1. Discuss American viewpoints on the role of government.
“The health of a democratic society may be measured by the quality of functions performed by private citizens”
Alexis de Tocqueville, 1835
When looking back at history and the foundations of our political institutions we learn that a government is necessary, albeit limited. The question back in 1776 as well as today is what should that government look like? How strong should that government be? The debate continues on how to build a strong government but not too strong. Ultimately our inalienable right to life, liberty and property is at stake.
For some today, government is the solution, while for others, government is the problem. Political science tells us that the closer we are to government the more we are likely to trust it. Without trust our political efficacy is compromised. Therefore it is absolutely necessary that in the end government is committed to protecting our individual liberty and guaranteeing equality for all. This means that majorities do not always rule. Protecting minority interests is vital to our political life.
As James Madison wrote in Federalist 51, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” Determining what that government looks like continues to demand from all of us the resolve and tenacity present in Philadelphia back in the summer of 1787. The legacy of our founding is that today we are all framers. Are we up to the challenge?
Each unit of study is broken down into ten (10) essential objectives. Each objective requires a context of understanding. You will find that context here. Read carefully. Each word matters. In the end we hope that by distilling the content of American government and politics to its bare essentials a larger number then before can count themselves as educated citizens. Without such a citizenry our hope for a bright future is in peril.
2. Explain the unique American political culture.
Our Founding Fathers built a nation based upon principled law not men. Yet our democracy is sustained
not only by institutions but also by culture. Arguably a unique political culture existed here even before the American Revolution took place. America’s political culture provides the essential base upon which our governmental institutions stand.
Alexis de Tocqueville, a disinterested Frenchmen, said as much when visiting the United States in 1831. In Democracy in America (1835) he was impressed by our institutions but more so by “the manners and customs of the people.” De Tocqueville observed in America a nation of joiners. He saw a civil society filled with an abundance of social capital. James Madison, the Father of our Constitution, would have agreed. He said, “The very success of democracy depends upon the knowledge and skills of its citizens.” As was true back in revolutionary times so it is today. The American political culture is easily identified and equally important for us to measure. In doing so we in no small way peer into our collective future.
By definition, politics is the means by which governmental decisions are made. In a democracy this means that governmental decisions are made of, by and for the people. In any complex society there are a variety of ideas and beliefs. This is called having a political ideology. There is no shortage of ideological diversity in the United States. But we do share a unique political culture. Our national motto states this simply, E Pluribus Unum, “from many, one.”
The American political culture has always shared certain common traits. From our beginnings we have valued the rule of law, a limited government, individual liberty, equality of opportunity [not results] and a deep sense of civic duty. Also somewhat unique is our work ethic. Many of these values were present in the Protestant sub-culture of colonial America. Today these values are passed more evidently through both family structures and educational institutions. Historically the mortar that holds this common culture together is our sense of self-reliance and trust. Many political scientists lament that as we grow more and more dependent upon government while trusting them less and less our American political culture is jeopardized.
Many have recognized a serious fissure between religious and secular Americans. This split has been labeled “the culture war.” The debate between these orthodox and progressive Americans is over what kind of country we want to live in? The orthodox desire a country based upon traditional moral values. Progressives favor more open and libertarian policies. Compromise between these two groups is almost impossible. The outcome of this “culture war “ is a polity divided on most issues. Political scientists worry that such a divide accentuates our pluribus while forfeiting our unum. Such a recipe does not bode well for a healthy democracy.
3. Discuss the significance of political efficacy.
The health of our democracy can be measured by looking at political efficacy. Efficacy relates to our belief that we can affect our governmental institutions. Furthermore, efficacy measures our confidence in the government’s ability to represent our wishes. Most political scientists would agree that a healthy democracy couldn’t be sustained by declining political efficacy. It is for this reason that James Madison argued forcibly in Federalist 10 for a pluralist political system. Factions would counter factions was his hope. Pluralist systems, unlike elite systems, allow for many competing groups to influence public policy. Elite systems welcome only the rich or the powerful to do so. Pluralist systems help to build high levels of political efficacy as all citizens feel they too have a voice in their government. It also protects minority interests within a majority rule political system. The Founders feared a tyranny of the majority.
4. Explain the significance of Federalism.
The Founding Fathers were not immune to similar divides and differences of opinion. In fact, they built into the constitution a means to encourage differences while still maintaining a unity for the purpose of protecting individual liberty. They called it federalism. Federalism provided for the separation of power between national, state and local governments. In essence they created dual sovereignty. Though the national government was supreme, state and local governments had reserved powers that existed outside the reach of the central government. Though federalism encouraged efficacy by placing significant political authority in the hands of local officials, it also was seen as a natural safeguard to individual liberty.
The relationship between these sovereign governments has never been easy to navigate. The Supreme Court serves as the ultimate arbitrator. Delegated powers are those given exclusively to the national government. These would include the ability to go to war and negotiate foreign policy. Concurrent powers are those that are shared between national and state governments. An example of a concurrent power would be health care. National, state and local governments generally share health care costs. Reserved powers are given exclusively to the state governments. Though there are fewer and fewer examples, many reserved powers today deal with licenses and education policy. Remember it was the Tenth Amendment that codified in the Bill of Rights our commitment to federalism.
The relationship between governments at all levels, however, should not be perceived of as a layer cake. Rather our evolving federal model looks more like a marble cake. The duties and responsibilities of government at every level is now most likely shared. When the national government appropriates money for new roads they count on the local and state governments to oversee these shovel-ready projects. The money comes from Washington but the details including the construction crews are hired at the local level.
5. Explain how federalism has changed over time.
Do not think that this cozy relationship between national, state and local governments exist without conflict.
The story of American government is a story of the aggrandizement of the national government. Over time the national government has taken on more and more authority and power. This has been somewhat expected due to the supremacy clause found in our constitution. The Supreme Court empowered the national government even more in the case McCulloch v. Maryland (1819). In this case the court expounded upon the meaning of the necessary and proper clause found in Article 1, Section 8 of the constitution. The particulars involved the creation of a national bank. No such bank had been enumerated in the original text. Nevertheless the court ruled in the national government’s favor. The court has also affirmed broad use of the commerce clause to expand the reach of the national government. In fact, the commerce clause has been used more then any other section of our constitution to expand the power of the national government.
Great tension exists today over the meaning of Article IV’ full faith and credit clause. This clause guarantees that the privileges given in one state will be recognized in another. When it comes to driver’s licenses there is little dispute. Today, however, such language hinders the advancement of same sex marriage. It should not be forgotten that federalism best explains the root cause of the American Civil War and the subsequently difficult narrative of extending full and complete civil rights to all. The differences between states and their racial policies were given constitutional protection by the concept of federalism.
6. Explain how block grants, categorical grants and federal mandates are used to strengthen the central government.
The federal government, our central authority, has grown significantly overtime. A part from its constitutional authority expressed through congressional action and judicial fiat, the national government has used both sticks and carrots to induce state government concessions.
Carrots have come in the form of grants. States agree to engage in federal activity in return for what appears to be “free” money. Grants involve the distribution of federal money to state authorities in return for compliance with federal demands. There are two types of grants. Categorical grants, offering much less discretion, require the states to spend the money on specific projects. This might include the building of runways at airports or other particular infrastructure projects. States prefer block grants. Block grants provide states money in broad categories. A block grant might stipulate education as a project but each state can spend the money anyway it wants as long as it is related t education. Another way national money has been used for state ends is through the use of earmarks. Earmarks are provisions included in legislation that benefit particular localized projects. Often seen as unfair and politically damaging, earmarks in recent years have fallen in their popularity.
Another way the federal government has enforced its wishes upon the states is through the use of sticks. Sticks come in the form of mandates. Mandates require states to comply with federal standards. Mandates may or may not include funding. An example of a federal mandate would be the law No Child Left Behind. NCLB requires local school districts to comply with nationally based education standards. Where mandates conflict with state standards the courts have generally sided with the national government. Federal preemptions allow Congress to impose national priorities upon states through national legislation.
7. Assess the advantages and disadvantages of decentralized power in a federal system.
Federalism has been one of our grandest experiments. It provided a hybrid between unitary and confederal systems. The former put power exclusively in the hands of a central government while the latter provided for a loose partnership of local governments. History proved both to be inadequate. What will history say about federalism?
Federalism has proved to be highly effective in a number of ways. Its most obvious effect has been to increase political activity. A decentralized federal system provides for broader choices, a more representative government and a useful check on federal authority. Political efficacy is higher in federal systems. Federalism creates laboratories of democracy. State and local governments can experiment on public policy like health care for instance. If these experimental policies succeed at the local level the national government can adopt its most salient features. Federalism also brings the government closer to the people. This usually builds greater trust. Ironically, some political scientists have argued that by having more governmental units we have less government intrusion in our lives. They check each other. For all of these reasons federalism appears to be a success.
Federalism has its critics. Some say it encourages a race to the bottom. Without uniform policies and standards there can exist unequal protections under the law. Certainly federalism is less efficient. There is duplication of service. We have law enforcement agencies at each level of government. Often times they overlap. It is argued that this is expensive and wasteful of taxpayer resources. Little evidence exists for the belief that local governments are better at making policy decisions then centralized governments. And finally federalism allows certain factions access to state and local governments that would not be possible in more centralized systems. In this way certain elites and organized special interests can influence particular regions in ways that would not ordinarily possible.
Although fundamentally protean, American federalism continues to serve as the best means to limit an imperious national government. It is altogether possible that in the current political climate that one can claim “the era of big government is over” (devolution) while at the same time recognizing the increasing aggrandizement (centralization) of the national state.
8. Discuss the affect the Supreme Court has on our understanding of federalism.
As with all fundamental and foundational ideas in American government and politics the U.S. Supreme Court has the final word. Interpreting federalism, the balance of power between national, state and local governments, has not been easy nor has it been always easy to understand.
Here are a few of the essential landmark cases that help us grasp the meaning of federalism in today’s political arena:
McCulloch v. Maryland (1819): Safeguarding individual liberty by diluting governmental power may have been the intent of federalism but from the beginning there was never any doubt as to who would ultimately be in charge. The national government is supreme. In this case the constitutionality of the National Bank was in question. The State of Maryland hoped to weaken the bank and its interests by imposing a tax on it. Resting on the authority of the “necessary and proper clause” the Supreme Court struck down Maryland’s tax. This precedent solidified the national government’s implied powers. More importantly this case legally recognized the supremacy of the national government.
Let’s not forget that with the case Gitlow v. New York (1925) the Court with one strike of the pen exponentially enlarged the jurisdiction of the federal courts over areas of personal liberty. This case was the opening salvo in what is called selective incorporation. Fundamental due process rights now fall under the purview of the United States Supreme Court. Without question Gitlow and other cases like it put a serious dent in classical federalism.
U.S. v. Lopez (1995): This case proves that federalism is not a dead letter. The national government has grown exceedingly strong but it still has limits. In this case the Supreme Court ruled that the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990 went beyond what the Constitution’s Commerce Clause could allow. For the first time since the New Deal the Court limited the scope and reach of the Commerce Clause. This heralded a triumph for conservatives who still championed federalism and states rights.
Gonzales v. Raich (2005): The triumph of New Federalism in the 1990s may have been a Pyrrhic victory. In this case the Supreme Court reasserted the authority of the Commerce Clause over conflicting State law. In question were State laws that had decriminalized medical marijuana. The Court ruled that the Controlled Substances Act (1970) passed by Congress to fight illegal drug use trumped any attempt by State and Local governments to alter American drug policy. Coming full circle since McCulloch, the Court asserted nothing more and nothing less than national supremacy. Again the driving force behind this national aggrandizement was the Constitution’s Commerce Clause.
9. Discuss the significance of devolution and New Federalism.
The aggrandizement of the national government has not gone unnoticed. Conservatives have traditionally been the party of limiting the authority of the national government. Groups like the Tea Party and others have organized around the goal of reducing the size of the federal government. This is not new. Republicans over forty years ago called for a New Federalism. Another name for this is devolution. New Federalism or devolution was an idea to shift power away from the national government and toward state governments. New Federalism has often been called a return to states rights. New Federalism is an attempt to return to classical federalism. This movement has had marginal success. Welfare reform during the 1990s returned much of the authority over poverty programs to state initiatives. Furthermore conservatives favoring this New Federalism have favored block grants. Attempts made to reduce the size of the federal government may have achieved rhetorical success but little in the way of real reform.
10. Identify the reserved powers. How are they protected by the Constitution?
Though it would appear that State and Local governments have less and less authority their legitimacy still finds important protection in our Constitution’s Bill of Rights. The Tenth Amendment guarantees that certain rights are still reserved for the States. The actual text reads as follows, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” Vague language like this should not surprise us when studying our Constitution but the message is quite clear. The national government has its limits. Furthermore, the State governments have an important role to play in exercising political power.
Although fundamentally protean, American federalism continues to serve as the best means to limit an imperious national government.