chapter  10
American Federalism in the Twenty-First Century
Pages 14

Federalism is deeply embedded in the genetic code of the American nation. Federalism has had an enduring impact on the way Americans have organized their political conflicts, contested race and economic growth, and enlarged government responsibilities. This book has emphasized three key themes in American federalism. First, federalism is a basic and enduring factor in the making of America because it always has been a pervasive force in the struggle to win and keep political, economic, and social power. Since the beginning of the American Republic, federalism has been a principal battlefield for the most divisive and durable conflicts that shaped the nation. Second, federalism has had a cumulative impact on American politics, policy, and life. The results of the battles over federalism are alive today, in American politics, law, and public policy, in the structure of American national governing institutions, and in the spectacle of American politics. Third, for the last century, government activism was built on top of nineteenth-century federalism and profoundly shaped the nature of active government in America. Federalism is deeply injected into the politics of every aspect of government activism today. Federalism’s impacts could have turned out differently. Political leaders

chose to use federalism to take the United States on new paths; those choices, and many of the unique events surrounding them, could have been different. For example, if President George Washington had supported Jefferson’s agricultural vision instead of Hamilton’s, and Washington had put the nation’s power behind commodity exports, then Jefferson’s faction would have had little need to enlist “states’ rights” in their defense, and Hamilton might have chosen other grounds than states’ rights to battle Jefferson. If President Abraham Lincoln had survived his assassination attempt, or had been succeeded by a president who made the strength of the Republican Party his chief priority (instead of the Democrat Andrew Johnson), national power might have expanded more decisively earlier in the nation’s history, creating a more activist national economic policy before industrialization, and perhaps a more durable set of effective civil rights protections for Southern blacks. And if the more nationalistic views of Theodore Roosevelt Court

during the Progressive Era, states might have played a less important role in government activism. But none of these things actually happened. The double battleground established by the Constitution’s framers con-

tinues to shape our politics and public policy now, and it will do so in the future. Even though the scope and power of the national government has expanded to levels inconceivable two centuries ago, states will continue to play an important role as administrators, as innovators, as microcosms of political development, and as potential roadblocks to centralized power. Federalism does not endure because the Constitution’s parchment barriers are effective. It endures because the states always have served the purposes of powerful political interests, and when it is selectively used, federalism often brings these interests positive returns on their political investments.

The authors of the U.S. Constitution produced an unfinished framework for American federalism because they could not agree on the balance of national and state authority. Some of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention supported a very strong national government, and they hoped to place the states in an inferior role, mainly as instruments of national power. Others supported a national government with narrow and limited powers, one that would supplement and reinforce the existing states. These antagonists could only cement the structure of American government with the political mortar of compromise. Those who advocated broad national powers ensured that the new national government would have strong military, commercial, and taxing powers as well as elastic authority that could be stretched in the future. Those who advocated narrow national powers ensured that the states would retain most of their domestic authority and would influence national policy-making. The final Constitution authorized the national government to use the tools of national sovereignty, but the complex design of the national policy-making process made it difficult for the national government to use this authority easily. The Constitution authorized the states to govern everyday American life, but amputated the states’ authority to deal with domestic problems with all the powers exercised by a sovereign state. An uncertain, gray area separated national and state authority, inviting political adversaries to use federalism as a weapon to gain advantage in American politics. Political parties and interest groups brought this framework of feder-

alism to life through an ongoing series of battles to control the indistinct frontiers of state and national authority. Federalism fragmented public offices and public policy, the chief prizes of politics. Political organizations that pursued these prizes adapted to American federalism by fragmenting themselves. Political parties grew strongest at the state and local level, while the national parties became inclusive tents that contained sprawling, and a

few policy goals. For more than a century, the Democratic Party defended state prerogatives because states’ rights allowed it a measure of unity and strength. Meanwhile, state government control of domestic policy encouraged interest groups that sought relatively narrow policy goals. American federalism, along with the separation of national powers, nurtured pluralism, a system in which many interest groups with limited objectives influence many discrete fragments of public policy. U.S. federalism established a political battleground that has shaped fights

over race and economic development, the two most fundamental, long-term conflicts in American politics. Southern states insisted on safeguarding slavery until its abolition, and on legally protecting white supremacy for more than eighty years after Reconstruction. Northern states constructed opposition to slavery in state “personal liberty” laws, and in laws striking at racial discrimination after World War II. These divergent state approaches to African American citizenship fueled a gruesome war between the states in the 1860s, and angry Southern state resistance to desegregation in the 1950s and 1960s. National civil rights laws in the 1960s ended legal segregation throughout the United States, but the African Americans’ long struggle for equal citizenship still haunts American life today. While the national government now takes an active role in citizenship rights, states still serve as an alternative for addressing current civil rights issues. Throughout American history, federalism has shaped political conflicts

over market-driven economic growth, the most basic political struggle in all industrialized nations. Because the states supervised much of American capitalist development and also the mitigation of its effects, Americans have fought over capitalism on two battlefields: first, over the way government should regulate capitalism, and second, over the relative authority of the Federal government and the states to regulate it. Federalism encouraged the rise of large private corporations, the policing of corporate behavior, and the political fragmentation of business. Federalism generally has helped strengthen the political influence of American private enterprises, but at the same time is has helped make relations between government and business exceptionally antagonistic. Since the last decades of the nineteenth century, American federalism has

adapted to wrenching change as the nation grew, industrialized, nationalized, urbanized, and became more culturally diverse. From the 1890s to World War I, the Progressive Era strengthened government and enlarged its role, particularly in mitigating the effects of market-driven economic growth. Federalism obstructed some paths of progressive reform, such as the effort to ban child labor nationally, while it encouraged others, such as prohibition. Progressives successfully expanded democracy by establishing state primary elections, initiatives, and referenda, and expanding the franchise to women. While progressives used some state governments actively to mitigate the consequences of industrial capitalism, interstate economic of Era

left a legacy of institutional innovations and public activism layered on top of the nineteenth-century federal system. The Great Depression of the 1930s brought unprecedented change in

American federalism. The New Deal fought to expand the scope of government responsibility while it broadened the scope of national government responsibility relative to the states. To allay resistance to national activism, the Roosevelt administration often enlisted the states as active partners in public policy. Many of the New Deal’s lasting domestic policy initiatives depended on grants-in-aid and other incentives for the states. This strategy allowed liberals in the North to expand social welfare, while it allowed the Southern states to continue to supervise racial segregation. New Deal activism, then, strengthened both the national and the state governments. In the decades after World War II, liberals expanded Federal responsi-

bility for alleviating discrimination, poverty, pollution, and inequality of opportunity. These liberal reformers layered more new national rules and programs atop intergovernmental policies established in the Progressive Era and the New Deal. Much more than the New Deal, the national government expanded the scope of grants-in-aid designed to stimulate activism in states, local governments, and interest groups. New civil rights, environmental and workplace regulations also imposed national rules on every important economic interest in American society. Liberal reforms, then, produced a far-reaching, complex, and expensive system of intergovernmental relations. Republican President Richard Nixon employed federalism to redirect power to the state and local governments and away from Democratic grass roots constituencies. Many of the subsequent conflicts over domestic policy became displaced by disagreements about the relative authority of the national government and the states, often obscuring the political stakes involved in conflicts over the scope of public authority. After 1980, conservatives used the battlefield of federalism selectively

and surgically to reduce business regulation and cut social welfare. The Reagan administration turned over more authority to the states for the liberal programs championed by their predecessors, while they reduced Federal funding for these programs. From the 1980s through the early 2000s, conservatives established national economic regulations more friendly to business, and often preempted the states from implementing more restrictive regulations. Even in this conservative period, however, the scope, complexity, and cost of the intergovernmental policy system increased. Liberals and conservatives both turned to the states for policy innovation. Federal government power increased-and so did both the liberal and conservative use of state power to achieve political goals. Federalism, then, has been and remains a crucial contributing factor

to American political development. But federalism is only one of many factors. American culture, ideology, resources, other structures and organizations, and the contingencies of history also contributed to the making well

understood, because of its impact on the conduct of American political conflict.