Negotiating Conflict through Federalism: Institutional and Popular Perspectives

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The question of what value federalism generates has no single answer, nor does its corollary of how the system ought to be structured to maximize its virtues. The value generated by decentralized decision-making will appear different depending on the perspective adopted when considering the matter, as will the ideal design of inter-governmental relations. If we step inside the system itself and adopt an institutionalist point of view, the answers will reflect the interests of the system's actors and take on partisan and bureaucratic characteristics. If we try to answer the questions externally, either from a popular or scholarly vantage point, the answers will become more ideological and normative. The question of federalism's value breaks down into several inquiries: Of what value is it to the central government to have state and local governments to contend with? Of what value is it to state and local governments to be embedded in a system with a strong central government and myriad competing governments? Of what value is it to the people to have government power split and decentralized?

A reader reasonably could conclude that the first two questions may matter to a descriptive account of our federalism, but only the third perspective--the popular one--truly matters when debating the merits of the system. But the institutional perspectives convey important information about how the system functions, which in turn helps reveal the possibilities for governance the system creates. In this essay, I adopt each of the three perspectives outlined above in order to develop a complete sense of these possibilities. In so doing, I give content to one of the central insights of the work highlighted in this Feature-that federalism does not consist of a fixed set of relationships. Instead, its parameters are subject to ongoing negotiation by the players in the system, according to the advantages each might accrue from a particular set of relations. (1) Understanding the substance of these negotiations should ultimately lay the groundwork for a normative account of inter-governmental relations.

None of the actors I name is unitary, of course, which makes defining any of their perspectives on a given federalism controversy, not to mention the system itself, tricky. The federal government consists of political and bureaucratic actors arrayed into different branches and representative of different political parties. The sub-federal consists of myriad state and local governments with varying degrees of autonomy from one another and from the center. And the popular perspective may be the most variegated and amorphous; it consists of a large and diverse assortment of interests woven together by economic, social, and cultural affiliations and through interest groups and networks such as political parties.

And yet, if we consider each of these actors in relation to one another, a distinct perspective on federalism's value can be attributed to each. For the federal government, the virtues of the system include having states and localities to enlist in the expansion of its capacities, as well as having other governments to take the lead in various regulatory domains, for political and practical reasons. At the same time, pulling in the opposite direction will be the federal government's interest in maintaining control (though not necessarily dominance) over the domains to which its powers extend. The federal interest can thus be served by managed diversity, rather than uniformity. State and local officials and entities will certainly have an interest in collaborating with the federal government and taking advantage of federal largesse, whether to advance their own or their parties' political ambitions, or to help resolve the governance problems they face. But the decisional independence the federalist system affords will often be of political and policy value, too, and will be worth fighting to preserve, even when it places them at odds with the potential federal benefactor. …