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Is America's Future Federalist?

Photo: Alex JW Robinson /

Discontent with federal politics over the past year has led to a resurgence of progressive interest in federalism—the idea that if things aren’t going well at the national level, state representatives can work at home to support policies they wish they saw in Washington. Armed with Tenth Amendment power, progressives, in particular, are excited about what they can achieve at the state and local levels as a way to circumvent executive action and gridlock, just as conservatives did in 2008. Given that it used to be a favorite of conservatives, progressives’ interest in federalism marks a political shift.

But can federalism be the future of American politics? Well, maybe. Federalism today has a number of popular progressive pet causes: Marijuana legalization and sanctuary cities are two of them. Local reforms, too, have been expanding past social issues, in an attempt to change the very structure of political processes: for instance, state contribution limits as campaign finance reform, ranked-choice voting as an electoral alternative, and new redistricting instead of gerrymandering reform.

For our Laboratories of Democracy Database , we collected information about all 50 states’ laws on voting, elections, and campaign finance. Our goal is to present a snapshot of what reform experiments across the United States look like, and where change appears promising. We show, for instance, which states champion reform via implementing automatic registration, and which states are trying to level the playing field by enacting small-dollar matching programs for campaign finance.

Federalism, then, offers a range of possibilities for shaping the United States in the years ahead—and these possibilities, more to the point, aren’t limited merely to trying to block everything Republicans introduce at the national level. Here’s what federalism can do, and what it can’t.

When Federalism Works

At its best, federalism more accurately represents diverse interests in a country as big as the United States. It also allows for similar states to band together and support common reforms. In that, it’s similar to majority coalition-building but on a completely different scale, or to a form of tailoring—to customizing one state’s needs with the legislation and reform that best fits voters’ interests. Because the “decentralized approach” makes local government more flexible than the federal system, it’s “much easier to design and deliver programs that reflect the wide diversity of conditions in communities sprawled across a gigantic nation,” write New America Board Chair Lenny Mendonca and Berkeley’s Haas School of Business Distinguished Professor Laura Tyson.

Indeed, there are lots of reasons to approach federalism with optimism. For one, in contrast to faith in the national government, 60 percent of Americans still trust their state government. At least in part, this is because state and local governments are closer to their constituents and have fewer public considerations to juggle. As Mendonca and Tyson point out, “important reforms often bubble up from below because the most successful innovations are often the ones that grow out of concrete needs in particular communities.” As a result, when states and localities seize opportunities to create political experiments, it also allows states—and citizens—to learn from each other, and to see what kind of democracy they want. On top of that, government activity is mostly local to begin with. Because states are crucial for carrying out basic services like public education, they also manage more money: a combined $2.5 trillion, in contrast to the federal government’s $600 billion. With these structural advantages, federalism can make significant changes.

An example of how federalism can make policy waves includes California’s leadership on climate legislation. The state’s response to environmental problems stemming from greenhouse gas emissions has included eliminating coal-fired power plants and setting its own emission standards for passenger vehicles. It offers a sterling case for how states can set examples of progressive reform. California has long led the way on climate legislation, for instance by requiring, in 1976, that fridges be more energy efficient. Many other states followed suit and forced the fridge industry to adapt—without legislation at the federal level.

When Federalism Doesn’t Work

This isn’t to make federalism sound like an easy, DIY recipe for politics: Add ballot initiatives and stir. As a system of government, federalism is much harder in practice. Over the last year, while gathering information for the database, we came across a slew of challenges that exemplify why even if federalism is the future, that future isn’t here—at least not yet.

As we’ve discussed before, while federalism seems promising, it’s much more complicated on the ground. With 50 states come 50 possible ways to govern because of the freedom that federalism grants. That means little standardization and lots of hard-to-access information. That’s a problem, because voters need access in order to understand the laws in their state, and what different kinds of laws look like in other states, so that they can discern between reforms they do and don’t support at home.

And yet, simply making information available isn’t enough. As Aaron Swartz, the founder of Demand Progress, wrote in 2006, “transparency… simply shifts the work from the government to the average citizen, who has neither the time nor the ability to investigate these questions in detail, let alone do anything about it.” More transparency, in other words, is useless if people don’t have the necessary tools to navigate and understand the laws governing them. Moreover, if the goal of political experiments is for good reforms to thrive and for bad ones to wither away, then citizens impacted by these reforms need to understand their laws in comparison to the other 49 states.

On a more basic level, grassroots activism requires a precise understanding of current laws—which the present-day transparency process makes practically impossible for anyone without a politics or law degree. For organizers, lacking standardization makes it difficult, time-intensive, and expensive to try to mobilize groups across state lines, particularly when something as ostensibly straightforward as voter registration differs wildly from Texas to Washington. While some may argue that this is the reason why voters elect representatives, inaccessible information creates a bigger challenge and more inefficiency for everyone, including the local government and the citizens trying to work within that system.

How to Make the Future Federalist?

Federalism isn’t a zero-sum game. As Heather Gerken, dean of Yale Law School, wrote: “Local decisions can serve as a much-needed catalyst for national debates. Local politics don’t undermine national politics; they fuel it.” States can implement policies that don’t jeopardize federal funding, and they can include analysis and recalibration processes in that legislation. But as the conversation on making federalism work continues to gain traction, it’s crucial for states to consider how to actually operationalize federalism in practice, so that it can succeed in the modern era.

What might this look like? Specifically, proponents of federalism ought to create opportunities for shared learning, and involve citizens in ways that don’t require that they be technical reform experts. It’s exciting to see champions of reform look for innovative ways to improve their cities and states and seek solutions that address their communities’ unique needs. This is democracy at it’s best: a moving, interactive, iterative process that, as Mendonca and Tyson argue, allows “states and localities to better respond to what their citizens view as important.”

This spike in activism, in turn, fuels new inspiration for federalism; one of the best things to do with that energy is to harness it at the state and local level. While activists like the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students may struggle to see new gun legislation at the federal level, for instance, state and local governments have more flexibility. Indeed, to focus exclusively on the national level—to put all of their eggs in one policy basket—is, for grassroots organizations, a missed opportunity for local change.

Over the past few years, federalism has often meant uncooperative federalism, where states fight against the national government over ideological lines in the sand. But its counterpart—cooperative federalism—offers a way for states to work both with each other and with the federal government, as they make moves toward majority-supported change (change that’d likely be otherwise impossible to implement, given the current administration).

Of course, federalism, left unchecked, can overstretch the boundaries of political power. A party in the minority may champion federalist state sovereignty, only to find that it has set a precedent for undermining national causes and campaigns—a precedent that might hurt that party when it’s back in the majority. So, as with all experiments, states and localities ought to take into account the long-term effects of reform, and ensure that they’re driven by political effectiveness instead of by political expediency.

Done right, the future can be federalist—and that’d make the United States, at all levels of government, better off.


Chayenne Polimédio is the deputy director of the Political Reform program at New America.

Elena Souris is a research/program assistant for the Political Reform program. At New America, she helps with program management and contributes to researching and writing articles, policy papers, and reports.