or encouraging participatory democracy.
On the opposite spectrum, Democrats have experienced their own sense of dissatisfaction with the status quo. Many initially flocked towards a socialist candidate in Bernie Sanders who decried the present system as unjust and unfair to the working class. Following his defeat, many Democrats openly voiced their dismay at Hillary Clinton’s inability to offer a sound plan for government renewal. Clinton’s proposals have indeed focused primarily on cementing the additional mandates put in place by Barack Obama and avoiding the destruction of progress she claims a Trump administration would bring.
What is lost from both sides of the debate is a purposeful, comprehensive plan like Eisenhower’s to reestablish participatory democracy and redirect government efforts to the citizens’ level. Eisenhower’s administration proved that American governance can perform admirably when it sheds its preference for top-down solutions and personality-driven politics. The Kestnbaum Commission in particular focused on ensuring each layer of government worked well within its boundaries, and its final report explicitly stated a vision for government performing efficiently at the lowest level in conjunction with an involved populace.
To truly make America great again, and to be stronger together, we as Americans must first define what these terms mean. They cannot simply mean a partisan preference for an outsider or a politically-aligned leader; if that is their only significance then we will continue to experience frustration with our government's structure. "Greatness" for Americans must mean breaking loose of Washington’s obsession with national centrism in both business and politics, and "strength" must be found in government working in active collaboration with its citizens. As the Kestnbaum Commission proved, successful and responsive government can exist in the form of cooperative federalism that purposefully balances public functions and elicits citizen involvement.
In following the founders' model as well as the precedent laid by the Kestnbaum Commission, we too can make America great by ensuring that our political strength originates not simply from our government working on behalf of its citizens -- but in active collaboration with us as well.