A Tale of Two Covenants: Populism–the traditions that make the present

A TALE OF TWO COVENANTS: American populism–the history that makes our politics, health care, nativism, and Paris peace accord withdrawal

By Marcia Pally

Published in Religious and Ethics, June 8, 2017;


In the United States, repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA or Obamacare) is not likely to benefit a majority of Americans. Neither are nativist border closings, protectionist trade measures, and withdrawal from the Paris environmental protection accord likely to increase jobs offerings. Yet these proposals hold wide enough appeal that each step towards their implementation is a Republican political win—regardless of how the difficulties now facing President Trump turn out.

Looking at why these policies retain wide appeal is one way of looking at how populism works. There are important differences between the American iteration and others–notably the American populist belief that federal government itself (not a particular administration or party) is an “outsider” to be constrained or be rid of. But there are also commonalities among national populisms, and both commonalities and differences enhance our grasp of populism’s adaptability in its appeal.

Populist responses to health care and job loss develop because people don’t vote their problems, like un- or under-employment. They vote their beliefs about solutions, their faith in what will relieve duress. It is an old article of faith in America that the best solutions not only get alien people and goods out of the country but get Washington out of the way as well—and more so, international impositions on American liberty. Sixty percent of white working-class Americans, Trump’s base, believe the country needs a leader who’ll break the rules—an established government-wary, populist stance (just 32% of white college-educated Americans feel similarly). White working-class voters who fear American culture is in danger from foreign/immigrant influence were 3.5 times more likely to prefer Trump than those who do not share this fear. Sixty-eight percent of white working-class Americans and 55% of the American public overall hold the belief that the U.S. is at risk of losing its culture to immigrants.[1]

Wariness of government, protectionism, and anti-immigrant animus are by no means America’s only articles of faith but they are long-standing ones, reaching back to foundational ideas about what society and government are.

Below I’ll look at two of our foundational frameworks and the political traditions that have evolved from them. One might call it a tale of two covenants as much of the American political imaginary is grounded in the covenantal political theology of the early Reformed Protestant tradition. First, I’ll discuss the American health care and immigration debates and then the two covenantal traditions—two beliefs about society and governance–that inform populist and non-populist positions about these and environmental protection policy.


The numbers and ironies of health care

Under the Republican plan to replace Obamacare, government subsidies that help lower-income earners pay for health insurance premiums are replaced by tax credits. Those whose tax credits would be at least $1000 less than their subsidies under Obamacare voted for Trump by a margin of seven percentage points. Those who will lose $5000 or more under Trump’s plan voted for Trump by 59 to 36 percentage points.[2]

Under Obamacare, 22 million Americans were able to purchase health insurance for the first time. More lower income whites, Trump’s base, gained health insurance than any other group.[3] Twenty percent of new job growth—including lower-skill jobs–is in health care, in part because of increased demand from the 22 million now able to go to doctors, buy medication, get nursing care, etc.[4]

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that under the initial Republican plan to replace the ACA, 24 million would lose insurance in the coming decade[5]; the White House Office of Management and Budget estimated 26 million would.[6] The Republican plan rolled back the Obamacare expansion of Medicaid (the federal health care program for low-income earners) though in Republican regions, beneficiaries are often white, working class voters, Trump’s base. Older voters, another Trump constituency, would also find health insurance less affordable as they pay the highest premiums, would get the least in tax credits, and the Republican plan allowed insurers to further increase their premiums[7] by as much as 20-25 percent. An older American earing $26,500 could see premiums go from $1,700 annually under Obamacare to $14,600 under Trump’s plan.[8]

This plan did not pass muster with the populist Freedom Caucus in the House of Representatives, which held that that plan allowed too much government involvement in healthcare, thus violating Americans’ freedom of choice in the health insurance market. Perhaps it’s worth noting in this context that advanced economies with universal, government health insurance spend 11-12 percent of GDP on healthcare; America, with private insurers and no government health plan, spends 16 percent.[9] Nonetheless, the charge of violating individual liberty had been the complaint also against Obamacare. The states who brought suit against it wrote to the Court of Appeals, “The individual mandate [the government requirement that all Americans purchase health insurance] rests on a claim of federal power that is both unprecedented and unbounded.”[10] By contrast, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said, under the new Republican plan “People are going to do what they want to do with their lives because we believe in individual freedom.”[11] The plan, however, did not offer enough individual freedom to satisfy the Freedom Caucus, and the Republicans went back to the drawing board.

The Republicans’ second plan, passing the House of Representatives on May 4, removes roughly $1 trillion in government health insurance subsidies for low-income earners[12]–savings meant to offset Trump’s proposed tax cuts on the wealthiest Americans and corporations. (On a trickle-down economic theory, the tax cuts are meant to spur business and thus job growth.) While centrist Republicans returned to the plan $8 billion over five years, it will not cover the shortfall. Importantly, the Republican plan also allows states to receive exemptions from the Obamacare Benefit Rules, which established a floor for the coverage required in every health insurance plan and set a ceiling for premium costs. Basic provisions–such as maternity, prescription drug, and mental health coverage—can, under the Republican plan, be dropped.

Insurers would also be allowed to charge substantially higher premiums to those with pre-existing conditions by segregating them into “high risk” pools, whose premiums are not required to stay below (reduced) government subsidy levels, thus making health insurance unaffordable even for many middle class earners. The elderly too will pay higher premiums. While Obamacare allowed insurers to charge their oldest patients three times as much as the youngest, the new plan allows a five times multiple, an increase not covered by the reduced government aid. Eligibility requirements for subsidies, maximum premium costs, and maximum out-of-pocket medical costs are, as of this writing, unclear. For those with chronic or long-term illnesses, the repeal of lifetime limits on out-of-pocket costs to the patient is particularly damaging.


The numbers and ironies of trade protectionism and immigration

Perhaps the most important thing to say about trade protectionism and immigration reduction—on the populist view, a boost to jobs–is that domestic employment is tied to neither. It’s tied to automation. Indeed, 87 percent of American manufacturing job loss results from technological change and increased productivity. Just 13 percent comes from globalization, the ongoing movement of people and products across borders.[13] The 400,000 jobs lost to the steel industry between 1962 and 2005 saw little decline in steel production. Job loss resulted from the increased productivity, especially of the mini-mill.[14]

Addressing job loss in “old-industry” areas requires improved education and worker re-training in new industries. Importantly, it requires investment in regional re-development through cooperations among local and national governments and business.[15] Since we are not all algorithm wizards, re-training and re-development should—and can–include jobs across skill areas. Pittsburgh’s loss of 5,100 iron and steel jobs was outstripped by redevelopment in new industries, leading to a gain of 66,000 new jobs in health care, banking, and professional services.[16] Other economic proposals include tying management earnings/bonuses to long-term development rather than short-term profits and closing tax loopholes that allow firms to pay far less tax than the official rate or to relocate to off-shore tax havens, where they can avoid paying into the common pool.[17]

However, as protectionism and immigration reduction remain populist demands, let’s consider their prognosis. The 2016 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, by investigators inclined towards and against immigration, finds that immigrants spur innovation and new businesses and substantially increase U.S. employment. After the first generation, when immigrants cost America roughly $57 billion in taxes (mostly for education), they add $30 billion in the second generation and $223 billion in the third.

Looking at protectionist proposals, Moody’s estimated a loss of 3.5 million jobs from Trump’s proposed trade and tax plans.[18] The U.S. Chamber of Commerce finds that his trade tariffs “in the best case scenario” would “strip at least 3.5 million jobs.”[19]

While Trump has announced his intention to withdraw from or renegotiate NAFTA, the Congressional Research Service reported that its “net overall effect… on the U.S. economy appears to have been relatively modest”[20] and not a significant source of job loss. Trump’s economic saber-rattling has prodded Canadian threats of retaliatory protectionist measures that would harm U.S. export industries and those employed in them. Similarly, Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership prodded  East Asian countries to develop a trade partnership of their own without U.S. input or benefit–and with the risk of organized retaliatory policies should the U.S. inaugurate protectionist tariffs.[21]

The Peterson Institute estimates that the TPP would raise American incomes by $131 billion and that annual income gains worldwide would be $492 billion by 2030.[22] Overall, it found existing trade agreements have added between $7,100 and $12,900 additional income to the average American household.[23] Perhaps it is worth noting Chinese President Xi Jinping’s view that, “Pursuing protectionism is just like locking oneself in a dark room.”[24]


The suasion of numbers, the suasion of belief

Over the last half century, states that vote Democrat have had, compared to Republican-voting states, greater government investment in education, health care, job training, and infrastructure development, and more progressive taxation to support these programs. They score higher on income, education levels, health, and life expectancy.[25]

As the economics of healthcare and jobs points to the benefits of government investment in the common good, the appeal of Trump’s populist, small-government rhetoric cannot lie in economics. It lies rather in its tapping into longstanding beliefs about society, government, and best solutions to societal problems. Among the sources of these beliefs is the political theology of the early Reformed tradition as it had substantial formative influence on American political ideals and organization.


Covenantal politics in the Reformed Tradition and Early America

The Reformed theology begun with Heinrich Bullinger (First and Second Helvetic Conventions, 1536,1566) traced covenant from the reciprocal bond between God and Adam to reciprocal bond between God and the Hebrew patriarchs to covenant as taught by Jesus and Paul.[26] In the Hebraic tradition, covenant’s reciprocity is evinced in humanity’s responsibilities towards God: to be “co-creators” of his covenantal vision and to act covenantally towards other persons. Reciprocity is evinced also in humanity’s ability to initiate covenant. Persons may inaugurate such commitment to other persons with God’s involvement, “in the name of God” (for instance, the covenant between Isaac and Avimelech, Gen. 26:28-29). Persons may initiate covenant also in the performative utterance of vows, which makes things holy, sanctified as expression of covenant with God. Sanctification is thus not uni-directional, from God to humanity in grace, but something to which also persons contribute.

Contra Calvin, whose doctrine of double pre-destination gave human reciprocity rather less emphasis, Cornelius Wiggertz (ca. 1550-1624), in the Bullinger tradition, became a springboard for Reformed Arminianism, with its accent on humanity’s capacity, by prevenient (this worldly) grace, to reciprocate divine love and so act with covenantal regard toward God and other persons. Arminianism in America became Methodism and was through the nineteenth century the nation’s most popular faith with influence far beyond its churches, whose numbers rose from 20 in 1770 to 19,883 in 1860.[27]

More explicitly political, Johannes Althusius (1563-1638) held that persons are created helpless but have a “symbiotic” relational nature so that we live in covenantal commitment with God and each other.[28] Politics—meaning not only the structure of power but of the polity itself– is thus “the art of associating men for the purpose of establishing, cultivating, and conserving social life among them,” so that society proceeds covenantally, without concentration or abuse of power. The “fundamental law” of the nation or commonwealth “is nothing other than certain covenants by which many cities and provinces come together and agree to establish and defend one and the same commonwealth by common work, counsel, and aid.”

Against Bodin’s claim that sovereignty is vested in the prince, Althusius held that sovereignty lies in the network of covenantal bonds. The polity is covenantal. “It is not a collection of individuals but a covenanted whole that has the rights of sovereignty.”[29] The moral law of the Ten Commandments is the core of covenantal responsibility, interpreted into “proper laws” by each community for the community in its particular situation.

Elaborating, Johannes Cocceius (1603-1669) held that because humanity is in the image of a covenantal God and in covenant with him, we may strive to form communities that reflect divine covenant (however humanly and imperfectly). The divine vision of covenant is found in Scripture. But human communities, developing in varying circumstances, understand Scripture differently, yielding multiple interpretations as God works differently with each group. “There is no law,” he wrote, “that orders the person who comes after to be content with the things his predecessors have learned.”[30] Resistance to interpretive variety, on Cocceius’s view, is prideful fallenness as it presumes knowledge of absolute truth, which only God has. Tolerance for difference and heterodoxy is thus the position of the devout, covenanted community.

Among the early American documents reflecting these covenantal principles is The Mayflower Compact (1620), declaring Massachusetts a covenant of persons bound together as they are bound to God: “We …solemnly and mutually in the Presence of God and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick.”[31] Law is to be by the covenanted community for the common good as guided by God’s principles. A decade later, John Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity” declared that community hangs together by “mutual consent” to bonds with God and among persons “so that,” echoing Althusius, “every man might have need of others, and from hence they might be all knit more nearly together in the Bonds of brotherly affection.” These reciprocal bonds constitute the sovereign group, and to ensure that no political power overtake it, Massachusetts enacted the Body of Liberties in 1641. “The care of the public,” Winthrop continues, “must oversway all private respects…For it is a true rule that particular Estates cannot subsist in the ruin of the public.”

Over the next century, Reformed covenantal politics became one of the main traditions informing the American political imaginary and institutions. Protection of the covenanted community from tyrannical government was precisely the concern of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, which relies on Althusius’s idea—written before John Locke’s iteration–that rulers may be deposed for violating covenant with the governed, in whose bonds sovereignty itself lies. Provisions from the 1641Body of Liberties were written into the Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776) and later, the U.S. Bill of Rights. The checks and balances of the tri-partite national government as well as the federal system aim at preventing the concentration and abuse of power over the covenanted body politic. The Virginia Declaration holds, as Althusius did, “That all power is vested in, and consequently derived from, the people…That government is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit”[32] or what became known in the U.S. Constitution as “We, the People.”


Covenant amid the American settlement: Two traditions

As it interacted with other traditions and historical developments, the understanding of society as covenanted community developed into distinct political traditions, two of which divide on the question of who is in the covenanted group.

One envisions government—the judges and kings of ancient Israel, the magistrates of Massachusetts–as of the covenanted community, accountable to the same (divine) law as are the covenanted, to whom government is also answerable. Government is thus not outside community but responsible for the common good, also seen as broadly inclusive of a diverse populace. In the Hebrew Bible, studied thoroughly by the Reformed theologians, God’s covenant with Adam and Noah are universalist, for all humankind. Covenant with the patriarchs is a blessing not only unto Israel but “unto all the nations” (Genesis 12:3, 26:4, 28:14). In Genesis, God and Israelites covenant with non-Israelites as all persons, in God’s image, are capable of acting morally and following the universal Noahite covenant and law.

This covenantal vision undergirds the extensive biblical[33] and rabbinic obligations to the needy and stranger. So extensive are those for the outsider that they are cited as a model for treatment of the Hebrew poor (Leviticus 25:35-39, Leviticus 17-26). Ezekiel (47:22-23) grants strangers land rights, an impressive inclusion in an agricultural society.

On this understanding, because the needy, the outsider, and the different are written into covenant, two things are the case: government—of the covenanted and accountable to it–is responsible for all these, and “all these” includes a diversity of people. This is the sort of heritage or framing vision from which the Rhode Island Charter (1663) and Fundamental Constitution of Carolina (1669) draw. The first, written by Roger Williams, is a governmental guarantee of universal religious freedom. The second, by John Locke and his patron, the Earl of Shaftesbury, is governmental provision for “any seven or more persons agreeing in any religion, shall constitute a church” and, unusually for the day, governmental guarantees of toleration for heathens and Jews.

This covenantal iteration—just a few indications, given space constraints–undergirded Thomas Jefferson’s idea that persons are created with a sufficient sense of justice to be reciprocally responsible for each other[34] and that this moral sense, rather than the views of elites, should direct government and the country. Government, he held, is so much of the covenanted people that the people should participate in it as much as possible. He designed a system of wards (called “hundreds”) or “little republics” for local governance[35] and held that it is the responsibility of government, through public education, to train people’s natural moral sense for this participatory purpose.[36] Like Jefferson, John Adams insisted that government is responsible for the civic education needed for republican democracy: “no expense should be spared,” he wrote, “in providing for “the liberal education of youth, especially for the lower class of people.”[37]

This heritage helped to ground the policies of the Progressive Era (1890-1920), which held that not only religious and civil society institutions but also government was responsible for protecting ordinary folk from greedy elites and Lochner-type courts that cloaked industrialization’s labor abuses in the mantel of freedom of contract. This view of society was among the undergirdings of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, a raft of Depression Era and WWII government programs to boost the economy and aid the populace. It was among the premises informing Lyndon Johnson’s (Democrat) Great Society and Civil Rights legislation, Richard Nixon’s (Republican) founding of the Environmental Protection Agency, George W. Bush’s (Republican) African aid, and Barack Obama’s (Democrat) healthcare reform.

A second political tradition cautiously draws the covenanted group more proximately. Both faraway central government and other alien groups were not so readily seen as of the covenanted community but as outsiders potentially harmful to community and local priorities. Even more so farer away international bodies that set limits on local community. Different from populism in other countries, on this view, the category of “outsider” encompasses national government, which, as a potentially interfering force, is not only considered blameworthy when societal problems develop; it is considered alien and suspect by its nature, in all times.

This localist covenant is also part of the American story. Many colonials including Winthrop sought to found a New Jerusalem with and for those who had the same vision—who were like-minded, like-faithed, and shared norms and practices. This vision interacted with the conditions of American settlement, many of which also encouraged localist loyalties. Early colonials, fleeing the centralization struggles between Charles I and parliament, were already wary of “outside” central government and other aliens that could threaten local values and self-rule. “The settlers departed England,” historian T. H. Breen writes, “determined to maintain their local attachments against outside interference … to preserve in America what had been threatened in the mother country.”[38] Added to these fears was the dissenter’s dread of persecutory government—a fear of tyranny and quashed religious freedom that remains potent in present American politics.

Perhaps the most important factor in localism’s development was the rough, dispersed nature of continental expansion, which rendered survival often a matter of self-reliance and local assistance. Under these conditions, it was not altogether difficult to regard federal government as an outside interferer and not good for much since there was relatively little of it around to rely on. When national government or international bodies did make themselves felt, they imposed taxes and other regulations, prodding revolution against government in London. No sooner did the revolutionaries establish a government of their own, its taxes and regulations prompted the anti-federalist position in politics and the Shays’ (1786-1787) and Whiskey (1791-1794) rebellions, both populist uprisings that sought to limit (even the nascent) government’s power and purse. Jeffersonian and later Jacksonian politics were populist efforts to “maintain their local attachments against outside interference.”

The role of central government grew along with the country, but wariness of far away government, the value of individual initiative, and identification with local community remained key American tropes. In Democracy in America, Tocqueville writes of America’s local associations,

“what political power could ever carry on the vast multitude of lesser undertakings which the American citizens perform every day, with the assistance of the principle of association?… No sooner does a government attempt to go beyond its political sphere and to enter upon this new track than it exercises, even unintentionally, an insupportable tyranny.”[39]


Two traditions: Benefits, exclusionary turns, and the American populist trinity–nativism, protectionism, and small-government-ism

The Tocquevillian covenant prodded much of the best in American politics, including a democratic critique of authority, hierarchy, and received wisdom. A preference for local “associations” has a manifold of strengths: it builds community, boosts the creativity and flexibility of civil society, provides the important sense of identity, affiliation and purpose, can often address problems by drawing on local resources, and can distribute social services less bureaucratically than central government, with more individual regard for each person in the local network.

Yet a well-earned suspicion of tyrannical government has also fueled the suspicion of government per se—national more than local and international agencies even more so. Commitment to community can turn into prejudice or the a priori determination that those who are different, “outsiders,” are threats to local concerns and thus dangers to be contained or expelled. Under these iterations of the Tocquevillian covenant, the populist trinity of nativism, protectionism, and small-government-ism are the best solutions to present duress, regardless of the economics, as they are seen as heirs to heritage and the Tocquevillian covenant with all its proven strengths.

The point is that Americans today don’t experience job loss and then devise populist responses. Populism’s substrate is always already with us—not in the localist covenant itself but in localist covenant turned exclusionary. The distinction is worth noting that robust local affiliation is not co-extensive with suspicion or animus against “others.” Many religious communities show strong local commitment and yet also strong outreach to strangers including undocumented immigrants and refugees, as church leadership in the “sanctuary movement” demonstrates.[40] But American history has enough cases where it has become so.

While Tocquevillian covenantal politics built much-needed community, America saw its denouement into a politics of exclusion early in the colonial era. Again, just a few examples: the famous expulsion stories of Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams are good reminders of this but also the repeating need to safeguard minority views and faiths in Bodies of Liberties and Rights. Historian Keith Thomas writes of colonial “tyranny of local opinion and the lack of tolerance displayed towards non-conformity or social deviance.”[41] In-group-ism was among the factors informing ante-bellum Know-Nothing nativism, the bans against “undesirables” beginning with the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, ongoing ethnic and racial prejudice, and countless stories of young people leaving the stultifying conformity of small towns for the big city.

“Covenant” was the word for restrictive legal pacts barring religious and racial minorities from buying homes in white areas until passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In the experience of those who held these sorts of pacts, it was the interfering federal government that violated local covenant.

Wariness of outsiders, unfamiliar others, Washington, international agencies, plays out today, sociologist Arlie Hochschild writes, in the sense that “outsider” minorities and immigrants are “cutting in the job line” ahead of the covenanted and deserving–and worst of all, “cutting in” with the help of interfering federal government, which gives outsiders government aid.[42] Foreign products too are “cutting ahead” of those made locally and are unfairly winning in the market.

On the understanding of duress as the covenanted body under threat by interfering, incompetent Washington and other outsiders, it is not altogether difficult to see the solution in reinstating the covenant of self-responsible localism, shoring up borders against alien people and products, and limiting federal government, including—or especially–its involvement in something as important as in health care. Since industrialization, small-government-ism has included market deregulation that reduces government oversight and leaves matters in the hands of “we, the (self-reliant, covenanted) people.”


The Tocquevillian covenant today—and its paradoxes

This is the solution that Trump and a range of Republicans have promised in their border-closing, small-government campaigns. To his opponents, Trump may seem an authoritarian leader more or less in the mode of European populist proto-fascism. But to his voters and supporters of American populism more generally, he’s a guy unsullied by a past in incompetent, tyrannical government who has gone to Washington to throw the outsiders out. Regulation by international agreements on trade or environmental protection falls well within the “outsiders” who need to get the boot. This solution to America’s ill has traction and resonance because it draws on cultural heritage and an authentic tradition in American politics. As recent analyses of the 2016 election note, it was not overall voter turnout, the Hispanic vote, or even the drop in black voter turnout that was decisive but rather the persuasiveness of small-government anti-establishmentism against a Washington-Wall St. handshake that gave both Obama and Trump their victories. Trump won among white, working class voters including those that had voted for Obama and still approved of his performance, and it was this uptick that gave him the election. “Like Obama, Trump ran against the establishment—against a candidate [Hillary Clinton] who embodied it far more than John McCain or Mitt Romney.”[43]

It’s worth noting that so resonant is anti-Washington animus that the specific policies proposed by anti-establishment candidates may be less important than anti-establishmentism itself. Trump promised to shrink government, which is at least consistent with a small-government campaign. Obama enlarged government’s role in health care, environment, trade, and many other arenas. Yet both won their elections by running against federal government. Said another way, Obama, Trump, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Mitt Romney campaigned on jobs. But Trump painted Clinton as a Washington regular in cahoots with Wall St. as Obama had tarred Romney. This was not the only factor in their victories but it is a significant one.

Yet small-government anti-establishmentism contains unfortunate paradoxes. One is that limiting “outsider” federal government to protect individual and local freedom may not protect individuals and localities from “outsider” people and products, as this may require federal action. In small-government politics, federal regulation is unwanted when it is seen as burdening and micro-managing local business but wanted when seen as managing foreign people and products out of local competition.

At first blush, it may seem that heirs to the localist covenant want freedom for themselves and limits on others—government, international agencies, other outsiders—and are willing to grant central government power only to limit outsiders, whose unlimited actions in the market might otherwise win out over their own. But localist covenantors, true to principle, often support small-government limits even on federal programs from which they themselves benefit—as seen in the remaining support for ACA repeal. Binyamin Applebaum and Robert Gebeloff’s reportage documents this second paradox: distrust of the federal government on principled small-government grounds by people who need its help. In their field research, they found,

as more middle-class families like the Gulbransons land in the safety net in Chisago and similar communities, anger at the government has increased alongside. Many people say they are angry because the government is wasting money and giving money to people who do not deserve it. But more than that, they say they want to reduce the role of government in their own lives. They are frustrated that they need help, feel guilty for taking it and resent the government for providing it. [44]


A third paradox is that suspicion of Washington and principled small-government-ism make it difficult to design government programs well. Legislators who try to develop them face continual whittling down from those who oppose them on small government principle. When whittled-down programs function poorly, poor performance becomes justification to further limit or discard the programs—even if, under a design unhobbled by small-government-ism, the programs would have benefitted those who voted for small-government principles.

The ACA is a case in point. Had it included a government health insurance plan–as most advanced economies have and as Obama initially proposed–premium costs would have been contained—and contained substantially for the rural and elderly small-government-ers in Trump’s base. The federal government would have had leverage to negotiate lower prices from insurers, pharmaceutical companies, and other for-profit firms in the healthcare industry. (Forbes rates heath technology as America’s most profitable industry group, offering a 21 percent profit margin.[45]) Yet, the option of government health insurance was rejected by a substantial majority of Americans and Congress in 2009 on the grounds that it gave government too great an involvement in regulating healthcare. Since then, rising premium costs have been one of the prime arguments for repeal of the ACA.

Similarly, the ACA’s expansion of Medicaid contained insurance costs as it brought more people into the insurance pool, more broadly distributing costs and so lowering them. (The federal government paid 100 percent of the expansion costs for three years and at least 90 percent after that.) The nineteen states that refused, on small-government principles, to expand Medicaid saw 2017 premium increases an average of 7 percentage points higher than states that had expanded Medicaid. [46] These high premiums too became arguments for repeal of the ACA and especially its Medicaid expansion, which was rolled back in the Republican’s second replacement plan.


Concluding thoughts

I point out these paradoxes not in hope of eliminating them but because they illustrate the force of belief in politics. Votes for protectionist, nativist, and small-government policies and against international regulation are seen as consistent with the Tocquevillian covenant and its solutions for societal woes.

Precisely because of the power of belief in politics, we need to train our attention on which aspect of covenant is on the ascendant. As the Christian realist Reinhold Niebuhr frequently noted, the ability to transcend human limitations in favor of covenantal “voluntary and free cooperation”[47] is limited and depends on will, reason, and God’s grace. But it depends also, he wrote, on values and institutions, which guide conduct.

This is one of the purposes of the Hebraic and Reformed covenants: to set persons in “symbiotic” reciprocal regard for each other within networks that bolster the individual’s ability to sustain reciprocal regard. Niebuhr thought democratic principles and practices are good iterations of just that (within humanity’s fallen capacities). Thus, society must check versions of politics–covenantal and otherwise–that abrogate democracy. Should an administration fail in its covenantal obligations to the people, the people must demand responsiveness and the removal of cynical and incompetent politicians. But to see limiting or starving government per se as the solution to societal problems is the end of representative democracy and the covenant on which it is based.

In 1935, as Niebuhr saw fascism rising in Europe, he wrote,

The fact is that democratic principles and traditions are an important check upon the economic oligarchy, even though the money power is usually able to bend democracy to its uses… This peril of fascism is increased by the unqualified character of the radical cynicism toward democratic institutions.[48]

His plea is that critique of government policy not become animus or cynicism about government itself. Local affiliation and commitments cannot turn exclusionary in alienation of “unfamiliar” parts of the community. For these too covenant was also made.


[1] https://www.prri.org/research/white-working-class-attitudes-economy-trade-immigration-election-donald-trump/

[2] Cooperative Congressional Election Study and the Kaiser Family Foundation; https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/10/upshot/why-trump-supporters-have-the-most-to-lose-with-the-gop-repeal-bill.html?em_pos=small&emc=edit_up_20170310&nl=upshot&nl_art=0&nlid=64605949&ref=headline&te=1

[3] https://aspe.hhs.gov/system/files/pdf/187551/ACA2010-2016.pdf

[4] http://www.npr.org/2017/05/05/527092457/glassdoor-economist-describes-u-s-economy-as-a-red-hot-labor-market

[5] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/13/us/politics/affordable-care-act-health-congressional-budget-office.html?emc=eta1&_r=0

[6] http://www.politico.com/story/2017/03/obamacare-uninsured-white-house-236019

[7] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/10/upshot/why-trump-supporters-have-the-most-to-lose-with-the-gop-repeal-bill.html?em_pos=small&emc=edit_up_20170310&nl=upshot&nl_art=0&nlid=64605949&ref=headline&te=1&_r=0;

[8] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/14/upshot/no-magic-in-how-gop-plan-lowers-premiums-it-penalizes-older-people.html?emc=edit_ty_20170316&nl=opinion-today&nlid=64605949&te=1&_r=0

[9] https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/03/how-republicans-can-win-by-making-their-peace-with-obamacare/519429/

[10] United States Department of Health and Human Services Et Al. v. State of Florida Et Al., On writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeal for the Eleventh Circuit, Brief for State Respondents on the Minimum Coverage Provision, p. 1, http://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/publications/supreme_court_preview/briefs/11-398_resp_state.authcheckdam.pdf.

[11] http://www.cbsnews.com/news/face-the-nation-transcript-march-12-2017-ryan-paul-sanders/.

[12] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/gop-health-care-bill_us_59089a06e4b0bb2d0871e21b

[13] http://projects.cberdata.org/reports/MfgReality.pdf

[14] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/21/upshot/the-long-term-jobs-killer-is-not-china-its-automation.html?em_pos=small&emc=edit_up_20161221&nl=upshot&nl_art=1&nlid=64605949&ref=headline&te=1&_r=0

[15] See, Luigino Bruni and Stefano Zamagni, Civil Economy: Efficiency, Equity, Public Happiness (Bern: Peter Lang, 2007); Duncan K. Foley, Adam’s Fallacy: A Guide to Economic Theology (Cambridge: Belknap/Harvard University Press, 2006); Wiliam Greider, One World, Ready or Not: The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism (New York: Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 1997); Michael Lind, The Next American Nation: The New Nationalism and the Fourth American Revolution (New York: The Free Press, 1995); Jeff Madrick, Why Economics Grow: The Forces that Shape Prosperity and How We Can Get Them Working Again (New York: Basic Books, 2002); John Milbank and Adrian Pabst, The Politics of Virtue: Britain and the Post-Liberal Future (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016); Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Arthur Goldhammer, trans. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014); Joseph Stiglitz, The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future (New York: W.W. Norton, 2013).

[16] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/29/upshot/donald-trumps-economic-nostalgia.html?em_pos=large&emc=edit_nn_20160629&nl=morning-briefing&nlid=64605949

[17] http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/12/16/business/economy/nine-new-findings-about-income-inequality-piketty.html?emc=eta1

[18] http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/10/19/us/elections/fact-check-debate.html?em_pos=small&emc=edit_cn_20161020&nl=first-draft&nl_art=5&nlid=64605949&ref=headline&te=1&_r=0

[19] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/29/us/politics/donald-trump-trade-speech.html?em_pos=large&emc=edit_nn_20160629&nl=morning-briefing&nlid=64605949

[20] http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/10/09/us/elections/fact-check-debate.html?WT.nav=span-abc-region&action=click&clickSource=story-heading&em_pos=large&emc=edit_nn_20161010&module=span-abc-region&nl=morning-briefing&nlid=64605949&pgtype=Homepage&region=span-abc-region

[21] http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trump-asia-idUSKBN15800V.

[22] https://piie.com/publications/wp/wp16-2.pdf

[23] https://piie.com/publications/chapters_preview/3802/2iie3802.pdf; see also, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/06/opinion/campaign-stops/global-trade-war-trump-edition.html?emc=eta1

[24] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/13/business/china-railway-one-belt-one-road-1-trillion-plan.html?emc=eta1&_r=0

[25] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/31/opinion/campaign-stops/the-path-to-prosperity-is-blue.html?emc=edit_ty_20161229&nl=opinion-today&nlid=64605949&te=1

[26] Bullinger, H., A brief exposition of the one and eternal testament or covenant of God. In C. McCoy & J. W. Baker (eds.). Fountainhead of federalism, (Original work published 1534), 119.

[27] See R. Carwardine, Methodist ministers and the second party system. In R. Richey & K. Rowe (Eds.), Rethinking Methodist history: A bicentennial historical consultation. Nashville, TN: Kingswood Books, the United Methodist Publishing House, 1985, p. 134; T. Smith). Revivalism and social reform: American Protestantism on the eve of the Civil War. New York: Abingdon Press, 1957, p.22; C. Goss, Statistical history of the first century of American Methodism. New York: Carlton & Porter, 1866, p. 106.

[28] Althusius, J. (1964). The politics of Johannes Althusius. An abridged translation of the third edition of politica methodice digesta, atque exemplis sacris et profanis illustrata. (F. Carney, trans.). Boston, MA: Beacon Press. Retrieved from http://www.constitution.org/alth/alth.htm. (Original work published 1603), Chapters 1, 3-4.

[29] C. McCoy & J.W. Baker, Fountainhead of federalism, 60.

[30] Summa theologiae ex scrituris repetita, cited in C. McCoy, & J. W. Baker, Fountainhead of federalism, 76.

[31] Mayflower Compact. (1620).Retrieved from http://www.let.rug.nl/usa/documents/1600-1650/mayflower-compact-1620.php.

[32]Virginia Declaration of Rights. (1776). http://www.let.rug.nl/usa/documents/1776-1785/the-virginia-declaration-of-rights-1776.php.

[33] A brief sampling: Exodus 21:2, Exodus 22:25-27, Leviticus 25: 4-6, 13, Deuteronomy 14:22, Deuteronomy 15:1-2, 7-9, 12-15, Deuteronomy 23:15-16, 19, Deuteronomy 24:19-2.

[34] Thomas Jefferson, Joyce Oldham Appleby, and Terence Ball, Thomas Jefferson, Political Writings, (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999), pp. 143, 253.

[35] Thomas Jefferson, Joyce Oldham Appleby, and Terence Ball, Thomas Jefferson, Political Writings, p. 183.

[36] Thomas Jefferson, Joyce Oldham Appleby, and Terence Ball, Thomas Jefferson, Political Writings, p. 257.

[37] John Adams, The Portable John Adams (New York: Penguin, 2004), p. 219, 40.

[38] T. Breen, “Persistent Localism: English Social Change and the Shaping of New England Institutions,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 32, no. 19 (January 1975): 3-28.

[39] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835, 1804, Book II, Section 2, Chapter V.

[40] https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/07/us/syrian-refugees-christian-conservatives.html?_r=0; see also, http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2016/october/1180-churches-world-relief-resettle-refugees-record-rate.html;

[41] Thomas, K. (1971). Religion and the decline of magic. New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, p. 527. See, Hofstadter, R. (1971). America at 1750: A social portrait. New York, NY: Vintage Books, p. 281.

[42] A. Hochschild, A. Strangers in their Own Land, New York: The New Press, 2016.

[43] https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/23/upshot/how-the-obama-coalition-crumbled-leaving-an-opening-for-trump.html?em_pos=small&emc=edit_up_20170531&nl=upshot&nl_art=1&nlid=64605949&ref=headline&te=1

[44] http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/12/us/even-critics-of-safety-net-increasingly-depend-on-it.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0;

[45] https://www.forbes.com/sites/liyanchen/2015/09/23/the-most-profitable-industries-in-2015/#7ae6f7cc6b73

[46] http://acasignups.net/16/11/01/update-x2-2017-rate-hikes-yes-medicaid-expansion-matters-so-do-state-based-exchanges-and; see also, http://www.latimes.com/business/hiltzik/la-fi-hiltzik-obamacare-rates-20161031-story.html.

[47] Reinhold Niebuhr, An Interpretation of Christian Ethics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1935, 2013), p. 202.

[48] Reinhold Niebuhr, An Interpretation of Christian Ethics, p. 190.

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