When our Constitution was ratified, there was no debate about the purpose of government. The words of the Declaration of Independence are clear:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. -- That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men[.]
The purpose of government was to secure liberty; the founders did not argue about that point. Rather, they argued about the best way to do that.
Our first government was a confederation, and the mission of the men in Philadelphia was not to end that confederation, but to fix it. What were the problems with the Articles of Confederation? The standard litany runs thus: Congress had no power to raise taxes; a supermajority was required for Congress to pass laws; the national government had no method of enforcing those laws; each state had a single vote. America could never have been great if it had remained a confederation.
But is this true? Canada and Australia were both, in practical terms, confederations. Switzerland, the most successful nation in Europe, has been a confederation for centuries. The United Provinces of Netherlands, which were really a loose confederation of seven little nations (Holland, for example, was simply the largest of the seven provinces), were wildly successful.
The Confederalism of Switzerland, the Netherlands, Canada, and Australia have made for not only nations that were peaceful and unoccupied (the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands was the only exception in the last two centuries), but also nations that have done a comparably good job at preserving liberty.
There have been no totalitarian confederations. State, provincial, or cantonal governments which have real and irreducible power against the central government of the nation provide, through the diversity of these smaller governments, a marketplace of governments. The ability of people to leave a relatively oppressive province or state and move to a relatively freer province or state means that the consumers of governance make decisions which reward honest, economical, and responsive governments.
Confederalism also allows people to choose to live in states which reflect their values. Those people truly interested in "diversity" ought to delight in this aspect of Confederalism. Those states that wish to recognize gay marriage, under the principles of Confederalism, can do that. Those states that wish to have prayer in public school can do that, too. As with any market-driven system, everyone wins.
If Confederalism is the tonic our nation needs, what can we do about it? We cannot, and ought not try to, throw away the Constitution. But there is nothing wrong with creating a political movement which clearly states the benefits to everyone from a partial restoration of Confederalism. There is a broad consensus among Americans that Washington, which today more resembles the London which colonies faced in 1776 than the capital of a United States, is profoundly wasteful and destructive of liberties. The argument that citizens of a state and the elected officials who live where the voters live are much better guardians of government than rich, powerful, arrogant Washingtonians, is the sort of argument which can be made anywhere, even in states whose citizens might prefer socialism or secular humanism.
The theme of "States' Rights" has been smeared as support for racial bigotry, but that is as false today as it was in 1860, when Lincoln was elected. The slave-owning leaders of the South dominated the federal government and used it to prevent the emancipation of blacks in America. Dred Scott, the most odious example of slaveocracy, was a federal Supreme Court usurpation of the rights of the sovereign states of the North.
In fact, very strong state governments provide the best protection possible to minorities against invidious discrimination. The Jewish population in New York, for example, insures that anti-Semitism is very politically costly. The Mormon population in Utah protects Mormons from the very persecution which drove them halfway across the nation. Immigrant groups, like Hispanics in the Southwest or Orientals in the Pacific region, have protected not only the rights, but the cultures of those peoples.
These two ideas -- a marketplace of governments, for those who seek the most sensibly taxed and regulated places to live and to work, and the cultural autonomy which strong states allow, without imposing one state's (or region's) values upon others -- ought to be popular with Americans who increasingly see Washington as broken and their future as bleak.
When we won our independence, we were rebelling not against English Common Law, the English Bill of Rights, or Parliament. We were rebelling against a distant London who always knew best, even when it did not know much of anything. Empires grow fat, vain, lazy, and bossy. These lessons learned in 1776 should be remembered today. It is a battle for the hearts and minds of our countrymen which we ought to be able to win.