By Derek Monson
Published on September 21, 2018

On Tuesday, I participated in a panel discussion at Utah Valley University on the topic of “Federalism: Where do we go from here?” It was the final panel of a two-day event that included overviews of the history and evolution of American federalism from the founding to today. Below is a summary of my comments:

There is no guarantee that American federalism will have a bright future. I am an optimist, and I believe that a republic that protects Americans’ freedom and liberty by sharing government authority and checking political power through independent state and national governments – the constitutional vision of the United States of America – will not simply continue to exist, but will thrive. But it is entirely possible that the United States will mutate into a centralized, authoritarian nation or devolve into a looser confederacy of states.

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To secure a bright future for American federalism, it is essential that those who recognize the critical role of functional federalism in securing freedom and prosperity help Americans understand that federalism is important because they live federalism every day. In the HBO miniseries on the life of John Adams, he is sharing his frustration with the politics of the Continental Congress with his wife, Abigail, to which she retorts: “Politics! Politics? And do women not live politics, John Adams? When I go to the cupboard and I find no coffee, no sugar, no pins, no meat, am I not living politics?” In the same way that Americans at the time of the Revolution lived politics in their everyday lives, Americans of today live federalism in their everyday lives (though, hopefully, without as much material deprivation).

When a child goes to school to be taught a curriculum designed to prepare him to pass a federally mandated exam, he is living federalism. When an unemployed American seeks out a good job in an economy significantly shaped and impacted by federal taxes and regulations, she is living federalism. When a young couple seeks to buy their first home but struggles to find an affordable home in a housing market being super-charged by loose federal lending rules, they are living federalism. When we stop talking about the concept of federalism, and start talking about Americans lives under federalism, there’s hope that it will start to matter to people – especially voters. And when that starts to happen, there is the real political possibility of reviving and rethinking American federalism in ways that can create prosperity and security for Americans up and down the economic, political and social spectrum.

But there are political obstacles as well. For American federalism to survive and to thrive, it not only has to be presented to the American people in ways that make sense and resonate with them, but it also must be able to produce practical solutions to real-world problems that Americans care about. And the political sphere of American life (especially in Washington, D.C.) is populated largely by political actors who do not desire – who even fear – practical solutions to political and social problems. These actors – political leaders in Congress, activist groups, political parties and campaign advisers – rely on the use of fear to persuade Americans that the future of America depends on hewing closely and stringently to a narrow and exclusive set of ideas and policies, and therefore seeking consensus through compromise is endangering America: They say it represents a violation of non-negotiable values or principles and is a betrayal of the country or an expression of something that no decent human being would want (e.g., hate, oppression or a lack of patriotism). These political individuals and organizations use such thinking and messaging to survive financially – they depend upon it for their survival and influence. If you don’t believe this, just sign up for fundraising emails or letters from nearly any well-known activist group based in Washington, D.C.

But in historical fact – beginning with the Constitutional Convention 240 years ago and continuing ever since – American government has been designed and predicated around the idea of achieving consensus through compromise. It is how our national Constitution was crafted and agreed upon, and it is how the most significant national laws and federal programs – national defense policies, Social Security and Medicare, etc. – have been established.

In short, today’s national politics is designed, and financially reliant upon, ensuring that American federalism remains dysfunctional and unable to solve problems.

So what is to be done? In addition to communicating federalism to the American people in real-world terms, American federalism must push to rebalance government power toward the level or levels of government best able to produce or facilitate the practical solutions that can be achieved by building consensus through compromise. That means empowering state governments, local governments and even neighborhoods to solve their own problems.

State and local elections are often decided by hundreds of votes, unlike congressional or presidential elections, which are decided by thousands or millions of votes. The relative ease with which people can organize and win a state or local election means that state and local elected officials are much more likely to be attuned to the need to settle upon practical solutions to political or social problems. If they don’t deliver because they value ideology or partisanship over consensus through compromise, a few hundred voters can turn on them and elect their opponent – whether an intraparty opponent in a primary or a general election opponent. Of course, this is not to say that party or ideology don’t matter in state and local elections. They clearly do. But as a political body, the ruling body of state legislators, city councilors, the state governor and city mayor are much less likely to remain in power for long if they regularly put partisan victory or ideological purity above arriving at a practical policy solution to a pressing state or community problem. This stands in dramatic contrast to members of Congress or a President, who can and routinely do win elections by campaigning on how they are the strongest representative of party or ideology, and how their opponent’s lack of merit in these regards is a threat to groups of Americans or America itself.

By helping Americans understand how they live federalism – which may not even require the use of the word federalism – and persuading American voters that shifting power and authority away from the national government and toward state and local government will improve their lives by finding practical solutions to more problems, American federalism can have a bright future. Most importantly, under this approach, American federalism will continue to protect the freedom, prosperity and security of Americans for generations to come.

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