Progressives Should Embrace Federalism — Redefined

By Brooke Obie, Online Communications Director

Damon Root over at has posted an interesting piece that rightly points out that progressives should embrace federalism more than they seem to. We at Constitutional Accountability Center have been making that point for six years now, dating back to our predecessor organization’s publication of the book: Redefining Federalism: Listening to the States in Shaping ‘Our Federalism.’

But we should note that federalism means different things to different people. To some, it represents a zero sum game, where every exercise of federal power cuts into the sovereignty of the states.  To the Bush Administration, “federalism” seemed to be an excuse for federal law to aggressively override state law. But if we hope to stay true to our Constitution’s concept of federalism — based on its text and history — we should define federalism as “the appropriate allocation of authority between our federal government, on the one hand, and our state, regional, and local governments, on the other,” as we explain in Redefining Federalism.

Thankfully, the Obama Administration has been advancing this “good government” vision of federalism. As we noted on our sister site, Warming Law, President Obama issued a memorandum to agency and department heads in May 2009, effectively reversing the controversial Bush Administration policy of belligerently using federal law to displace state law.  Similarly, in the biggest Supreme Court preemption cases this Term – Williamson v. Mazda Motor – the Administration has argued in favor of preserving state trial court rulings as a supplement to federal motor safety laws.

Progressives should embrace a form of federalism that is neutral, not one that is wielded about as a political weapon, one that allows the states to be laboratories of democracy without unduly inhibiting the federal government from acting to solve national problems.  This constitutional federalism should appeal not only to progressives, but to all across the political spectrum who claim to uphold the text and history of our Constitution.