by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Federalism is like a diet. Both the left and right try to stick to it, but each abandons it when the craving for the policy equivalent of fries and a shake grows too strong. The left, which normally looks to the national government for policy solutions, cheerfully applauds state efforts to deal with the least local of all environmental problems: climate change.
Last year, President Trump threatened to use the military to quell looting and overrule the decisions of state governors on COVID regulations. But if one really wants to fit into that prom dress or make weight for the wrestling match, one needs to stick to the diet, even when it means leaving tasty policies you crave on the table.
A principled defense of American federalism — even if it deprives one of a delicious policy outcome — is necessary now more than ever. Though difficult, the federalism regimen is worth the sacrifice.
The Framers left us a Constitution that gives powers and authority both to the national government and to the states. But the Constitution does not systematically expound on the nature and extent of those powers, nor does it offer a clear-cut rationale for what the states are supposed to do beyond checking national power — a theoretical deficiency rooted in political reality (In 1787, the states already existed and were the only real governing bodies in the U.S. — often spelled with a small u and a capital S and treated as a plural noun: “The united States are”).
It took the fresh eyes of a foreigner, Alexis de Tocqueville, to recognize that what had been undertaken for pragmatic reasons was not only theoretically defensible but was also the best means of preserving liberty and enabling a large republic to endure.