Rebalancing American Federalism

Pietro S. Nivola
Pietro Nivola
Pietro S. Nivola Former Brookings Expert

April 1, 2010

The following was orginally published in the March-April 2010 issue of the American Interest. Please click here to read the full article.

Whatever else it is supposed to do, a federal system of government should offer policymakers a division of labor. Perhaps the first to fully appreciate that advantage was Alexis de Tocqueville. He admired the federated regime of the United States because it enabled its central government to focus on primary public obligations (“a small number of objects”, he stressed, “sufficiently prominent to attract its attention”), leaving what he called society’s countless “secondary affairs” to lower levels of administration.1 Such a system, in other words, could help the central authorities keep their priorities straight.

Thinking along those lines warrants renewed emphasis today. America’s national government has had its hands full coping with a deep and lingering economic crisis and onerous security challenges around the world. It cannot, or at any rate ought not, keep piling on top of those daunting tasks a second-tier agenda that injudiciously dabbles in too many decisions and duties best consigned to local entities. Turning every imaginable issue into a Federal case, so to speak, diverts and polarizes political leaders at the national level, and erodes recognition of local responsibilities. A kind of attention deficit disorder besets anybody who attempts to do a little of everything rather than a few important things well. Although not a root cause of catastrophes like the submersion of a historic American city by a hurricane in 2005, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the great financial bust of 2008 or the successful resurgence of the Taliban in Central Asia, an overstretched and distracted government stands less chance of mitigating such tragedies.

1Tocqueville, Democracy in America, vol. 1 (Vintage Books, 1945), p. 281.