When student radicals were agitating for more "power to the people" 30 years ago, Harvard professor Samuel Beer made a telling comment. In the United States, he noted, we have a system of federalism, which was created to keep power as close to the people as possible.
If the students were so eager for reform, Beer said, they should go work for state and local government!
That long-ago remark came back to me last week as I read the Supreme Court's rulings declaring greater sovereignty for state governments against Washington. Liberal commentators were upset -- appalled might be a better word -- at what the New York Times' Linda Greenhouse called "the most powerful indication yet of a . . . determination to reconfigure the balance between state and Federal authority in favor of the states."
But why the angst about a new federalism? At the dawn of the 21st century, it certainly isn't axiomatic that liberals should oppose a modest tilt in power toward state government. That devolutionary trend is happening around the world -- from Scotland to Kosovo -- and in most cases, it's a good thing. It gives more "power to the people."
In a paradoxical sense, the new regionalism is a corollary of globalization. For just as the world is becoming more centralized in economic matters, it's becoming more diverse and decentralized in cultural and political affairs. As sociologist Daniel Bell observed in this space several weeks ago, the nation state is too big for the small problems of life and too small for the big problems.
The reflexive liberal wariness about states' rights is understandable, given our history. During the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and '60s, it was a code for racist resistance to the federal government's attempts to enforce the Constitution. And states' rights were suspect long before that. The Civil War itself was fought to enforce proper limits on the prerogatives of state government. And the New Deal's assertion of a federal power to regulate interstate commerce, against clamorous objections from states' righters, helped create our modern nation.
But it's now 1999, and the new federalism deserves a sympathetic look from people who want responsive and flexible government -- or simply, government that works.
The fact is that the federal government today is paralyzed on most important domestic issues. It can't deal with tobacco litigation, it can't deal with gun control, it can't deal with health care. In all these areas, Congress has become a prisoner of special interests. The locus of action on these crucial issues has shifted to the states.
Even if the federal government had the stomach for innovative social policy, it doesn't have the money. In a world of balanced federal budgets, there's little available for Washington to spend on new domestic projects. So action has shifted here, too, to state governments.
The flowering of competence and creativity at the state government level is one of the underappreciated developments of the past few decades. From welfare reform to education to delivery of health care, the states are exploring new ways to do the public's business. The states, competing as they do for jobs, also are often more in touch with the ways technology is changing our economy.
These experiments don't get the national headlines, and they often don't get the respect of liberal commentators, who worry that assertive states will undermine the federal government. To which a cynic might respond: What federal government? State government is where innovative domestic policy is happening today, and to the extent that the court's recent decisions recognize that fact, they make political sense.
Whether last week's decisions make legal sense is a more complicated question. Garrett Epps, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Oregon, sees a danger in the court's imposition of an absolute barrier between Congress and the states. Federalism, he argues, is a process that requires constant balancing and negotiation. Epps also worries that court-imposed limits will leave the federal government too weak to respond to an emergency like the Depression.
There's a danger, certainly, that the court's growing enthusiasm for state government could begin to erode the federal government's ability to respond to genuinely national issues -- such as the environment, or racial and sexual discrimination. Critics of last week's rulings also make a fair point that some sound national policies -- such as workplace laws or privacy rights -- may now be enforceable against everyone but the states, which is a perverse result.
But in a world that's changing at a dizzying pace -- where people want a more intimate and local connection with politics -- we have new reason to appreciate the federalist solution hammered out by the Founders. Ideally, it allows us to be diverse and united at the same time -- the essential trick of modern governance.
We still need a strong federal government, but on many of the issues people care most about, the states are where the action is. In that sense, the Supreme Court is only ratifying a power shift that has already taken place.