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Why We Need to Strengthen Federalism from the Bottom Up

Distributed power remains critical in the face of governance crises and federal assaults on liberal democracy. States and localities provide a sturdy popular base for modeling better policy outcomes.

A woman sitting at a booth opposed to gerrymandering.
A woman staffs a booth opposed to gerrymandering in Michigan. Fair redistricting systems are a key tenet of bottoms-up federalism. (Photo: Susan Montgomery/Shutterstock)
Before you join those who are loudly condemning our American federal system as undemocratic, consider what the last few months would have looked like if the president appointed governors, or a national agency under the auspices of the president was responsible for running American elections, or if states did not control their own budgets.

The regional autonomy assured by the federal system is among the key reasons that the country has thus far been able to weather an extraordinary national governance crisis — a crisis that was decades in the making but accelerated by Donald Trump's assault on liberal democracy and the predations of the COVID-19 pandemic. The ability of state leaders to challenge the practices and policies of the Trump administration and proceed with a degree of autonomy showed again and again that distributed power remains critical for maintaining American democracy.

But all is not well in the states. Many, often the most populous, lack the capacity to properly address challenges across a range of policy areas, including infrastructure, education and public health. Needed aid has not been forthcoming from the federal government, whose politics are dominated by less-populous states. Simultaneously, state politics have become deeply polarized and nationalized, too often with leaders prioritizing partisan affiliations and ties to national political actors over the actual needs of their states' residents.

In a recent Governing column, Donald F. Kettl made some important suggestions for how the Biden administration can effectively work with states and local governments to improve the functioning of federalism. These suggestions are top-down; they are about what Washington can and should do. A more healthy federalism for America will also require bottom-up reform, with two objectives: improving policy outcomes for states and reinforcing the capacity of states and local governments to serve as a bulwark against future attacks on American democracy.

Bottom-up improvements must start with state and local governments doubling down on democratic reform. Election laws and systems must be upgraded to further ease and expand participation, provide for timely vote counting, and allow for secure voting under a variety of crisis conditions. There must be fair redistricting systems both to more fully realize democracy and to build the public's confidence in their representatives. Alternative voting systems, especially ones that might moderate polarization such as ranked-choice/instant-runoff voting, also ought to be considered.

Second, states and localities should find ways to build more nonpartisan structures into governing institutions. Especially in states where a single party controls government and is likely to continue to do so, minority party adherents must not become disaffected from their government. Regulatory processes, performance oversight, fiscal management, state constitutional reform (with renewed attention to local home rule to further empower local majorities) and fair redistricting (again) are key potential targets for inclusive reform.

Third, state and local governments should be more careful about protecting their resource bases and take a hard look at the fairness of the demographic and geographic distribution of their spending. Too often, competition for economic development within metropolitan regions and states results in diminished tax bases while yielding little or no net benefit in jobs or economic activity. Likewise, many states suffer from inequities in their distribution of tax revenues and other resources to their own urban and rural areas — inequities that are similar to those between and among states arising as a result of skewed national representation.

Fourth, states should seek to form regional compacts on national policy issues that are core to their economic futures. Shared defining geographic features — the Great Lakes, the Rocky Mountains — provide potential organizing principles. The Northeast-Midwest Institute provides one model for structuring regional collaboration in policy development. The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a nine-state carbon-emissions cap-and-trade program in the east, provides another.

By working together in this way, states that are less well-represented as a consequence of the national government's federal design can develop greater clout toward achieving shared policy goals. Transportation networks and pandemic preparedness both stand to be improved through this kind of cooperation. And it may even help states in some parts of the country form bipartisan alliances that mitigate the hyperpolarized national political climate.

Finally, states must reinforce and refocus civic education. One hard lesson of recent events is that our intricate, complex political system's design is neither understood nor valued by too many Americans. This complexity, informed by not one but several core values, is crucial for the protection of liberty and continuance of democracy. In particular, the critical role that legislative bodies at all levels of government play in allowing diverse voices to be heard and compromise to be achieved has been consistently undermined, possibly to the point where some members of these bodies themselves have come to doubt their importance.

A key aspect of public education must be to offer civic education that builds participatory skills and entrenches in the citizenry an appreciation of how our system of governmental institutions operates. An important reform agenda toward these ends is offered in a just-released report prepared by an American Academy of Arts and Sciences commission: Our Common Purpose: Reinventing American Democracy for the 21st Century.

Federalism's record over the course of American history is decidedly mixed. State governments have unquestionably been instruments of repression and exclusion. But states and their localities have also been the places where institutional changes to further democracy have been tested and embraced. Federalism's dispersal of power among multiple sovereigns, each with a direct relationship to the people, has provided a sturdy popular base for resisting excessive concentration of power in Washington and for modeling democratic values when they are not present or politically viable everywhere. We must reform the federal system not only from the top down but from the bottom up to assure its continued ability to perform this vital function.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.

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