Welcome back to the Monkey Cage’s weekly presentation of Founding Principles, a series of short videos designed to explain American government and how it works — in theory, and in practice.
The first episode of the Founding Principles series examined the most basic of those principles: the separation of powers among the branches of government. This week we turn to another fundamental example of separated powers — between levels of government. In short, to federalism.
To an extent that’s rare in most of the world, when Americans say “the government” — or even “I work for the government” — they don’t automatically mean the national government. In the Federalist Papers, James Madison argued that the new government was “neither wholly national, nor wholly federal” (by which he meant state-based) but rather “a composition of both.”
This episode traces the pros and cons of that structure. It tracks the Supreme Court cases (from McCulloch v. Maryland to NFIB v. Sebelius) that have shaped the relationship between state and national policy. And it reminds us that most of us like to have our cake and eat it, too.