Monday’s Mtg: Is More Federalism the Answer?

Ah, federalism!  Debate over the appropriate balance of power between states and the federal government has been a mainstay of American politics for much of our history, of course.  So, is this topic another one of David’s civics 101 discussions, or is something big and new in the field of federalism?

Big and new, and most people don’t know it.  In our hyper-polarized politics both sides often champion federalism.  Yeah, they often do it just opportunistically, like when the other side has power in Washington and a state is doing something they like.  (See the blue state marijuana or red state abortion debates.)  In everyday use, certainly, federalism is more of  a political marketing buzzword than a philosophy of government.

But, it’s really more than that.  In the last 20 years, federalism has been re-animated as a legal and political philosophy, first by the Right in the 1990s and now by the Left.  In the ’90s (and a bit before) conservatives acquired enough control of the courts to make some inroads into limiting federal power over the states, even as liberals managed to expand federal reach in health care, environmental, and education policies.  More recently, liberals have embraced federalism to justify states’ liberalization on culture war issues like gay marriage and also on some “blue state” economic policies.  And, as we discussed recently, Tea Party states governments have created their mirror images, and far worse more.

I’ll open on Monday by trying to sum up where we stand on federalism issues and how we got here.  Then, we can debate the notion of whether more state and less federal power is the answer to our polarized society.


  1. What is federalism?  Is it “states’ rights,” or something else?
    — How is federalism justified by reference to the Constitution and its benefits to our country?
    — Is federalism a coherent legal or political philosophy, or a convenient justification for the policy outcomes people want?
  2. History, legal:  How important has federalism been in American law in the last 20 years?  How have the Rehnquist and Roberts Courts advanced federalism?
  3. History, results:  What’s changed in the balance of power between the Feds and the states, in terms of
    1. Regulation of the economy
    2. The social safety net,
    3. Culture war issues, and
    4. Other major areas, like education policy?
  4. Is more federalism the answer to our polarized country’s political stalemate?
  5. Should progressives embrace it?  Should conservatives?


Next Week:   The Future of Progressivism after Barack Obama (!!)


One response

  1. Philosophically, I am not an advocate of “federalism” although in some cases, in other countries e.g. Iraq, it might help to solve certain political problems. But in general, what we need is more effective international government, not more local particularism.

    Also, the cause of “states’ rights” in this country has meant only one thing. When has a state taken the lead in a progressive direction? Very seldom. And if it did, there might be dire consequences; if it raised taxes to fund better education for example, businesses might leave.

    So what we need is national solutions to our problems.

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