Can Federalism Solve Partisan Polarization?

by Cloe Di Flumeri

There is never a universal answer when it comes to debates over the competing powers of the State and Federal Government. There is merit to be found on both sides of this quintessential American discussion– this debate which has shaped this nation since its conception. American politics has become a zero sum game, ruled by two dominant parties who seek to become the dominant party. How is any government supposed to serve the interests of its people when it divides those it represents across party lines? The answer is this: it does not, and it cannot. The current balance of federal power is a failure, but it is not a failure because the federal system is flawed by design, it is a failure because it is being run by self-interested parties. Thus, it is not a shifting of the political powers of the state and federal governments which will solve these problems but a shift towards bipartisanship and a dissolution of the two party hegemony in national politics.

The idea that a country should exist with power distributed between a broad national government and a localized state government is the foundational principle for American federalism. Under the American model of federalism, the Federal Government has supremacy over the governments of the states. This fact is guaranteed by Article VI of the American Constitution, which affirms that both the Federal Government and laws passed on the federal level are dominant to the state governments and their legislations. This positioning of the Federal Government as a centralized and encompassing body is extremely important to the wellbeing of the nation. The Federal Government offers consistency of constitutional interpretation, of laws, and of fundamental beliefs. Without it, the United States would simply be a conglomeration of loosely connected states warring with one another over ideological, economical, and constitutional discrepancies. Yet, contemporary federal politics have become anything but unifying.

Hyper-polarization and hyper-partisanship have become hallmark characteristics of the federal government in recent years. A coined termed by Lee Drutman, “negative partisanship,” illustrates just how divided America and American politics have become (Drutman 2020). Drutman asserts that one of the largest motivators behind contemporary political tensions is the nationalization of American politics. Most citizens pay very little to no attention at all to their state and local elections (Drutman 2018). Instead, citizens focus primarily on national elections and politics. This is due to the hugely sensationalized nature of national politics, a sensationalization decades in the making yet most clearly illustrated by recent presidential elections. Political culture has become increasingly divisive, both among average citizens and elected representatives. Rather than work across the aisle, legislators are perfectly content with letting bills die on the floors of the house and senate.

The Federal Government is in a sorry state, this much is true– hyper-polarization has effectively ruined its efficacy. Some see a shifting of power away from the federal government and towards the state government as a viable strategy to combat this issue. State governments are markedly less polarized, ineffective, and slow moving than the federal government. There certainly would be benefits to a concentration of power in the state system on those grounds. However, state governments are plagued by other issues such as rampant corruption and gerrymandering. Take Pennsylvania, for example. Republican lawmaker John Perzel infamously stole some 10 million taxpayer dollars to purchase technology he believed would help Republican campaigns in the state (Bumsted 2011). In another anecdote of Pennsylvania state corruption, Democrat Mike Dawida was caught using his own address for the “Business Institute for International Development,” a fake organization he created in order to receive a state grant of $900,000 for his own start up.

These two wily politicians who dipped into a buffet of taxpayer money are just the tip of the iceberg. State politics are ugly too– and not just because of corruption. State politicians use undemocratic redistricting techniques to wage war on one another, damaging the integrity of both our elections and our Democracy. Gerrymandering is a widespread issue, and is emblematic of the fact that state governments do not hold democracy any closer to their hearts than the federal government does (Washington Post 2017). Corruption and gerrymandering aside, it is important that we take into consideration the history of state consolidated power in this nation. The Articles of Confederation and their dramatic and embarrassing failure must be recognized as a cautionary tale. Without a dominant federal government, history is bound to repeat itself.

There exists an illusion in many minds that state governments, by nature, are inherently less corrupt and insidious than the federal government. This is simply untrue. Not only are state governments markedly corrupt, but consolidation of power vested into states over the federal government has resulted in, and will continue to result in, utter failure. The problems faced by the federal government are not failures of design, rather they are the result of the social, political, and economic developments of the past three hundred years. Chief among these developments is the two party system, and the subsequent phenomenon of contemporary hyper-partisanship. The hegemony of the Democratic and Republican parties over our legislatures on both the national and state level has been a corrupting influence. As stalemates continue, even in the face of an unprecedented pandemic, it is clear that the current system is not working. The truth holds however: the solution to the problems of the federal government cannot be derived from the state governments, but rather from a restructuring of the two party system and a greater shift towards party collaboration.

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