Oklahoma’s birthday was Nov. 16. On that day in 1907, President Teddy Roosevelt issued the proclamation that made us a state. It’s a fitting time to consider what it means to be a state and to live in a nation made up of states.
How we became a nation of states is a story of the triumph of common sense. Political thinkers had declared it impossible to build a country of sovereign states. You could either form a loose alliance, or you could form a nation by dissolving the states. But that conflicted with Americans’ own experience.
Within the British Empire, the colonies governed their internal affairs on their own. They were together, however, when it came to trade, foreign policy, and fighting wars. The American Founders, to their credit, cared more about real examples than philosophical speculations.
The Constitution, in this sense, was not revolutionary. It was a return to what worked. States would manage their internal affairs, from criminal laws to business regulations to, eventually, schools. States could create counties, cities, and other local institutions, putting power even closer to the people. Most of the governing — and taxing and spending — would happen at the state or local level.
Observers from other countries were amazed. Regular Americans were involved in government. Breaking up power and keeping most of it local created a sense that government belonged to everybody, and that anybody could participate in it.
It also meant that different states could experiment with different policies. We learn by seeing the results of different choices. When two similar states take two different policy paths, everyone can learn what works best.
Over the course of the last century, all this has changed. Today, federal appointees make rules for your local schools, hospitals, and businesses. They expect you to be grateful because they take your money — or borrow money on your behalf — and send some of it back to your community.
Americans today feel less connected to, and have less trust in, our public institutions. We feel that way because it is true — more decisions are made farther from us, by people who know less about us. And as government becomes top-down, one-size-fits-all, politics becomes winner-take-all.
If we want to restore trust and strengthen our communities, we need to return real power to them. And if we want to take some of the bitterness out of our politics, and even make government work better, we need to revive our constitutional system of states.
Trent England serves as the executive vice president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (www.ocpathink.org).